Loopholes for Living

Who can be blamed for a disaster like the Challenger explosion, viagra a decade ago? No one, hospital according to the new risk theorists, and we’d better get used to it.


In the technological age, there is a ritual to disaster. When planes crash or chemical plants explode, each piece of physical evidence-of twisted metal or fractured concrete- becomes a kind of fetish object, painstakingly located, mapped, tagged, and analyzed, with findings submitted to boards of inquiry that then probe and interview and soberly draw conclusions. It is a ritual of reassurance, based on the principle that what we learn from one accident can help us prevent another, and a measure of its effectiveness is that Americans did not shut down the nuclear industry after Three Mile Island and do not abandon the skies after each new plane crash. But the rituals of disaster have rarely been played out so dramatically as they were in the case of the Challenger space shuttle, which blew up over southern Florida on January 28th ten years ago.

Fifty-five minutes after the explosion, when the last of the debris had fallen into the ocean, recovery ships were on the scene. They remained there for the next three months, as part of what turned into the largest maritime salvage operation in history, combing a hundred and fifty thousand square nautical miles for floating debris, while the ocean floor surrounding the crash site was inspected by submarines. In mid-April of 1986, the salvage team found several chunks of charred metal that confirmed what had previously been only suspected: the explosion was caused by a faulty seal in one of the shuttle’s rocket boosters, which had allowed a stream of flame to escape and ignite an external fuel tank.

Armed with this confirmation, a special Presidential investigative commission concluded the following June that the deficient seal reflected shoddy engineering and lax management at NASA and its prime contractor, Morton Thiokol. Properly chastised, NASA returned to the drawing board, to emerge thirty-two months later with a new shuttle-Discovery-redesigned according to the lessons learned from the disaster. During that first post- Challenger flight, as America watched breathlessly, the crew of the Discovery held a short commemorative service. “Dear friends,” the mission commander, Captain Frederick H. Hauck, said, addressing the seven dead Challenger astronauts, “your loss has meant that we could confidently begin anew.” The ritual was complete. NASA was back.

But what if the assumptions that underlie our disaster rituals aren’t true? What if these public post mortems don’t help us avoid future accidents? Over the past few years, a group of scholars has begun making the unsettling argument that the rituals that follow things like plane crashes or the Three Mile Island crisis are as much exercises in self-deception as they are genuine opportunities for reassurance. For these revisionists, high-technology accidents may not have clear causes at all. They may be inherent in the complexity of the technological systems we have created.

This month, on the tenth anniversary of the Challenger disaster, such revisionism has been extended to the space shuttle with the publication, by the Boston College sociologist Diane Vaughan, of “The Challenger Launch Decision” (Chicago), which is the first truly definitive analysis of the events leading up to January 28, 1986. The conventional view is that the Challenger accident was an anomaly, that it happened because people at NASA had not done their job. But the study’s conclusion is the opposite: it says that the accident happened because people at NASA had done exactly what they were supposed to do. “No fundamental decision was made at NASA to do evil,” Vaughan writes. “Rather, a series of seemingly harmless decisions were made that incrementally moved the space agency toward a catastrophic outcome.”

No doubt Vaughan’s analysis will be hotly disputed in the coming months, but even if she is only partly right the implications of this kind of argument are enormous. We have surrounded ourselves in the modern age with things like power plants and nuclear-weapons systems and airports that handle hundreds of planes an hour, on the understanding that the risks they represent are, at the very least, manageable. But if the potential for catastrophe is actually found in the normal functioning of complex systems, this assumption is false. Risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable, and the rituals of disaster have no meaning. The first time around, the story of the Challenger was tragic. In its retelling, a decade later, it is merely banal.


Perhaps the best way to understand the argument over the Challenger explosion is to start with an accident that preceded it-the near-disaster at the Three Mile Island (T.M.I.) nuclear- power plant in March of 1979. The conclusion of the President’s commission that investigated the T.M.I. accident was that it was the result of human error, particularly on the part of the plant’s operators. But the truth of what happened there, the revisionists maintain, is a good deal more complicated than that, and their arguments are worth examining in detail.

