Home > Education, Parenting, Reflections > The “reasonable person” delusion

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.”

prof deb

For starters,

  • 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.

Aw, wasn't my 25-year-old studying-for-her-last-school-exam cute? And naive?

Aw, wasn’t my 25-year-old studying-for-her-last-ever-law-school-exam cute? And naive?

  1. March 12, 2014 at 10:36 am

    In case you were wondering, this is the kind of thing I think about while washing the dishes.

    • March 12, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      Haha, I wish I could say I was that deep in thought while washing dishes. My thoughts skim the surface of “How much longer do I have to do this before I can get my husband to feel sorry for me and take over because I’m pregnant?” ….”Honey, my back hurts!” 😉

  2. March 12, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Love this! I think that we don’t always see others how they are, but we see others through our experiences!

    • March 12, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Agreed–even when actively striving to see through theirs!

      Thank you for reading and commenting, by the way! I posted this anticipating three reads and zero comments, since it’s a little on the dry side. 😀

  3. March 12, 2014 at 11:10 am

    So true…who the heck knows what is reasonable? I have never heard of this “RP” as a term. But in parenting, like you mentioned, I have learned a lot about perspective, through trying to teach it to my child. Stepping into that other persons shoes. Trying to figure out how they would see a situation, not just how we see it. Once again, I have been taught to be more aware, through helping him.Thanks for giving us an interesting topic to mull over!

    • March 12, 2014 at 11:29 am

      But in parenting, like you mentioned, I have learned a lot about perspective, through trying to teach it to my child.

      The same core question of perspective keeps showing up in my mind the last couple of weeks, as is evidenced in my recent posts! On the verge of meeting an entirely new human being whose personality and interests cannot yet be known to me, I’m drawn to these questions: What will his/her perspective be? How will it change mine?

      It’s challenging to revisit our perspectives and perceptions as parents, but it’s also rewarding. And time-consuming, where related reflections are concerned!

  4. March 12, 2014 at 11:14 am

    You gotta think about something while doing the dishes, right? The law ostensibly is a system for justice and fairness. I think it falls short on both. A concept like the “reasonable person” standard is an effort in that direction but too ambiguous so it can’t actually get there. Too many variables. The best the law can do is make the attempt and I’m not convinced it even does that consistently.

    • March 12, 2014 at 11:35 am

      I agree the falls short on both. I spent my next set of chores reflecting on what might be a good alternative: not inconceivable? Not egregious by broad consensus? I don’t have a viable alternative, though I’ll surely keep mulling this over while doing other work physically.

      I’m glad that this standard at least attempts to reflect that people are not apt to behave identically in similar situations. That is a start, but not necessarily a very heartening one.

      The inconsistent application of laws makes for great TV, but not so great real life for those left to the whims of legal interpreters.

  5. March 12, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    I’m so bad about this. I like to think I’m less judgemental and it’s more that I have a hard time seeing the good in people, but I’m probably kidding myself….and I’m not sure one is better than the other. I’ve been really trying to take a step back and find the good. It’s hard for me to remember that the majority of people don’t have bad intentions, they don’t TRY to do the wrong thing.
    Anyway, it’s a struggle, but I’m working on it!

  6. maurnas
    March 12, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Love this. We are so blind to our privileges that it is impossible to know what is reasonable to anyone that is not us. However, I can say one thing that never fails me. If I am seeing someone and they react to something in a way that I don’t like; I question how I would react in that situation. It really makes unacceptable behavior stick out. Which is good for me as I have notoriously bad taste in men.

    • March 17, 2014 at 12:09 pm

      We are so blind to our privileges that it is impossible to know what is reasonable to anyone that is not us.
      Yes! It’s frustrating to keep an open eye to potential privileges, and then still encounter some new situation or bit of reading that makes me go, “How did I not see that one?!”

      I like your gauge for assessing what’s acceptable and unacceptable. I’ve tried to articulate the importance of trusting intuition in conversation about how to determine what’s acceptable/unacceptable, but “intuition” is such a soft thing for these real life circumstances. Like you, I try to recognize bases for certain behavior, but–even armed with understanding–not accept bad or threatening behaviors. Just because I understand doesn’t mean I should suffer.

  7. March 13, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    As a Speech-Language Pathologist and Mother of a third grader who’s developing opinions and two Kindergarteners who question everything (sometimes waaay too loud), I am constantly in a position that requires both judgement of and openness to perspective. At times, both sides contradict each other. Those are the precious moments of learning and humility, and truly define the meaning of perspective. Good for you for questioning something that was once easily acceptable in your younger days and letting it shape who you are, what you think, and how you behave in this very moment in time.

    • March 17, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      I wish I could have all the knowledge and understanding without having to take so many misguided steps first, but the benefit in all the stumbling is that it’s easier to demonstrate real-live clean-up to the little ones. Those on the job examples seem to take much better hold than words-alone ones. 🙂

      • March 18, 2014 at 2:14 am

        Yes, I agree. I’m a true believer in learning from your mistakes, messing up to learn, and cognitive flexibility as a result of mistakes. Great life lessons for our little ones!

  8. March 14, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Yeah, I understand the question pretty well. Someone said to me the other day, “I can’t believe you never had children, given how you lived and how early you married.”

    Yes, they were privy to some of my life story through another person (family member). Their judgment of me was harsh and their statement unkind. What they were not privy to of course was the reason I didn’t have children. I though about whether my answer would embarrass or not. In two sentences I told why I didn’t. Her answer?

    “Well, I hope you didn’t stay”.

    Yeah, I understand your question. In her very white middle class, never known fear and never known poverty mind, my choices at the time where limitless. I on the other hand don’t judge so harshly.

    I love you, that you don’t either.

    • March 17, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      . . .

      No, really.

      . . .

      In those questions, I hear all the times people said to my mom, “Why didn’t you leave?”

      No matter what answer my mom gave, there was always another blaming question to follow. There’s no way to answer such a question right. But these questions? They are a part of how I have learned to separate friends from acquaintances.

      “Friends” are those who might wonder why I’ve made a particular choice, but understand I have done so within a context. “Acquaintances” are those who always, always know better than me or anyone else, based on little more than a sound byte. I’m fine discussing weather with the latter, but don’t waste time or energy anymore on much more than that.

      Love you.

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