Lies and laws

October 9, 2015

Let’s be honest and admit that even we tell lies — or, at least, we have been known to give inaccurate, misleading, evasive and even false replies to questions. That much is true of virtually everyone.


However, there is a huge gulf between being evasive or inaccurate in response to the “what did you do…?” kind of question, as opposed to a situation where, knowing that you will face tough questions, you prepare in advance an answer that is not just a lie, but deliberately misleading.


Research has proven that six-year-old children can make this distinction and also understand its implication, which is that the first person did not behave as one should, but the second person did something really bad. What young children grasp intuitively, adults understand and can explain in a much more rational and conscious way. But the gut reaction of adults and children alike to discovering a premeditated lie is immediately negative.


That is the main reason why people around the world are so disgusted by what Volkswagen did. They are used to situations where a manufacturer — whether of autos, or medicines, or toys or whatever — reacts to the discovery of flaws in their product by making excuses, trying to wriggle out of their responsibility, or even covering up what happened. All of this is wrong, often illegal, but it is all “ex post”, or ‘le’achar hama’aseh”.


There have been umpteen corporate scandals involving cover-ups and excuses — in the auto sector alone, virtually every major firm has been involved in recalls over the years. In some cases these problems were caused by shoddy procedures or could have been prevented without much difficulty — had the will to do so been present.


Malicious intent


But that is qualitatively different from consciously planning a piece of equipment that is designed to lie regarding the level of pollutants the engine emits, thereby ensuring that regulators and consumers are misled. A crime committed with malicious intent and after careful forethought (“pesha”) is viewed by people everywhere to be much more serious, and hence unacceptable, than something done under pressure and without thinking through the consequences (“chet”).


That is why this scandal is not merely embarrassing and expensive for Volkswagen, but could well prove existential — meaning it could threaten the German auto giant’s very existence. Ironically, what might save it is if similar revelations turn up regarding other carmakers — that they also deliberately planned how to cheat, lie and mislead.


Why would that help? If all or most of the big auto makers set out to distort the data about their products, why should that help each of them individually? In simple terms — if one bank-robber is caught, why should he treated differently than if twenty or a hundred bank robbers are caught? Surely the crime is the same and the punishment fixed in the law is the same? In moral terms, should we have sympathy with the claim that “everyone is doing it, but I had the bad luck to be caught — so why are you ‘throwing the book’ at me?”


Unbearable burden of regulation


Remarkably, the answer is that it does make a difference, at least in terms of moral responsibility and hence of solving the problem, rather than merely punishing the criminal. The reason is encapsulated in the Talmudic idea that “lo achbara gonav ela chura gonav” — the mouse didn’t steal (the food), rather it is the mousehole that is responsible. In human terms, that doesn’t mean that ‘the mouse’ is guiltless. It means that if you leave a ‘mousehole’, you are responsible for the consequences. What did you expect — that the mouse would remain passive?


In the context of the auto industry — and of almost every other business today — the pressure created by ever-more-stringent government regulation has become unbearable. Rules are now regarded as an obstacle to be overcome by all means available, fair or foul. Yes, this behavior is morally disgusting and probably criminal. But what did the people who made the rules expect? And will making even more rules make things better, or worse?

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