The trouble at T.M.I. started with a blockage in what is called the plant’s polisher-a kind of giant water filter. Polisher problems were not unusual at T.M.I., or particularly serious. But in this case the blockage caused moisture to leak into the plant’s air system, inadvertently tripping two valves and shutting down the flow of cold water into the plant’s steam generator.

As it happens, T.M.I. had a backup cooling system for precisely this situation. But on that particular day, for reasons that no one really knows, the valves for the backup system weren’t open. They had been closed, and an indicator in the control room showing they were closed was blocked by a repair tag hanging from a switch above it. That left the reactor dependent on another backup system, a special sort of relief valve. But, as luck would have it, the relief valve wasn’t working properly that day, either. It stuck open when it was supposed to close, and, to make matters even worse, a gauge in the control room which should have told the operators that the relief valve wasn’t working was itself not working. By the time T.M.I.’s engineers realized what was happening, the reactor had come dangerously close to a meltdown.

Here, in other words, was a major accident caused by five discrete events. There is no way the engineers in the control room could have known about any of them. No glaring errors or spectacularly bad decisions were made that exacerbated those events. And all the malfunctions-the blocked polisher, the shut valves, the obscured indicator, the faulty relief valve, and the broken gauge-were in themselves so trivial that individually they would have created no more than a nuisance. What caused the accident was the way minor events unexpectedly interacted to create a major problem.

This kind of disaster is what the Yale University sociologist Charles Perrow has famously called a “normal accident.” By “normal” Perrow does not mean that it is frequent; he means that it is the kind of accident one can expect in the normal functioning of a technologically complex operation. Modern systems, Perrow argues, are made up of thousands of parts, all of which interrelate in ways that are impossible to anticipate. Given that complexity, he says, it is almost inevitable that some combinations of minor failures will eventually amount to something catastrophic. In a classic 1984 treatise on accidents, Perrow takes examples of well-known plane crashes, oil spills, chemical-plant explosions, and nuclear-weapons mishaps and shows how many of them are best understood as “normal.” If you saw last year’s hit movie “Apollo 13,” in fact, you have seen a perfect illustration of one of the most famous of all normal accidents: the Apollo flight went awry because of the interaction of failures of the spacecraft’s oxygen and hydrogen tanks, and an indicator light that diverted the astronauts’ attention from the real problem.

Had this been a “real” accident-if the mission had run into trouble because of one massive or venal error-the story would have made for a much inferior movie. In real accidents, people rant and rave and hunt down the culprit. They do, in short, what people in Hollywood thrillers always do. But what made Apollo 13 unusual was that the dominant emotion was not anger but bafflement–bafflement that so much could go wrong for so little apparent reason. There was no one to blame, no dark secret to un-earth, no recourse but to re-create an entire system in place of one that had inexplicably failed. In the end, the normal accident was the more terrifying one.


Was the Challenger explosion a “normal accident”? In a narrow sense, the answer is no. Unlike what happened at T.M.I., its explosion was caused by a single, catastrophic malfunction: the so-called O-rings that were supposed to prevent hot gases from leaking out of the rocket boosters didn’t do their job. But Vaughan argues that the O-ring problem was really just a symptom. The cause of the accident was the culture of NASA, she says, and that culture led to a series of decisions about the Challenger which very much followed the contours of a normal accident.

