Monday, February 27, 2006

Somthing to Ponder

A traveler in the desert who has run out of water comes upon a well that is enclosed by a high chain-link fence, in which there is a locked gate. The fence demarcates the property of the well's owner, who has plenty of water for his own needs and could give some away at no loss to himself. The traveler shouts until he is heard by the owner of the property, who comes to the gate and asks the traveler what he wants. The traveler says that he would like to fill his canteen so that he can continue his journey and not die of thirst before he reaches his destination. The fence and gate are so high that the traveler cannot give his canteen to the property owner by throwing it; the property owner must unlock the gate and, thus, give the traveler an opportunity to force his way in.

The property owner either gives water to the traveler or refuses to give any water to the traveler. The property owner's reasons for giving or refusing water are unknown to us. It is possible, for example, that the property owner is torn between (a) empathy for a human being in distress and (b) a suspicion (based on knowledgea and/or experience) that the traveler might try to rob him. It is possible, also, that the property owner is misanthropic, which is why he lives behind a very high fence in the middle of a desert. There may be other explanations for the property owner's decision to give or refuse water to the traveler. All we know is the property owner's decision.

How do you react if the property owner refuses to give water to the traveler?

1. He had to make a judgment. No one is in a position to second-guess that judgment.

2. The property owner doesn't owe water to the traveler. The traveler should have been better prepared for his journey and brought more water. It was happenstance that brought him to a property on which there was a well. What would he have done if a property with a well hadn't been on his route? Think of the kinds of behavior a property owner might encourage and invite if he were to succumb to the blandishments of an imprudent traveler or a criminal masquerading as one.

3. The property owner has a moral duty to aid the traveler, even at some risk to himself (the property owner). But, if the property owner refuses to help the traveler, the consequences of the refusal are on the property owner's conscience. It is no one else's business.

4. There should be a law that requires property owners to give water to travelers, even though such a law: (a) might encourage some travelers to go forth with inadequate supplies of water even though they might not come across a well, and (b) might make it easier for criminals to attack and rob property owners.

I am content with reaction 1. Reaction 2 isn't inconsistent with reaction 1, but I find reaction 2 unnecessarily defensive of the owner's decision. (Reaction 2 may be politically necessary, however, because of reactions 3 and 4.) Reaction 3 substitutes a third party's judgment for that of the owner. And the "moral duty" part of reaction 3 forms the basis for reaction 4, which then translates the third party's judgment into a legal stricture. The legal stricture on voluntary behavior has the usual results: It creates a moral hazard for travelers and has (negative) unintended consequences for property owners.