For years I worked in an office where, in order to make an outside phone 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 head of HR 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 tempt even the innocent to make a mistake — or worse, a sin: “lifnei iver.” It comes from Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not … place a stumbling block before the blind.” Beyond its literal meaning, the verse has been used to establish the principle that you should remove temptation from the path of those who may be morally weak.
This became a thing in my house recently, when my wife asked if I could be more careful when opening our kitchen cabinets. The cabinets are off-white, and I was leaving smudges. I replied — with admirable honesty, I thought — that I couldn’t break a lifetime habit of the way I reach for a cabinet handle, and if I said I would try I would probably be lying. Smudges, I said, are the price we pay for beige cabinets and dainty handles. Blame the design, not me.
What ensued was what diplomats call a frank and honest discussion.
Convinced I was right, I sought an outside voice: “Judge” John Hodgman, the comedian who writes a satiric ethical advice column for The New York Times Magazine. I explained our impasse in an email, and Hodgman replied in the May 20 issue:
“Seen from 10,000 feet, I would agree that your wife’s request is unreasonable. That said, from 10,000 feet, I can’t see your disgusting hands. I can’t see what kind of muck you get into, or what kind of smears you’re leaving as you blindly paw at the cabinet face until you hit the handle. (Maybe you can’t, either. Spouses often see cleanliness differently depending on how they grew up, and some are just dirt-blind.) Even if your hands are clean of all sin, don’t meet one marital crime with another. Don’t lie and promise to try. Just promise to try, and tell the truth.”
The comments that followed were not friendly to my cause, to put it mildly. One reader compared me to Tarzan. Another urged me to be a “grown-up.”
But my favorite response came from a self-described architect and former interior designer, who I felt got closest to my original point, writing, “If your home’s aesthetic is so fragile that it’s ruined by normal daily use it’s a serious design flaw. Everyone living in a home should feel at ease interacting with their environment, and everyone has different sensitivities and habits. The design should support them all.”
In other words, home design shouldn’t be a stumbling block before a guy with Tarzan hands. The urban planner Jane Jacobs advocated this sort of user-first architecture, writing, “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them … that we must fit our plans.” For example, if you want to keep mail from piling up on the dining room table, you need another little table closer to the front door.
Probably the best-known demonstration of user-first design comes from so-called “desire lines”: the footpaths 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, and 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 instance, put a hand sanitizer right near the place where you are likely to pick up or spread germs. Or, in the case of my kitchen cabinets, it would make the handles big enough or inviting enough that my chances of smudging the doors is minimized.
I obsess about this topic not only 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 turn private and public spaces into friendlier, safer places by putting users first. For decades public housing was a disaster in part because designers ignored the ways people actually congregated, relaxed and kept an eye on each other. My son the engineer helps design hospital equipment intended to keep tired, overworked doctors and nurses from pushing the wrong buttons.
On the flip side, sinister behavioral design might coerce someone into, say, racking up debts on an addictive gambling app, or hooking kids on vaping, as the Food and Drug Administration argued in ordering Juul to remove its e-cigarettes from the U.S. marketplace.
The latter is exactly the scenario that “lifnei iver” proscribes: setting a vulnerable person up for failure. In an article for Chabad.org, Yehuda Shurpin discusses the possibilities — and dilemmas — of applying lifnei iver to the current debate over gun safety. On the one hand, he writes, “The Talmud tells us that one is forbidden to sell dangerous items — including weapons, or anything commonly used to manufacture weapons, as well as their accessories — to any person who may have the intent to use them to cause harm or perpetrate a crime.”
On the other hand, the law is understandably complex when it comes to determining how to anticipate that “intent” — and under what circumstances the seller is culpable. And yet, the tradition understands that the idea that “guns don’t kill, people do” is specious: “We do not want people getting hurt or dying,” writes Shurpin. “And restricting evil-doers’ access to materials that make this possible is an obvious course of action.”
Whether we are talking about gun control, office phones or kitchen design, the principle is the same: People are inherently clumsy and fallible, and relying on their best intentions to solve a problem is a recipe for failure.
Ultimately, I didn’t consult a rabbi to solve my kitchen dilemma. But I did answer to a higher authority: It’s now my job to clean the cabinets.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the New York Jewish Week and senior editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.