The heart of the question is how NASA chose to evaluate the problems it had been having with the rocket boosters’ O-rings. These are the thin rubber bands that run around the lips of each of the rocket’s four segments, and each O-ring was meant to work like the rubber seal on the top of a bottle of preserves, making the fit between each part of the rocket snug and airtight. But from as far back as 1981, on one shuttle flight after another, the O-rings had shown increasing problems. In a number of instances, the rubber seal had been dangerously eroded-a condition suggesting that hot gases had almost escaped. What’s more, O-rings were strongly suspected to be less effective in cold weather, when the rubber would harden and not give as tight a seal. On the morning of January 28, 1986, the shuttle launchpad was encased in ice, and the temperature at liftoff was just above freezing. Anticipating these low temperatures, engineers at Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the shuttle’s rockets, had recommended that the launch be delayed. Morton Thiokol brass and NASA, however, overruled the recommendation, and that decision led both the President’s commission and numerous critics since to accuse NASA of egregious-if not criminal-misjudgment.

Vaughan doesn’t dispute that the decision was fatally flawed. But, after reviewing thousands of pages of transcripts and internal NASA documents, she can’t find any evidence of people acting negligently, or nakedly sacrificing safety in the name of politics or expediency. The mistakes that NASA made, she says, were made in the normal course of operation. For example, in retrospect it may seem obvious that cold weather impaired O-ring performance. But it wasn’t obvious at the time. A previous shuttle flight that had suffered worse O-ring damage had been launched in seventy-five-degree heat. And on a series of previous occasions when NASA had proposed-but eventually scrubbed for other reasons-shuttle launches in weather as cold as forty-one degrees, Morton Thiokol had not said a word about the potential threat posed by the cold, so its pre-Challenger objection had seemed to NASA not reasonable but arbitrary. Vaughan confirms that there was a dispute between managers and engineers on the eve of the launch but points out that in the shuttle program disputes of this sort were commonplace. And, while the President’s commission was astonished by NASA’s repeated use of the phrases “acceptable risk” and “acceptable erosion” in internal discussion of the rocket-booster joints, Vaughan shows that flying with acceptable risks was a standard part of NASA culture. The lists of “acceptable risks” on the space shuttle, in fact, filled six volumes. “Although [O-ring] erosion itself had not been predicted, its occurrence conformed to engineering expectations about large-scale technical systems,” she writes. “At NASA, problems were the norm. The word ‘anomaly’ was part of everyday talk. . . . The whole shuttle system operated on the assumption that deviation could be controlled but not eliminated.”

What NASA had created was a closed culture that, in her words, “normalized deviance” so that to the outside world decisions that were obviously questionable were seen by NASA’s management as prudent and reasonable. It is her depiction of this internal world that makes her book so disquieting: when she lays out the sequence of decisions which led to the launch- each decision as trivial as the string of failures that led to T.M.I.-it is difficult to find any precise point where things went wrong or where things might be improved next time. “It can truly be said that the Challenger launch decision was a rule- based decision,” she concludes. “But the cultural understandings, rules, procedures, and norms that always had worked in the past did not work this time. It was not amorally calculating managers violating rules that were responsible for the tragedy. It was conformity.”


There is another way to look at this problem, and that is from the standpoint of how human beings handle risk. One of the assumptions behind the modern disaster ritual is that when a risk can be identified and eliminated a system can be made safer. The new booster joints on the shuttle, for example, are so much better than the old ones that the over-all chances of a Challenger-style accident’s ever happening again must be lower-right? This is such a straightforward idea that questioning it seems almost impossible. But that is just what another group of scholars has done, under what is called the theory of “risk homeostasis.” It should be said that within the academic community there are huge debates over how widely the theory of risk homeostasis can and should be applied. But the basic idea, which has been laid out brilliantly by the Canadian psychologist Gerald Wilde in his book “Target Risk,” is quite simple: under certain circumstances, changes that appear to make a system or an organization safer in fact don’t. Why? Because human beings have a seemingly fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another.

