Friday, 21 November 2008

Ma'arat Ayin

I am looking at the questioning of the CEOs of the Big Three as they are peppered with questions about how they flew to Washington on private jets to ask for money from the government. One of the congressmen actually raises the issue of how it looks. Realistically the cost of this means of flying versus the use of a cheaper means of flying has no real implication on the issue. Saving $20,000 or $100,000 is meaningless in terms of the magnitude of the bailout request. Yet, its a matter of impression. How can you ask when it looks like you really don't need?

What it looks like is really the issue of ma'arat ayin. The issue is not whether the actual action is right or wrong but rather how the other perceives it. This case of the flights from Detroit to Washington would seem to revolve around the same issue. The perception counts. Yet the CEO's didn't seem to understand that. Their response was that it was company policy, for security issues, for CEOs to fly in private jets. While we can question what that really means, let us assume that it was true. So there was a reason to fly this way. But what then about the ma'arat ayin? The issue that hits me, and a concept that I believe many people do not recognize in the matter of ma'arat ayin is that perception matters. As the old adage goes, it is not enough that justice is done but also is perceived to have been done. We do not live solely in our own minds. In live within a community of fellow human beings and we must be sensitive to their thoughts, their perceptions, their feelings. What hit me about the CEOs was not that they did what they did -- for they believed (or let us say may have believed) that there was a reason for flying in private jets. What hit me is that they didn't even seem to see that there was a problem in what people may think. They ultimately weren't sensitive to the other -- even by just recognizing that there might be in a issue because of the perception. That leads me to wonder about the whole problem.

But what were they suppose to do? There seemed to have been a reason for flying in private jets, i.e. for security. Did they, though, discuss the matter before coming to Washington? Maybe they should have considered of all flying on one of the private jets rather than bring all three jets to Washington? Maybe they should have thought of other security measures that would be cheaper and work just as well? Maybe there really was no solution -- but then when asked about this issue, they would have been able to respond that they understood it, considered it before they flew to Washington but for other reasons they had to fly this way. Maybe they would still have been attacked for their decision and the perception that they made that decision as a result of their sensitivity, but the fact that they considered it also would have shown at least the basis of a sensitivity -- that they were concerned with perception. That is really what ma'arat ayin is about as well. Halachically, a real need can often override ma'arat ayin. If you have to do the action, a bar of ma'arat ayin can often be waived. The point though is for one to consider it, to consider perception, to consider the other.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Anonymous said...

The problem with maaris ayin is that it relies to a great deal on the intelligence of the observer.

How much is an hour of an automotive CEO's time worth? How much of that time would be wasted sitting in an airport lounge for 2 hours prior to getting on a flight in a conventional plane? How much work coudl the CEO be doing in the comfort of his flying office instead of sitting in a noisy airport somewhere?

Sometimes things look bad but if the person criticizing can't see the deeper importance of the action once it's explained, what value does the maaris ayin then have?

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The question is, thus: how do you teach the observer to understand and not misjudge the actor? The concern for ma'arit ayin by the actor, I believe, contains your concern and the recognition that the other may not be so perceptive or intelligent to see beyond the simplistic and the actor must keep this in mind. Ma'arit ayin teaches us to be prepared for this -- how, even, the ignoramus may see your action and thus to be prepared either by refraining from this action or, if that is really not possible, to be able to explain.