09 November 2010

The Evil Deity

After about a month of studying cases, I put to my first term torts students a couple of hypothetical questions. The first concerns an ‘evil deity.’ ‘Suppose,’ I ask my students, ‘such a deity were to appear to you, as president of this country or as controller of our legal system, and offer a gift, a boon, which would make life more pleasant, more enjoyable than it is today. The gift can be anything you want — be as idealistic, or as obscene, or as greedy as you wish — except that it cannot save lives.’ Later I will drop even that requirement. ‘The evil deity suggests that he can deliver this gift in exchange for one thing … the lives of one thousand young men and women picked by him at random who will each year die horrible deaths.’

When I ask, ‘Would you accept?’ my students almost uniformly answer, ‘No.’ Indeed, they are shocked that one could even ask the question. I then ask, quietly, what the difference is between this gift and the automobile, which takes some fifty-five thousand lives each year.

– Guido Calabresi, Ideals, Beliefs, Attitudes, and the Law, 1985

Thanks to Alberto for this.


Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin said...

That figure is now worldwide some 1.2million lives lost every year.
That would be an Airbus 380 crashing every 6 hours a day ,every week ,every year. Wouldn't we do something then?

Frits B said...

But on the other hand, it's not the cars themselves that kill, it's the humans behind their steering wheels. In the wrong hands, kitchen knives are just as dangerous, but would we ban them when they are so useful for their normal purposes?

dr2chase said...

@Frits, your analogy is faulty.

First, knives do not kill at the same rate as cars, even though they are operated by the very same humans. Thus, they are proven safer. Show me a world where knives are as deadly as cars, and then we can discuss improving that world.

As it happens, the death toll presumed for cars neglects to include the loss-of-exercise deaths, which are much more numerous (in wealthy countries) than the crash deaths. This places cars more in the category of tobacco, in the sense that they are somewhat habit-forming, and kill a similar number of people, in similar ways.

Second, if we had no alternatives to fictional very-deadly-knives, we might continue using them despite their danger, because we lacked alternatives. In the case of cars, we do have an alternative, that is often more convenient, and in some (urban) situations, almost always more convenient.

There are additional problems with cars -- their wide use in turn creates demand for fuel, which has its own costs of pollution, political corruption, terrorism, and costly foreign entanglements.

Anonymous said...

OK. So, lets get rid of all the cars and everyone can walk or ride a bike. Then no one can live to far away or they would never get to their job. We could do away with all the truck transports that move all our food and clothing also, and then we could go without: not a pretty sight!.

Of course we could have mass transit take us around, but with out our jobs in industry and the ability to move goods/services, no one would have a job. Let's just all move back to the farm....sorry, no one can afford the land any more.

I guess we should all just find a hole and live back in a cave some where.

While we are at it, let talk about people being killed/harmed by all the "non-organic" food we grow. If we would just cut back to only allowing organic foods to be sold, then we could reduce the population via hunger/deaths and then we could have cars back since the roads would now be less congested.

Got to love progress!!

Kiwehtin said...

Dear anonymous (18:02):

Uh, have there been ways to move goods and services prior to the automobile? And are there practical alternatives currently?

The answer to both questions is yes.

In any case, your implied argument is a straw man. The question here is the level of human sacrifice willingly offered up to the false god of ubiquitous motoring. There is no implication that all motorised transport must be eliminated. It is quite conceivable that we can might need some sort of motorised transport for restricted purposes, including for rural areas, but is absolutely clear that in heavily populated urban areas, we can do quite fine – in fact we would be far better off – without ubiquitous private motor cars and certainly without them being kings of the public rights of way.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kiwehtin;
Can I get some of that stuff you are smoking? It sure seems to make all the problems of the world go away.

Let's all just get some bikes and maybe we can even ascend to the standard of living in China and one can see how that helps everything.

Please get real. Tell me who is doing more to reduce deaths related to the auto, than this country. NO other country has the level of standards we have set and met for safety on the road....but I'm not sure that has anything to do with your real issue....let's all just get bikes....duh.

dr2chase said...