Consider, for example, the results of a famous experiment conducted several years ago in Germany. Part of a fleet of taxicabs in Munich was equipped with antilock brake systems (A.B.S.), the recent technological innovation that vastly improves braking, particularly on slippery surfaces. The rest of the fleet was left alone, and the two groups-which were otherwise perfectly matched-were placed under careful and secret observation for three years. You would expect the better brakes to make for safer driving. But that is exactly the opposite of what happened. Giving some drivers A.B.S. made no difference at all in their accident rate; in fact, it turned them into markedly inferior drivers. They drove faster. They made sharper turns. They showed poorer lane discipline. They braked harder. They were more likely to tailgate. They didn’t merge as well, and they were involved in more near-misses. In other words, the A.B.S. systems were not used to reduce accidents; instead, the drivers used the additional element of safety to enable them to drive faster and more recklessly without increasing their risk of getting into an accident. As economists would say, they “consumed” the risk reduction, they didn’t save it.

Risk homeostasis doesn’t happen all the time. Often-as in the case of seat belts, say-compensatory behavior only partly offsets the risk-reduction of a safety measure. But it happens often enough that it must be given serious consideration. Why are more pedestrians killed crossing the street at marked crosswalks than at unmarked crosswalks? Because they compensate for the “safe” environment of a marked crossing by being less viligant about oncoming traffic. Why did the introduction of childproof lids on medicine bottles lead, according to one study, to a substantial increase in fatal child poisonings? Because adults became less careful in keeping pill bottles out of the reach of children.

Risk homeostasis also works in the opposite direction. In the late nineteen-sixties, Sweden changed over from driving on the left-hand side of the road to driving on the right, a switch that one would think would create an epidemic of accidents. But, in fact, the opposite was true. People compensated for their unfamiliarity with the new traffic patterns by driving more carefully. During the next twelve months, traffic fatalities dropped seventeen per cent-before returning slowly to their previous levels. As Wilde only half-facetiously argues, countries truly interested in making their streets and highways safer should think about switching over from one side of the road to the other on a regular basis.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how risk homeostasis applies to NASA and the space shuttle. In one frequently quoted phrase, Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize- winning physicist who served on the Challenger commission, said that at NASA decision-making was “a kind of Russian roulette.” When the O-rings began to have problems and nothing happened, the agency began to believe that “the risk is no longer so high for the next flights,” Feynman said, and that “we can lower our standards a little bit because we got away with it last time.” But fixing the O-rings doesn’t mean that this kind of risk-taking stops. There are six whole volumes of shuttle components that are deemed by NASA to be as risky as O-rings. It is entirely possible that better O-rings just give NASA the confidence to play Russian roulette with something else.

This is a depressing conclusion, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The truth is that our stated commitment to safety, our faithful enactment of the rituals of disaster, has always masked a certain hypocrisy. We don’t really want the safest of all possible worlds. The national fifty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit probably saved more lives than any other single government intervention of the past twenty-five years. But the fact that Congress lifted it last month with a minimum of argument proves that we would rather consume the recent safety advances of things like seat belts and air bags than save them. The same is true of the dramatic improvements that have been made in recent years in the design of aircraft and flight- navigation systems. Presumably, these innovations could be used to bring down the airline-accident rate as low as possible. But that is not what consumers want. They want air travel to be cheaper, more reliable, or more convenient, and so those safety advances have been at least partly consumed by flying and landing planes in worse weather and heavier traffic conditions.

What accidents like the Challenger should teach us is that we have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life. At some point in the future-for the most mundane of reasons, and with the very best of intentions-a NASA spacecraft will again go down in flames. We should at least admit this to ourselves now. And if we cannot-if the possibility is too much to bear-then our only option is to start thinking about getting rid of things like space shuttles altogether.
When the means justify the ends.


Leo Katz begins “Ill-Gotten Gains: Evasion, clinic Blackmail, advice Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law” (Chicago; $29.95), his elegant defense of circumvention and subterfuge, with a fable for tax day. There was once, he writes, a wealthy shoemaker who was looking for a way to lessen the burden of supporting his son, to whom he was paying, year in and year out, an annual allowance of a thousand dollars. Cutting him off wasn’t an option, because the shoemaker loved his son dearly. Nor was writing the thousand dollars off his taxes, because the I.R.S., understandably, doesn’t allow family gifts to serve as tax deductions. But the shoemaker had a brainstorm. He gave his son ten thousand dollars, and then he asked for that same amount back in the form of a business loan, promising in return to pay interest on the loan at the rate of ten per cent a year, which amounts, of course, to a thousand dollars. Voilà! With a minor sleight of hand, the shoemaker turns his family obligation into a seemingly legitimate business deduction.

