JTA — For years I worked in an office where, to make an outgoing call, you had to dial 9 plus 1 plus your number. At least once a week the police would show up in the lobby because someone had accidentally dialed 9-1-1. The HR manager would scold us for not being more careful, and I would think, just change the system!
In Jewish law, there is a name for rules or actions that would cause even innocent people to make a mistake – or worse, a sin: “lifnei iver”. It comes from Leviticus 19:14: “Thou shalt not…put a stumbling block before the blind. Beyond its literal meaning, the verse has been used to establish the principle that you must take temptation out of the way of those who may be morally weak.
It became a thing in my house recently, when my wife asked me if I could be more careful when opening our kitchen cabinets. The cabinets are off white and I was leaving marks. I replied – with admirable honesty, I thought – that I couldn’t break a lifelong habit of how I grab a furniture handle, and if I said I would try, I’d probably be lying. . Stains, I said, are the price we pay for beige cabinets and delicate handles. Blame the design, not me.
What ensued diplomats call a frank and honest discussion.
Convinced I was right, I looked for an outside voice: “Judge” John Hodgman, the comedian who writes a satirical column of ethical advice for The New York Times Magazine. I explained our standoff in an email, and Hodgman responded in the May 20 issue:
Seen from 10,000 feet, I agree that your wife’s request is unreasonable. That said, at 10,000 feet, I can’t see your filthy hands. I can’t see what kind of shit you’re getting yourself into, or what kind of smear you’re leaving by tapping blindly on the front of the cabinet until you hit the handle. (Perhaps you can’t either. Spouses often view cleanliness differently depending on how they’ve grown up, and some are simply blind to dirt.) Even if your hands are free from sin, don’t encounter a spousal crime with another. Don’t lie and promise to try. Just promise to try and tell the truth.
The comments that followed were not supportive of my cause, to put it mildly. A reader compared me to Tarzan. Another urged me to be an “adult”.
But my favorite response came from a self-proclaimed architect and former interior designer, who I think came closest to my starting point, writing, “If your home’s aesthetic is so fragile that it’s marred by normal everyday use, it’s a serious design flaw. Everyone living in a home should feel comfortable interacting with their surroundings, and everyone has different sensitivities and habits. The design should support them all.
In other words, the design of the house shouldn’t be a stumbling block in front of a guy at the hands of Tarzan. The town planner Jane Jacobs advocated this kind of user-centered architecture, writing, “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people do it, and it’s to them… that we have to adapt our plans. For example, if you want to keep the mail from piling up on the dining room table, you need another small table closer to the front door (another recurring argument of which is, surprisingly , my first marriage and which still exists).
Probably the best-known demonstration of user-centered design comes from what is called “desire lines“: Pathways created by people who ignore the actual sidewalks around a building or park and create their own routes of least resistance. The smart planner pays attention to the routes people actually want to take, then pours the concrete .
A close cousin of this approach is behavioral design, which tries to influence the way people use spaces and objects. Good behavioral design might, for example, place hand sanitizer right next to where you are likely to pick up or spread germs. Or, in the case of my kitchen cabinets, it would make the handles large enough or welcoming enough that my chances of staining the doors would be minimized.
I’m obsessed with this topic not just because I want to win the argument with my wife, but because I think “lifnei iver” has important public policy implications. As Jacobs understood, good intuitive design can transform private and public spaces into friendlier and safer places by putting users first. For decades, social housing was a disaster in part because the designers ignored the way people gathered, relaxed, and watched each other. My son, the engineer, helps design hospital equipment to prevent tired, overworked doctors and nurses from pressing the wrong buttons or forgetting a crucial step.
On the other hand, a sinister behavioral design might compel someone to, say, accumulating debt on an addictive game appor get kids hooked on vaping, as the Food and Drug Administration has argued, in ordering Juul to withdraw its e-cigarettes of the American market.
The latter is exactly the scenario that “lifnei iver” proscribes: exposing a vulnerable person to failure. In an article for Chabad.org, Yehuda Shurpin discusses the possibilities—and dilemmas—of applying the law to the current firearm safety debate. On the one hand, he writes, “The Talmud tells us that it is forbidden to sell dangerous items – including weapons, or anything commonly used to make weapons, together with their accessories – to any person who might intend to use them to cause harm or commit a crime”.
On the other hand, the law is understandably complex when it comes to determining how to anticipate this “intent” – and under what circumstances the seller is guilty. And yet, the tradition understands that the idea that “weapons don’t kill, people do” is specious: “We don’t want people to get hurt or die,” writes Shurpin. “And restricting the access of wrongdoers to the materials that make this possible is an obvious course of action.”
Whether it’s gun control, desk phones, or kitchen design, the premise is the same: people are inherently clumsy and fallible, and relying on their best intentions to solve a problem is a recipe. for failure. Sometimes you need to ban the dangerous tool – or change the number from 9 to, well, any. other. Number.
In the end, I didn’t consult a rabbi to solve my cooking dilemma. But I replied to a higher authority: it is now up to me to clean the cupboards.