I'm not quite sure what you're talking about. Unless you are from Finland, your road safety claim appears to be incorrect. Or if not incorrect, then irrelevant. Safety results matter more than safety rituals.

Furthermore, if we did "all get bikes", and also ride them for those trips were they were appropriate (short ones, there are plenty), it would reduce deaths, because the lack-of-exercise risk is much larger than the bicycle-crash risk. The no-exercise risk dwarfs the car-on-road crash risk in most countries.

Bikes are in wide use in European countries with decent standards of living, and in particular in European countries where people generally live longer, healthier lives.

If you care more about average wealth than average health, consider purchasing-power-parity estimates of GDP per capita. The US figure is about $46k, the Netherlands are about $39k, Denmark is about $36k. Canada, Australia, and the UK, with little bike use, are about the same as Denmark -- (not) riding bikes has little to do with this figure. Norway, with quadruple the ride share of the US, UK, or Australia, has a PPP-GDP/capita of about $56k, larger than any of them.

Peoples Republic of China rings in at a mere $6.7k.

Anonymous said...

Well, if it is so bad, then just move. I like it very well thank you and find it a lot better than ANYWHERE else on earth, even with all the socially wonderful challenges.

If we go back to the original post, then we substitute for auto:
1. Alcohol
2. Tobacco
3. Fat foods
4. Red meat of any kind
5. McDonald's Happy meals (just trying to satisfy the SanFran crowd)
6. Tractors (largest cause of deaths on the farm)
7. The internet - possibly the largest killer of families.
8. and on
and on and on.

But again, so much for the entertainment. Go ride your bike. That's what you really want everyone to do anyway.

dr2chase said...

Wrong again, anonymous.

Just for example, moderate levels of alcohol consumption, are linked to living longer. Fatty foods are not necessarily killers, provided that you either do not eat too much of them, or else that you burn the calories (by, say, riding a bicycle).

And what other countries have you visited, that you can speak with such authority of the relative wonderfulness of the one that you live in? And how did you acquire the Panglossian certainty that not only do we live in the most wonderful country (and who knows, perhaps it is), but that it is in fact the most wonderful possible country, and is therefore impossible to improve in any way?

kfg said...

Anon; Europeans "discoverd", colonized, conquered, populated and fully industrialized entire continents without the use of a single automobile.

Within this same period millions of tons of tea from China and spices from India were transported around the world, often while still fresh.

It would appear that there must be SOME means of transporting both people and mass goods without cars and trucks.

As a matter of fact, I live a matter of feet from a major transport corridor on one side on which only steel wheels turn and on the other side on which no wheel has ever turned.

Must be magic.

Bruno C said...

Admit it: the comments from "Anonymous" are ghost written in order to give an articulate response to them. The ill-informed, narrow view is put forward by Anon. :-)
Sad truth is, it might be like the senario of the frog in a pot of water, slowly heating up: he'd stay in the water and boil to death before jumping out. The lazy will stick with cars until forced to see reality. Sadder still, the rapid rise of the auto in China & India.

Dan said...

Yup, damn all those non-car-dependent trips less than 2-3 km. that some people take every day, we're becoming more and more alike those humans featured in Wall-E, carried around by electric armchairs on wheels.

Klaus Mohn said...

The people who die aren't picked at random (skews towards the drunk and the careless) and it doesn't make life more pleasant then a bike does, but yeah. Nice.

kfg said...

Old team mate of mine was killed while cycling - he was hit by a drunk driver. The pseudo-random selection isn't made just among those who drive.

The degree to which the selection deviates from true random is dependent on the ability to predict WHO will drive drunk. Predicting who will, at some point, be careless when behind the wheel of a car is rather easier to deal with. The probability for any given driver is . . . 1.

That's what makes cars so dangerous, and also what makes them ill suited for the task they are most cited as being necessary for - long distance travel.

Corey said...

I appreciate the sentiment of this quote, but it's an inaccurate observation. The automobile is neither gift nor boon.