This is what Katz, who teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania, calls “avoision”–behavior a little too fishy to seem like simple avoidance of illegality but not so obviously illegal as to constitute clear-cut evasion. Avoision covers those acts which lie in the awkward middle, and Katz sees the potential for avoision everywhere in the modern world. Imagine, for example, a tourist from a third-world country who comes to America and decides, at the last minute, that she wants to stay here. She then makes a series of provocative statements about her country which render her unwelcome at home and thereby qualify her for political asylum. Or what about a pornographer who, worried about running afoul of decency laws with his collection of highly explicit photographs, decides to put them in a book entitled “Sex in Marriage,” together with long, windy essays on the future of marriage. The shoemaker, the tourist, and the pornographer all adhere to the form of the law, but they violate its spirit: they have exploited a loophole. Is what they are doing right? Should they be allowed to get away with it?

I think it’s fair to say that most of us, intuitively, have a problem with avoision. Few would raise much of a fuss if the opportunistic tourist was deported, and even fewer would be fooled by the pornographer’s cynical repackaging. And if the wealthy shoemaker managed to slip his ruse past the I.R.S. we would expect him at the very least to have the decency to be ashamed of what he had done. Even the authors of the self-help tax books that proliferate at this time of year rarely present their various tax-dodging schemes without some kind of moral justification. (“What is most important is not what a tax law says, but how the I.R.S. interprets and acts on it,” Martin Kaplan and Naomi Weiss write in the best-selling “What the I.R.S. Doesn’t Want You to Know,” after reeling off a handful of anecdotes of capricious and vindictive government audits.) In fact, if the brief rise of Steve Forbes teaches us anything, it is that Americans have come to associate the paperwork, the complexity, and the game-playing surrounding the tax code with its corruption. What is the flat tax, after all, but a secular version of the tithe, an attempt to imbue what has become essentially a commercial transaction between citizen and state with the purity and simplicity of religious obligation?

This is the attitude that “Ill-Gotten Gains” sets out to confront. Katz likes loopholes. He thinks that the wealthy shoemaker has a point. And if, in the end, Katz is not entirely convincing it does not really matter. This is a heroically counterintuitive book that will make it difficult to think about tax day in quite the same way again.


The problem with the way we feel about loopholes, according to Katz, is that we don’t give them enough credit. We think of them in narrow, legal terms, as the unintended result of badly drafted laws. If the wealthy shoemaker can get away with masking his son’s allowance as a business deduction, it’s assumed that there is something amiss with the law, or with the vigilance of the I.R.S. But avoision is something that runs much deeper than that.

Katz produces one example after another from history and literature–from the confrontation between Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin over her diaphragm in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus” to the way Freud phrased his exit statement to the Gestapo upon leaving Vienna–to prove that avoision is a kind of basic human strategy. Consider this, for example, from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate memoir, “All the President’s Men.” Katz quotes the passage where the two Washington Post reporters are trying to get a senior Justice Department official to confirm off the record a rumor that Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, was about to be indicted:

“I’d like to help you, I really would,” said the lawyer. “But I just can’t say anything.”

Bernstein thought for a moment and told the man they understood why he couldn’t say anything. So they would do it another way: Bernstein would count to 10. If there was any reason for the reporters to hold back on the story, the lawyer should hang up before 10. If he was on the line after 10, it would mean the story was okay.

“Hang up, right?” the lawyer asked.

That was right, Bernstein instructed, and he started counting. Okay, Bernstein said, and thanked him effusively.

“You’ve got it straight now?” the lawyer asked.

