Monday, May 4, 2009
You and I share a well. We both thought it would never run dry. I used a lot more water than you did. Now we discover it is going dry. We need to proceed with care, limiting our use. The well reaches an underground lake that is fed by springs. We have been drawing at a rate that outpaces how fast the springs replenish it. So be it. But who will get how much? I make the following proposal: let each have an equal share going forward, be it per household or per person. You object. You have used a lot less than me over the years. You think that should be part of the accounting. “Yes,” you say, “let there be a fair share, but looking back as well as forward.” But until now, neither of knew the well might run dry. The supply seemed inexhaustible. So my using more than you did not seem to matter to either of us. The idea of a “fair share” makes no sense if what is to be shared is inexhaustible. But it wasn’t inexhaustible, we just thought it was. Should ignorance mater here? Does it make any difference? True, ignorance is said to be no excuse in the Law. But in the case of the Law these is something to be known that it was my responsibility to learn about. Here we had an unknown. Even though neither of us realized it, I got an unfair advantage. Unfair or just lucky? Suppose we say it was luck. I happened to be in the right place at the right time to make use of more of the water than you. Does that luck count in the moral equation of who should get what going forward?