Paralysis by Precaution

Paralysis by Precaution

zero harmMunthe (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:

  1. Autonomy (respecting the client’s right of self-determination and freedom of choice)
  2. Nonmaleficence (doing no-harm)
  3. Beneficence (promoting the wellbeing of others and society)
  4. Justice (being non-discriminatory, and providing equal and fair treatment of all others)

  5. Fidelity (being loyal and faithful to commitments in the therapeutic relationship)

  6. Veracity (dealing honestly with others)

  7. Self-care

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.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

9 Replies to “Paralysis by Precaution”

  1. And yet, as you say, the precautionary principle is a major driver in the environmentalist’s armamentum. Given that many of the jobs are now typified as Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) or similar, how can the person with that job successfully differentiate between the demands of the environmental debate, and the “safety” issues? Is there some way of separating philosophies to the extent that the executive management can understand the implications? After all, the issues and mechanisms are essentially the same; it is just the consequences that differ… (If it is inside the fence, it’s a safety issue; if it goes outside the fence, it’s an environmental issue…)

  2. Hi David,

    I think first of all one needs to ‘do’ or study a bit of philosophy-ethics, something completely absent in the current WHS curriculum. Indeed, Safety is completely silent on the issue including our friends at safety differently. There is this strange belief in safety that everything is neutral.

    Most people in safety would have trouble recognising the driving philosophy behind many popular actions to tackle risk. People may know they hate being dominated and bullied but can’t connect or articulate their concern the the underlying philosophy in organising. It’s often when they brush up against a lawyer that they find their philosophy of safety wanting.

    Unfortunately, the drift between E H & S is massive as well as with HR. In my experience it seems that safety is viewed as a lesser value in organisations, the poor cousin. Again, I think this is also connected to poor levels of education in the sector and simplistic notions about what safety is.

    I don’t think there is a way of separating safety away from other disciplines which is why I advocate a transdisciplinary approach to safety. Again, that would take a huge shift in the WHS curriculum away from a mono-disciplinary view of risk. I don’t think the issues and mechanisms are the same. Environmentalists and Health professionals have a completely different methodology in formation, value and philosophy. These are much more humanistic whereas safety is very technicist. Imagine anyone in these professions buying the psychosis of zero??? Imagine a health professional in a hospital demanding zero death? or an environmentalist demanding zero harm?

    I think Safety is many years behind the education of these professions and as yet doesn’t understand nor debate the nature of professionalism like these professions. Safety is still stuck in making noise and changing brands rather than tackling underlying philosophical tensions in discourse with a head-in-sand approach to its own unethical discourse. As long as the LTI rate is going down and we are happy with TRIFR, all is well.

  3. The precautionary principle evolves from the German socio-legal term Vorsorgeprinzip, which reflects the Hippocratic Oath and the medical profession maxim……First do no harm.

    Indeed the medical profession is beholden to a robust code of ethics, which is barely covered in the Ayn Rand Fountainhead of Safety or body of knowledge and somewhat clandestine amongst the safety cult.

  4. Indeed, that is the point of understanding ethics, that some professions prioritize one ethical principle ahead of another. Of course zero as an absolute is a deontological ethic in the tradition of Kant. At least the medical profession studies ethics and knows it lives in ethical dilemma.

  5. The medical profession certainly has its share of dilemmas. The Brazilian physician Drauzio Varella calculated that the world invests five times as much in male sex stimulants and female silicone implants as in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

    He prophesied that in a few years we will have elderly women with huge tits and old men with stiff c0ck$ but none of them will remember what they are for.

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