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Justifying and Categorizing Tort Doctrines: What is the Optimal Level of Generality?

  • Kenneth W. Simons EMAIL logo
From the journal Journal of Tort Law


This essay explores the issue of generality and tort law from two directions. First, when common law judges offer justifications of tort doctrine, what is the appropriate level of generality or specificity of those justifying principles and policies? Second, when judges identify and refine tort doctrines, what is the appropriate level of generality or specificity of the doctrines themselves? With respect to the first issue, Stephen A. Smith has argued that judges ordinarily do, and should, invoke only “intermediate” justifications for their decisions (such as dignity, fairness, or reasonableness), rather than “foundational” ones (such as utilitarianism or corrective justice). Smith’s argument has some purchase: intermediate principles indeed do and should play a prominent role in common law decision-making. However, foundational principles can legitimately play a more significant role than Smith suggests, especially if they are pluralistic. And intermediate principles are sometimes too vacuous to operate as genuine justifications. With respect to the second issue, Stephen D. Sugarman and Caitlin Boucher have proposed that numerous torts that might be characterized as “dignitary” torts should be merged into a single “unifying” tort, the tort of wrongfully harming another’s dignity in a highly offensive way. The authors plausibly argue that courts have not paid sufficient attention to gaps and arbitrary distinctions between these torts. However, their more radical claim that one uber-tort should replace all “dignitary” torts is not persuasive. Torts as distinct as battery, false imprisonment, intrusion into a private place, and malicious prosecution reflect distinct wrongs and should not be supplanted by a single tort prohibiting wrongful and highly offensive conduct. The analysis offered in this essay is informed by many examples from the Restatement Third, Torts: Intentional Torts to Persons, for which I have served as co-Reporter or Reporter.

Corresponding author: Kenneth W. Simons, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Philosophy, University of California, Irvine School of Law, Irvine, CA 92697, USA, E-mail:


I thank Jonathan Cardi for his very helpful comments. I would also like to acknowledge the insightful and creative scholarship of Stephen Sugarman, whose work has been an inspiration to me and to innumerable other scholars. Sadly, his recent death will end my ability, and the ability of other academics, to directly exchange ideas with him. But his influence will endure.

Published Online: 2022-02-04
Published in Print: 2021-10-26

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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