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.