A fable for our times
Guido Calabresi, a federal judge and Yale law professor, invented a little fable that he has been telling law students for more than three decades.
He tells the students to imagine a god coming forth to offer society a wondrous invention that would improve everyday life in almost every way. It would allow people to spend more time with friends and family, see new places and do jobs they otherwise could not do. But it would also come with a high cost. In exchange for bestowing this invention on society, the god would choose 1,000 young men and women and strike them dead.
Calabresi then asks: Would you take the deal? Almost invariably, the students say no. The professor then delivers the fable’s lesson: “What’s the difference between this and the automobile?”
In truth, automobiles kill many more than 1,000 young Americans each year; the total U.S. death toll hovers at about 40,000 annually. We accept this toll, almost unthinkingly, because vehicle crashes have always been part of our lives. We can’t fathom a world without them.
It’s a classic example of human irrationality about risk. We often underestimate large, chronic dangers, like car crashes or chemical pollution, and fixate on tiny but salient risks, like plane crashes or shark attacks.
One way for a risk to become salient is for it to be new. That’s a core idea behind Calabresi’s fable. He asks students to consider whether they would accept the cost of vehicle travel if it did not already exist. That they say no underscores the very different ways we treat new risks and enduring ones.
I have been thinking about the fable recently because of Covid-19. Covid certainly presents a salient risk: It’s a global pandemic that has upended daily life for more than a year. It has changed how we live, where we work, even what we wear on our faces. Covid feels ubiquitous.
Fortunately, it is also curable. The vaccines have nearly eliminated death, hospitalization and other serious Covid illness among people who have received shots. The vaccines have also radically reduced the chances that people contract even a mild version of Covid or can pass it on to others.
Yet many vaccinated people continue to obsess over the risks from Covid — because they are so new and salient.
If you are given a choice to choose drug A or drug B, Drug A increases your intelligence, but decreases your good looks; Drug B increases your good looks, but decreases your intelligence; which drug will you choose?
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