The Risks of Risk-Avoidance

Thoughts from Rabbi Jonathan I. Rosenblatt

How much does kosher meat cost? Suppose you wanted it to be absolutely kosher, to inspect for every one of the possible organic defects mentioned in the Talmud? Conservatively: $1000 per pound. So why can even the most devout Jews pick up a reasonably tasty cut of beef for their Shabbat meal or bar-b-que for $8.00 per pound? Because Rabbinic tradition mandates a reasonable level of risk. Most of the organic defects are quite rare. The most common are lesions in the lungs. So Jewish law rules that after checking the lungs against lesions—and even there, there are procedures which can be followed to distinguish between types of lesions to save people from great financial loss—one may rely upon the vast probability that the rarer anomalies are not present. Halacha recognizes that absolutes, although theoretically attractive, are diabolically impractical. Or as Voltaire is reputed to have said: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

My father of blessed memory was an organic chemist. He spent the second half of his career managing the clean-up of land which had been poisoned with toxic chemicals. His great contribution to the field was a simple question: “How clean is clean?” In other words, how much of a toxin needs to be removed in order to make a piece of the planet safe again? He recognized that the difference between two parts per million and one part per million might be the difference between the feasible and the impossible. And he painstakingly helped to establish standards for neutralizing a multitude of poisons by calculating how small a concentration is safe and tolerable. He made the world cleaner more benign, by embracing the concept of acceptable risk.

Our culture is in a period of intense risk aversion, driven by the legal profession, the insurance industry and the Press. Lawyers have fostered the litigious assumption that in every mishap, someone must pay. And in that atmosphere they advise their clients, reflexively, to avoid risk in order to avoid liability. They are not concerned with the losses incurred by these avoidances: the crushing of moral courage, the snuffing of creativity, the obliteration of intuitive trust in other people. The insurers, the managers of risks that cannot be avoided, support this risk management ethos by articulating everything they do not cover, reminding clients that everything beyond the coverage ambit is a minefield of liability. Journalism’s contribution to this prevailing chill is to sensationalize exceptional cases. If a freak accident occurs, they make it so terrifyingly immediate that regulators are forced to legislate against it reoccurrence, despite the paralyzing effect on a process or a product that has, statistically, functioned almost perfectly. When all kindergarten teachers are forbidden to touch children because of sensational reports of abuse, we risk turning an entire generation of children into psychotic rhesus monkeys. But that risk is of a different kind; it will never be litigated. As such lawyers and insurance companies will never be troubled. But we are headed for a disaster: the destruction of the world that will be nobody’s fault.

An example. Risk is a core element in trust. When a young employee makes a mistake, if there is an older mentor who believes that the future success of this young person will far outweigh the costs of the error, that mentor can mobilize her trust in favor of a small gamble on a person’s future. But what if older employees are intimidated by the threat of personal liability, of retribution in the case of any future mishap? They will become conditioned to retract and allow the mill to grind without human intervention. A career is ended. It’s no one’s fault; no one did anything. Without intelligent risk tolerance, there is no trust; without trust there can be no mentoring.

Where will acts of moral courage come from in a society conditioned to absolute risk avoidance? The most disturbing residual question from the Holocaust, especially, but not exclusively, for Jews, remains: if Hitler had chosen another group, would we have opened our barns and cellars to hide them? Would we have shared scarce food? Such action would have involved risk to ourselves, our families, our comfort. If we cannot comfortably answer in the affirmative, then we are accomplices after the fact and have absolutely no claim on those who were silent, those who did nothing. They were, after all, just avoiding risk.

Perhaps the world could endure exponentially more expensive kosher meat, but to live without the wisdom with which tradition keeps the price reasonable is to live in a world profoundly at risk; but don’t worry, when society collapses, no one will be sued, because it won’t be anyone’s fault.

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