Law in Contemporary Society

The Normative Value of Autonomy in Property Law and its Alternative

-- By HuazhouYe - 13 Feb 2023

Functional advantage of Social Dependence

Autonomy as a normative value has been given way to socioeconomic considerations – as society gets more complex and resources more scarce, it is irrationally wasteful to further autonomy without socioeconomic considerations. Nevertheless, autonomy is still treated as an intrinsic, sacred, natural and inalienable right. Unfortunately, this contradicting phenomenon gave rise to judges using autonomy as a scapegoat to hide their true motivations when the rationale of the opinion is inadequate or illogical. Furthermore, holding on to autonomy as a sacred right results in decisions forsaking utilitarian and socioeconomic concerns. The court should instead more often use social dependence as the underlying normative value instead of autonomy, since the rationale behind their opinions would flow smoother and more reasonable.

Social dependence is as intrinsic and sacred as autonomy. One can only succeed in a society dependent on others. It is only rational that one who depends on society to succeed must pray for the society’s success. Social-obligation as a normative value whereby one must nurture the social structure in order to succeed in society is as intrinsic and sacred as autonomy. Like autonomy, this obligation is objectively present in one’s conduct, but unlike autonomy, decisions derived from it would be humanitarian instead of wasteful, and it helps to propagate the norm that cooperation is objectively and intrinsically good.

Autonomy in Jacque v. Steenberg Homes

Jacque v. Steenberg Homes highlights the irrational nature of ruling for the sake of autonomy. To deliver mobile homes, Steenberg Homes could either cross Jacque’s land or take a snow-covered private road that would require special equipment. Jacque declined the request to cross their land due to fear of land loss in an adverse possession action. The defendant nonetheless cut across the plaintiff's property because it was easier/cheaper than navigating the private road. The court awarded 100,000 dollars to the stubborn plaintiff who treated the defendant with heartless indifference, relying on autonomy. The court first used a deck clearing move to rid the authoritative weight of precedents so it can deem this a new legal issue and reason without the restrictions of binding authority. The authoritative law in the state was Barnard v. Cohen, pertaining to libel, where the court states the general rule of punitive damage: society has little interest in having the unlawful yet harmless conduct deterred, therefore, punitive damages are inappropriate when no harm is done. The court’s fear of propagation of unpunished intentional trespass, however, overrides this sensible and economically efficient law; therefore the court conveniently finds the subject matter inconsistency sufficient to warrant its inapplicability, and ignores the perfectly applicable reasoning behind the law.

Since the court is now rid of persuasive precedents by a misleading rationale, it now can use whatever authority it pleases to further its goals. It then cites Merest v. Harvey, a decision from the English Common pleas division 150 years ago, stating that behaviors unbecoming of a gentleman warrants large damages. This outdated and outmoded rationale predominantly lies behind the court’s decision to award punitive damages, the rationale being when a man does not accord himself gentlemanlike, damages are proper. However, Merest is a case about hunting and obnoxious behaviors, not pure trespass like Jacque, the court conveniently rids the subject matter consistency it claims to value and relies on it nonetheless. The court proceeds to conclude that in light of private and social interest, intentional trespass cases, although actual harm might be minimal, individuals suffer from a loss of their rights to exclude, which warrants large damage awards. The court then invokes the sacred right of autonomy, so sacred that trampling on it even without loss of monetary value deserves retribution. The inconsistency of subject matter valuing at display is apparent, the court equates the duty to behave gentlemanly with the right to exclude. Merest was about an obnoxious English parliament member who invited himself to the plaintiff’s shooting space and fired shots while disregarding the plaintiff’s rejection, while Jacque was about a difficult choice presented to the defendant of either breaking the law and save a great amount of money or incur unnecessary cost for the sake of not offending a stubborn neighbor. Nevertheless, the court reasoned that the two cases should be treated in the same light.

Perhaps because the court knows the faulty logic is not persuasive, it goes into the analysis of the previously mentioned private and public interest, in hope that the slippery slope argument it uses presents an persuasive rationale that could ameliorate the arbitrary decision. The court states that social and private interests in punishing and deterring intentional trespasses to preserve the integrity of and people’s faith in the legal system is so strong, that all hell would break loose if the defendant is not punished. This borderline bad-faith argument is irrational to say the least.

Using Social Dependence as an Alternative in Jacque v. Steenberg Homes

Suppose the court ruled relying on social dependence frequently as a widely accepted rationale in common law. Steenberg Homes, instead of taking the risk of trespassing, would ask the court for permission first since the requested action incurs no harm to Jacque and is considerably valuable to Steenberg Homes. Jacque, in rejecting, would induce significant unnecessary spending, thus unlikely to reject as it would be against common law; Moreover, Jacque would not have the previous concern of adverse possession, since the court would grant passage for the requested purpose only. The court, instead of reasoning by illogical arguments due to worries of unpunished intentional trespasses, could rest assured that the good-faith utilitarian intentions of borrowing passageways would not impede the court’s ability to punish bad-faith intentional trespass. Social dependence would emphasize sharing resources with others while creating no detriment upon the sharer and bypass procedural deficiencies that autonomy creates. A society of individuals helping others will work to one's own advantage. Instead of normalizing autonomy as the ruling rationale which guards one’s resources in exclusion of others, social dependence constitutes a more sensible legal normative value.

We are left still to define autonomy by inference. An actual definition would be useful. I think in the end the talk of the possessor's autonomy means primarily that there is no "efficient breach" concept in the law of trespass. But it's a little hard to make out what the "autonomy" interest in possession is, given that the State or its delegates can acquire not only possession but ownership by paying fair market value in condemnation.

Jacque doesn't seem to me so apposite a case as you assert. There is no issue about whether there was trespass, but rather about the availability of damages without proof of fault, indeed of a punitive character. Whether punitive damages are available in trespass is surely not the same as whether rights to exclude are limited by a doctrine of "efficient trespass," about which it seems to me that the case has nothing to say. (is it not odd that, according to your account, plaintiff claims that permitted use can lead to adverse possession? That's simply incorrect, is it not?)

Why does whether one court is right or wrong in one case matter? I think the purpose of the essay is to make a point about the difference between possessor and contractual rights, with which it is possible you are disagreeing, but if so for reasons of which after multiple readings I am still unsure.


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r7 - 18 May 2023 - 15:18:44 - EbenMoglen
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