Theories of Consideration
There are two common theories that attempt to explain consideration. The first is "benefit-detriment theory", in which a contract must be either to the benefit of the promisor or to the detriment of the promisee to constitute consideration (though detriment to the promisee is the essential and invariable test of the existence of a consideration rather than it can be constituted by benefit to the promisor). The second is "bargain theory", in which the parties subjectively view the contract to be the product of an exchange or bargain. Bargain theory has largely replaced benefit-detriment theory in modern contract theory, but judges often cite both and may use both models in their decisions. These theories usually overlap; in standard contracts, such as a contract to buy a car, there will be both an objective benefit and detriment However, there are certain contracts which satisfy one but not the other. For instance, a deal in which the promisee feels subjectively relieved, but has not actually gained any legal rights, might satisfy the bargain theory but not the benefit-detriment theory. Alternatively, a deal in which an actor takes detrimental actions possibly in reaction to an offer, without having viewed the deal as a bargain, wouldn't be viewed as a contract under the law.
The main purpose of the shift from benefit-detriment to bargain theory is to avoid inquiries into whether consideration is adequate. For example, if a person promised you their car for $1.00 because they needed to get rid of it, then the $1.00 might seem adequate. However, if it were your birthday and your friend wrote down "I give you my car in consideration of one dollar," this same consideration would not seem adequate. Thus whether $1.00 is consideration does not depend on the benefit received but whether the $1.00 had actually been bargained for.
In some jurisdictions, contracts calling for such nominal or "peppercorn" consideration will be upheld unless a particular contract is deemed unconscionable. However, in other jurisdictions, the court will reject "consideration" that had not been truly bargained for. Occasionally the courts in these jurisdictions may refer to "adequate" or "valuable" consideration, but in reality the court is not examining the adequacy of consideration, but whether it had been bargained for. The traditional notion that courts won't look into the adequacy of consideration, an ancient notion in the English common law, doesn't square with the benefit-detriment theory (in which courts are implicitly analyzing if the parties are receiving a sufficient benefit) but does square with the bargain theory (in which only the subjective intentions of the parties are considered).
Read more about this topic: Consideration Under American Law
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