The Right Coast

April 27, 2004
On the Infinite ... and the Finite
By Gail Heriot

My alarm clock went off a few mornings ago. Someone on the radio was evidently thinking deep thoughts. V-e-r-y
d-e-e-p t-h-o-u-g-h-t-s. “We cannot grasp the infinite,” he said. “It’s too awesome for mere mortals to understand.” WHAM!! I hit the snooze button.

Well, maybe mortals have a tough time with concept of the infinite. But it’s been my experience that people have a much tougher time wrapping their minds around the concept of finity. It sounds easy, but for some reason it isn’t. While few of us have serious trouble imagining an infinite universe, most people have real difficulty conceiving of a universe that doesn’t go on forever. If it doesn’t, we figure there must be something on the other side. Cotton candy, maybe.

This mindset has practical consequences. When I teach Torts class, I sometimes find myself fighting against student intuitions that the world has infinite resources. It’s not that they refuse to acknowledge the concept of finite resources. Politically correct environmentalists have done everything but tattoo the thought on their brains. But some people don’t think about the ramifications of the concept beyond a little environmentalist sloganeering.

“Of course, General Motors ought to be able to design a safer automobile,” these law students say (and of course, they are right). But it will come only at some sacrifice: The automobile will be more expensive, or less comfortable, or slower or somehow less desirable. If it’s more expensive, some people will not be able to afford it and will have to make due without a car or keep an older, less safe car longer; others will have to go without purchasing some other product they might have wanted (maybe needed medical care, maybe a smoke alarm or maybe something that just would have made their lives a little more pleasant). If the new design is less comfortable, some people may end up with back pain or some other problem. The point is that something’s got to give. Products liability law is all about deciding which of those trade-offs ought to be mandated (or at least which ones the legal system ought to provide incentives for) and which should be left to the manufacturer’s market-driven discretion. It’s a task that the legal system is not always up to. And when judges, lawyers, and jurors have difficulty grasping the finite, mistakes are especially common.