Friday, June 22, 2018

An Ethical Dilemma

Michael Lumish

I live in Oakland, California.

Pretty much everyone in Oakland, rich or poor, live cheek-by-jowl.

I have a sort-of unique Craftsman-style house that I am proud of and that turned out to be a good investment.

My next-door neighbor is probably the best next-door neighbor that I have ever had.

She is a nurse and has helped me in that capacity.

It turns out, however, that she also suffers from bronchitis or something along those lines.

What that means is that when we have a fire in our fireplace it causes stress on this woman.

So this is the basis of the dilemma.

This is my house. I have every right to have a fire in my wood-burning fireplace whenever I want so long as I am not in violation of local governmental fire warnings.

And the thing is, I like this person. We've been neighbors for seven years.

I am honestly not certain how to handle this. We purchased a quarter cord of wood heading into last winter and burned maybe a third over the following months.

Now the only thing that I can think of is that every time we want to have a fire, as we read aloud C.S. Lewis - I kid you not -  is to confirm that she is not home.

In any case, we are heading into summer so it will not be an immediate problem, but I need further convincing before someone can tell me that I cannot have a fire in my own damn fireplace.

I have been scratching my head over this for the past month and still do not have an answer.


  1. I honestly do not know what to do about this.

    1. Does this really affect her adversely? That's maybe the first thing you need to determine.
      I once worked with someone who had similar complaints, but who I determined was actually just nuts and selfish.
      If it is cold out, then your neighbor's windows should be shut, so I don't see how this affects her unless she is outside on cold evenings gardening, or her house is very badly insulated, which is not unknown in the Bay Area.

      Can you arrange for all the smoke to head toward Reem's?

    2. Anyway, it seems like you have time to make a decision. I think that over time the answer will come to you and you will be able to work out an accommodation which will work for both of you should you wish to.
      If she has a problem with some ailment, it is for her to deal with it first and foremost. It can't be all on you. She might be a nice neighbor, but that just isn't fair to put it all on you. She might need a mask or breathing apparatus of some sort, because your fireplace can't be the only source of her problem.

  2. MY OPINION: Forget about burning wood in your fireplace.

    I have lived in New York City for more than 50 years, and in all those years, I never saw even one New York City home that had a working fireplace.

    Yet somehow, the people of NYC manage to survive, and New York City is one of the greatest cities in the world, even though nobody who lives there has a working fireplace.

    A good neighbor who helps you is worth her weight in gold.
    Do not lose that valuable good neighbor.

    Also, never give anyone a reason (even a half-valid reason) to dislike any Jew, or to complain against any Jew.

    Was Daniel an Orthodox Jew?

  3. John Locke would say that your rights extend to any and all rights of use to use, adverse of anyone else. But then we have to explore what's called the macadamia nut problem. The macadamia nut problem is where there is a tree on your property which has branches on your neighbor's property. He gets macadamia nuts by doing nothing but he's also responsible to make sure he isn't hurt by them by slipping on them either. He does have the right to prune those branches but only if he does not kill your tree. So your right to your tree extends to the limit of your neighbor's wont to exploit it as well and not destroy your value from the tree.

    Now we have to look at the pig farmer problem. Some call this the Sriacha problem. What if your value, however you calculate it, be it the production of pork or Sriracha has an effect, intended or not, to interfere with the rights of someone else on their property. The legal issue is one of due diligence vs changes or expansions over time. If you bought your house next to the pig farm or the Sriacha factory you would have a reasonable expectation of being fumigated by pig shit and peppers. If the pig farmer or the pepper plant expanded their operations to bring it into contact with you after you bought your home then it's a zoning issue for the courts because you had a reasonable expectation of no harm.

    Your house was built with a wood burning fireplace. Your neighbor who lives next door has a reasonable expectation that you could use your fireplace in the manner in which it was intended. Similarly if you had a fire pit, BBQ or other accouterments which were not in place when she bought her home she could make a reasonable demand you not use them because they were not obvious to any due diligence at the time. But the wood burning fireplace is built in and is obvious. It is, as a matter of rights, crystal clear.

    That's the legal view. Now, is it ethical for you to exploit the value of your property when someone else could be harmed? Well let's look at that. What is the power or ethics of coercion of her compelling you to not use your fireplace. Is there a compensatory value to you other than compliance? In other words is it a shared good if you comply? Well no it's not. It's compliant but it's not a shared good. It's a shared hindrance with some value to some people. This in fact is the foundation of socialism. Shared loss of value or loss of rights in exchange for compliance so that some are rewarded and some or not. The theory is that there's a compelling social good in this. But is there? There's an individual good to your neighbor. She gains the health benefit of your compliance at your expense. Were you to sell your home, by this reasoning you would be ethically obliged to divulge your compliance with her demand you never use your fireplace. That's a negative value to you. Which in and of itself may have some abstract or imputed ethical value to you. But it's to you alone. It's not a shared good. That is, it's not 'of the commons'. Your neighbor already had that value and that expectation. She has a net good and and you have a net bad.

    1. Did you know that macadamia nuts used to be called around here Queensland Bush Nuts or just Queensland Nuts?

      They are indigenous to here but a couple of enterprizing Americans took some cuttings to Hawaii and planted them.

      They used to grow on the side of the roads. They were as free as air. I remember my Grandfather used to come around with a Sugar Bag full and we would sit on the back steps and break open the hard shells with a hammer or house brick.

      Sugar Bags were also as free as air. These were brown hessian bags that would pack 70 lbs of sugar for export. Sugar was Queensland's number one produce. Most of the state was covered by cane farms.

      The reason I mention this? Before the cane was cut the fields were set on fire to burn off the foliage and get rid of pests such as rats and snakes. Snake bites, often fatal, were common.

      The whole country including the towns were covered with smoke. People with bronchitis, asthma or other lung ailments were warned to stay indoors and close all windows.

  4. No brainer.

    Of course you can't light a wood fire if you know it could harm your neighbour. There is only one exception to this ethical maxim. Its called the "real bastard/bitch bifurcation". If your neighbour is a right bastard then all bets are off. This does not appear to have any application in your case.

    Invite her over for a cup of coffee and discuss with her your dilemma. I'm certain you can reach some kind of arrangement.It might be as simple as she letting you know when she doesn't have a problem.

  5. "Your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of the nose of your neighbour's face"

    Sir Zelman Cowen.

    Vice Chancellor University of Queensland 1970's(When I was there)

    Queensland's most prominent Jew.

    Later Governor General of Australia

  6. When she demands you get an electric lawn mower or park your car down the street or stop using chemical fertilizer?

    1. That comes within the ambit of the "real bitch bifurcation".

      This is not an exact science. "Bifurcation" isn't even the right word.

    2. People confuse ethics with altruism. They are not the same thing at all. It is for example altruistic to give food and money to starving people but it's not ethical to promote the same conditions which landed them there. For instance, we used to have a problem with people breaking into our home. But nothing of any real value to us was stolen. They were after necessities. So we found it both more altruistic and more ethical to simply leave bags of food and clothing outside the front door. Similarly, it's more ethical to hire a household staff to do all the manual labor of servants than it is to employ automation and expensive appliances. Those people need work and I need the work done.