The “reasonable person” delusion
Law school introduced me to the idea of the “reasonable person.” TheFreeDictionary explains this idea as follows:
A phrase frequently used in tort and Criminal Law to denote a hypothetical person in society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct and who serves as a comparative standard for determining liability.
I wish I could say I questioned the idea of a “reasonable person” at the time, but I didn’t. I was too caught up in my enchantment with the notion of a clean, easy standard applicable to human actions or actors to even want to question it. Nice and objective, right? I thought so then.
Nearly a decade post graduation, I shudder at the very sight of the words “reasonable person.”
- Is it really the person or the action(s) that should be assessed?
- Who decides what’s “reasonable”? How reasonable is that person or group of people? How reasonably can they be expected to assess the totality of someone else’s circumstances, narrowly (in the moment) or broadly (in the totality of that someone else’s life)?
- Who decides what factors are considered when determining what’s reasonable in light of the circumstances? What circumstances?
- How much weight is given to the truth only a small set of facts is considered in assessing reasonableness? How much does the assessor consider circumstances not addressed within the small set of facts presented?
I’ve grown exponentially more uncomfortable with the idea of “reasonable person” since becoming a parent. Seeing the way presumably reasonable people judge parents based on two- and three-second snippets in a supermarket or cafe has relieved me of the belief people can and will easily shift between seeing the world through their eyes and through others’ eyes.
I have learned that, for many people, the definition of “reasonable person” is not the seemingly objective one above but rather:
A person whose actions make sense to me in light of my life experiences and understandings.
I question the reasonability of this.
More than that, I decry it.
Even the fairest and most judicious of arbiters looks upon a set of facts through life as they have lived it. Their very gauge for what is “reasonable” is the history and circumstances of their own lives and its featured characters.
I try to be fair and judicious when reaching my own conclusions, though they typically have little impact on anyone else. Presented with only a handful of facts, I ask myself, “In what circumstances might these actions seem reasonable?” I’m rarely unable to find even a single set of circumstances or perceptions in which an actor could understandably perceive his or her actions as reasonable.
And yet, my very process and conclusions are the product of my own experiences. I am a 35-year-old white, professional, law-degreed, blogging mother of almost-two living comfortably now compared to bygone days. It’s been many years since I pulled myself out of poverty, but I remain acutely aware of its brutality. This awareness constantly colors my decisions, sometimes in ways those who’ve never known poverty firsthand find perplexing.
How well equipped am I to speak to the reasonability of the actions of an 18-year-old black male living in gang territory? Decisions I make flippantly–what to wear, which direction to walk my dog–could be life-enders for him.
How rightly can I speak to the reasonability of actions of a 25-year-old mother of three young children whose husband denies her access to money and tells her he’ll kill her if she tries to leave? Is it reasonable of her to stay? Is it reasonable of her to leave?
Can I really tell a a 72-year-old Floridian man living on meager Social Security benefits what his “reasonable” should look like?
More importantly, can I trust the verdicts of people–like my 25-year-old self–who don’t even question the premise of reasonability? Some might call that a reasonable course of action.
Not me. Not anymore. There is just too much that can’t be seen based on surface glimpses. And let’s be clear: Even reams of court papers offer only surface glimpses into the entire scope of any person’s life.
So, “reasonable person” standard, I personally reject you. I reject the idea you can reasonably be applied by human beings.
My 25-year-old self thought you were pretty spiffy, but the shine’s worn off.