This is classic avoision, a perfectly transparent piece of self-justification. Failing to deny the story has exactly the same consequence as confirming it. Nonetheless, in the eyes of the lawyer the difference between those alternatives was quite real. Using the loophole allowed him to live with his own conscience, to convince himself that he had not actively violated the confidentiality requirements of his position.

It is Katz’s argument that we play these avoision games all the time, and that, far from being trivial or contemptible ruses, they embody real moral distinctions. Here is another of his many examples, involving a trolley driver whose brakes are shot. As the driver hurtles along, he comes to a fork in the track. Ahead are five people who cannot get out of the way in time. To his right is one person stranded on the track. We would all agree, I think, that the trolley driver should steer right, choosing to kill one person instead of five. But now consider an analogous situation: A physician has in his hospital five people who will die unless they receive immediate organ transplants. Two need kidneys. Two need lungs. One needs a heart. At that moment, a perfectly healthy person walks into the doctor’s office. The doctor realizes that if he sacrifices that patient he can save five lives for the price of one. But this time, it’s safe to say, no one would maintain that the physician should act as the trolley driver did. It’s not good enough to want to save lives. You have to save lives in the right way.

This, at least, is what Katz believes. He describes himself as a “deontologist,” which is to say that he thinks the morality of any outcome depends very much on how that outcome is achieved. It is in the illustration of this point that “Ill-Gotten Gains” truly takes flight. In one brilliant riff in the middle of the book’s first section, for example, Katz gleefully plunges into Jesuitical theology, since he believes that the Jesuits were the ones who raised hairsplitting and loopholes to an art. Let’s say that one wants to guiltlessly communicate an untruth. All one need do is, in the words of a Jesuit theologian quoted by Katz, “swear . . . that one has not done something, though one really has done it, by inwardly understanding that one did not do it on a certain day, or before one was born, or by implying some other similar circumstance.”

Ridiculous? Not really, says Katz. For a man to disguise himself as a woman’s boyfriend, creep into her bedroom in the middle of the night, and have sex with her is rape. But if another man met the same woman at a bar and by pretending to be a famous C.E.O. successfully seduced her his falsehood in that instance would not invalidate her consent. In other words, here are two lies, identical in their intent and in their result. Yet one is a crime and the other, however deplorable, is not. The Jesuits had a point. The circumstances under which a lie is told can make a big difference. Or consider the case of a woman standing in line for a movie who sees a man pointing a pistol right at her. If she grabs the person behind her and uses that person as a shield, we would say she was guilty, at least, of manslaughter. If she simply ducks, and the bullet hits and kills the person behind her, we would call her lucky–even if she was fully aware that if she ducked the person behind her would die.

This is how Katz resolves the question of whether the wealthy shoemaker is in the right. Here we have two identical actions–the gift of a thousand dollars from father to son. But in the first case the gift is direct, and in the second case it is not. The father gives the son an asset, and that asset, in turn, generates the income. How important is this distinction? Well, imagine that the son took his father’s ten thousand dollars, put it in the bank, and lived off the interest. And suppose the shoemaker borrows ten thousand dollars not from his son but from the same bank at an identical interest rate. This is essentially the same transaction as before, just a bit more roundabout. But now no one would deny the shoemaker his tax deduction.

According to Katz, there is an important ethical principle involved here. Suppose I had designed the world’s most powerful telescope, the only machine capable of glimpsing far- off planets. If I discovered a new galaxy and published my results under my son’s name, we would all agree that my son would not deserve the ensuing fame. It would be like John F. Kennedy’s accepting the Pulitzer Prize for “Profiles in Courage,” a book that he is often said not to have written. You can’t assign your fame to someone else. But suppose I gave the telescope to my son, and, armed with this unique instrument, he stumbled upon the same discovery. Now we would all concede that at least some of the fame due to this discovery should accrue to my son. Putting a little distance between the father and the son changes everything.


