Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Legal Question

Interesting theoretical question given in our law orientation class today. Actually, it was handed out as some professor's study on law and psychology. The question:

You own a cereal factory on a small lake. You have the opportunity to produce a new kind of cereal. The only problem is that this requires dumping a chemical into the lake. The only damages from this chemical will be that it will raise the production costs for another cereal factory, that is on the small lake. There are no health or environmental issues. You know that if you do dump this chemicals, the other factory will sue you and win. However, your profits will exceed the amount that the court will award the other side. Is the decision to produce the new cereal a) moral, b) legal, c) good business practice, d) good for you personally?

Within our small orientation group, people intuitively had radically different answers. So I'd love to get a poll of the audience. And once I get...five responses, I'll post my thoughts. Okay? Awesome! It'll be like a contest! Whoever actually responds gets a... special present. Or something. Or, quite possibly, nothing.

UPDATE: Yay! Responses! Okay, everybody wins my undying gratitude. It's not much, but it's easily transferable over internation boundaries, and also it's cheap.

My intuitive position, although I may be starting to rethink it, was this:

Legal: Well, obviously not, considering that you would lose your lawsuit.

Worth doing: Depends on how much you think that the bad PR would damage you.

Moral: Here comes the interesting bit. Really, who are you harming? The other cereal company is getting compensated for all the damage that you do it, plus, most likely, all of their legal fees and a decent amount of punitary fees (I hope that's the right word. I have fort he first time encountered the phenomena that I can describe something in Hebrew better than English. Whee!). The only reason, in fact, that they wouldn't simply agree to take the money in the first place and walk away satisfies is that they're also a cereal compnay and thus have a vested interest in your lack of success. But that's always going to be a 'damage' to them, even if you wouldn't have had to dump anything. So the question is really is it moral to break the law in order to get what you really would be able to get legally, if it wasn't for extenuating circumstances?

And I think that my automatic answer is sure. The other cereal company comes out no farther behind on the deal than the rest of your competition, and probably somewhat ahead. You have not hurt anybody in any way, and have benefited yourself. Why should there be a moral problem? The only potential answer that I can see is that there is a benefit towards keeping the law even when it is neither beneficial nor ensures morality, just so that people won't go around breaking it.

But is the purpose of the law really to ensure blind obedience when it benefits nobody (at kleast, nobody with a legal right to benefit. The fact that it makes your competition happy isn't really their legal right. It's just a happy side benefit of their having chosen the same lake as you.) ? Or maybe it's simply to give a sufficient disincentive towards doing behavior it would prefer that you didn't?And once it's done it's best to disincent and it's still worthwhile for you, maybe it's perfectly okay to go ahead with it. I feel like, in some twisted way, this is the same logicas a conscientious objector- the job of the law is to provide as much disincentive as it thinks the action deserves, leaving the individual to weigh his own personal costs and beneifts. So basically, I think that the action is perfectly moral, and, should the bad publicity not outweigh the profit, there's no reason taht you shouldn't go ahead with it.

Friday, October 13, 2006


Hey. First, my apologies. I know that I have totally neglected my blog for several weeks now. There were, of course, mitigating factors- my family was in the Holy Land, I was in my sister's apartment, and also, I didn't really feel like it. And, unfortunately, the blog is not going to be terribly busy in the next couple of weeks, because Law School Orientation starts Sunday. That's right-this Sunday. As in "the day that would be Simchat Torah for me if I was still a chutznik." Yeah. And Heavens only know whether or not I have a dorm room... So anyway, I'm going to be a bit busy, so we'll have to see what happens.

And now on to the post. This post, as perhaps you would be able to tell even without the lengthy introduction/disclaimer (but where would be the fun in that?) is spawned more from desperation to get back to posting than actual inspiration, so I'm sorry if it degenerates into yet another dull, angsty rant about my high school experience. Here goes:

We learnt Kohelet in twelfth grade. The first thing that my teacher announced as an introduction to the subject was that Kohelet was not a depressing book. The life that it degrades as pointless is a life dedicated to pursuing physical pleasures, while a life devoted to spirituality is not pointless, but beautiful. This interpretation was supported by translating hevel as 'ephemeral' and reading a lot of passages as not really questioning the afterlife or the soul or things like that.

Fine. It's a legitimate track, and certainly there is a thread in Kohelet attacking hedonism. But I think that this interpretation misses the thing that makes Kohelet so cool. The Talmud says that the chachamim wanted to ban (or hide, or bury) Kohelet because a) it contradicted itself and b) it contained things that leaned towards minut (heresy). The Talmud never goes back and says "but really, it didn't and that was all a misinterpretation." Never says "and then other chachamim came along and said it didn't." It says that they included it a) because the beginning and end are words of Torah and b) because every heretic statement was later contradicted by an acceptable one.

In other words- Kohelet should not- cannot- be read as a single, unified book. It is an ongoing internal debate, the kind that just about every thinking person is going to have. All those angsty, going-off-the-derech questions- they're all in there. Kohelet, as a book, is devoted to that angst, that questioning, that depression, that struggle.

And the fact that it's in Tanach means that the struggle is acceptably in Judaism. And not just if you figure everything out and end up happy and calm, with all your questions answered. Because even with the last couple of p'sukim, Kohelet doesn't have any answers. Never comes to the conclusion that there is an afterlife, or that life is just, or that anything has any point at all. The only vague conclusion that I saw was that that you shouldn't spend all of your life trying to figure out the big questions- if you always watch the clouds, you never plant; more books is more trouble and so forth. Which is hardly a conclusion, but more of angsty frustration at your own angsty frustration.

Anyway, the point is this: teaching Kohelet as just another happy, reasoned book that teaches you to devote yourself to holiness is robbing it of its most basic lesson: It's okay to struggle. Maybe even mandatory to struggle. It's okay to question, to contradict, even to despair. And even someone who loves G-d enough to write Shir Hashirim, who is wise enough for Mishlei, even he can wrestle with the biggest questions. And lose. And keep on fighting.