Paralysis by Precaution
Munthe (2011) investigates the cost of precaution in his book The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk. The Precautionary Principle (PP) is sometimes called ‘prudent avoidance’ and is premised on the idea that inaction in times of doubt and uncertainty is the best action. PP works like this: If in doubt about the trajectory or consequences of an activity, don’t proceed with the activity but take new actions to mitigate the doubt of harm? PP has become the standard notion in environmental policy and debate and fuels the psychosis of zero harm.
Foundational to any ethic of precaution is the notion of fallibility (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/ ). Humans are limited and cannot predict the future. The notion of Predictive Analytics is just more spin against the reality of fallibility. I’m sure some bookie would give odds against any claims to certainty in any prediction whether made by a computer or a human.
All humans can do in risk is to base judgment on available history and current evidence and then speculate about outcomes and consequences. This is the essence of ALARP. The best humans can do is to manage risk to As Low As Reasonably Practicable (https://vimeo.com/162637292). If one expects perfection then hire a zero harm manager, Ha!
All precaution has to be balanced on a range of ethical principles. The seven core ethical principles are:
- Autonomy (respecting the client’s right of self-determination and freedom of choice)
- Nonmaleficence (doing no-harm)
- Beneficence (promoting the wellbeing of others and society)
Justice (being non-discriminatory, and providing equal and fair treatment of all others)
Fidelity (being loyal and faithful to commitments in the therapeutic relationship)
Veracity (dealing honestly with others)
No decision in risk can be removed from its context nor the ethical concerns of stakeholders in that decision. The way in which one weights any one of these seven ethical principles in a decision reflects one’s ethical worldview. The idea that decisions in risk and safety are neutral is nonsense.
An ethic in risk is determined by one’s anthropology in the face of uncertainty. How one makes a decision in tackling risk is based on one’s ethic. One needs to know that even the Act and Regulation are interpreted and there is no neutral interpretation of the Act. Just as there are 9 schools of thought in risk and safety (https://safetyrisk.net/a-great-comparison-of-risk-and-safety-schools-of-thought/) so too are there schools of thought in ethics.
For the purposes of this discussion let’s explore the seven common approaches to ethics.
1. Virtue Ethics
Emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy. The focus is not so much on consequence as on the virtue underlying the decision.
2. Natural Law Ethics
Defines moral value by law not by authority. Asserts that certain choices are either right or wrong.
3. Social Contract Ethics
Moral good is established by mutual social responsibility.
4. Utilitarian Ethics
Places the locus of right and wrong solely on the outcomes (consequences)
5. Deontological Ethics
Morality of an action should be based on whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules, rather than based on the consequences of the action.
6. Care Ethics
Centres on interpersonal relationships and care or benevolence as a virtue.
7. Situational Ethics
Takes into account context rather that based on absolutes.
Each one of these schools of ethics weighs one or more of the seven ethical principles over another and often trade-offs one principle against another.
So where does this leave us with the challenges of PP? Sunstein (2005, Laws of Fear, Beyond the Precautionary Principle) asserts that PP always leads to paralysis. That is, one can only be fearful under PP (zero) because in the face of uncertainty one cannot make a decision. This is the terror of absolute risk aversion and the psychosis of zero.
When no injury can be tolerated, no mistake can be made, when humans must be infallible, there can only be paralysis.