How far should we go in accepting Katz’s deontological fixation? Does he go overboard in his adherence to form? This is the question raised, indirectly, by a Yale University law professor, Stephen L. Carter, in his new book, “Integrity,” an essay-length exploration of the consequences of the decline of public morality. Carter argues that integrity requires three things: “(1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; (2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and (3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.” Like Katz, Carter believes that an action should be judged by how it came about, by its adherence to rights and rules, by its form. But Carter’s idea of form is far more restrictive than Katz’s. Carter’s precepts don’t seem to make much of an ethical distinction, for example, between the man who posed as a woman’s boyfriend in order to seduce her and the man who posed as a C.E.O. Neither had discerned right from wrong. Neither was acting on what he had discerned and certainly neither was “saying openly” that he was doing what he thought was right. Carter locates the morality of an act in its intention: Did the man deliberately mislead in the aid of the seduction? Katz is much more sensitive to the particulars of the act’s execution.

A good example of this difference is found in an anecdote Carter tells at the beginning of his book about an incident he once saw while watching a football game on television. A player who had failed to catch a pass thrown his way rolled on the field, scooped up the ball, and jumped up, exultantly, as if he had caught the ball after all. The referee, shielded partially from the play, was so misled by the player’s acting that he ruled the pass complete. The player, Carter concludes, lied, and he presents this incident as a telling example of the lack of integrity in American public life.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s add two new wrinkles to the story. Suppose that the player, after scooping up the ball, didn’t go through the pantomime of exultation. He simply ran over to the referee and loudly and hotly began insisting that he had caught the ball, even though he knew that he hadn’t. Or suppose that the player, after attempting the catch, made no attempt to convince the referee that he had caught the ball at all. He was tired, and sick of playing football, and no longer interested in winning, so he shrugged and walked away, indifferent to the outcome of the game. Carter’s rules, I think, end up lumping the faker, the arguer, and the quitter together: in one way or another, they all fail his integrity test.

Now, let’s imagine how Katz would think about this incident. In the first instance, I think he might make the case that the faker was practicing avoision. Football, after all, deliberately does not use instant replay to review close calls. It relies on the judgment of referees, even though that judgment will occasionally be flawed, or there will be plays (like this one) that the referees cannot see. That’s the loophole the player was exploiting–the inherent subjectivity of the way the rules are enforced. Notice as well how he chose to exploit this loophole. Carter says that the faker lied. But that’s not quite right. It was the arguer who lied. He purposefully and directly misrepresented what happened on the play to the referee, putting himself clearly outside the realm of good sportsmanship. By contrast, the faker didn’t say anything at all. What he did was bluff, and if Carter doesn’t see a difference between lying and bluffing then I hereby extend to him a permanent invitation to my poker game.

That leaves us with the quitter, who is the only player who does not attempt to mislead. But isn’t he really the worst of the three? Sports–organized games–can continue to function if players attempt to mislead one another, because there are referees who (most of the time) will catch and punish that conduct. But sports can’t survive if players no longer try. The quitter, whose actions make him appear to be the most honest of the players, actually threatens the integrity of the entire game.

The point of all of this is that Carter’s rules, for all their superficial appeal, turn out to be somewhat unsatisfying. Because he won’t go as far as Katz in scrutinizing the form of actions, he ends up papering over some fairly important distinctions. Yes, in some broad moral sense all three of the players lack a certain integrity. But there isn’t a football player in the world who wouldn’t rather play with fakers than with arguers, or with arguers than with quitters.

This is not to say that Katz prefers those who play avoision games to those who act with perfect integrity, although it is sometimes tempting to read his book this way, since he spends so much time and enthusiasm talking about the people searching for loopholes and not a great deal of time talking about people who play fair. What Katz is trying to do is show that the loophole is not an arbitrary creation, that the ambiguities of our law reflect deep ethical conundrums that cannot be wished away. There is, in other words, a certain deontological dignity to our tortuous circumventions of the I.R.S. If the Jesuit theologians of the seventeenth century were here today, Katz believes, they would probably all be accountants, which is, when you think about it, probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said about the tax system.