Right and Wrong in Safety

Right and Wrong in Safety

imageSafety is fundamentally a moral and ethical activity. Any desire for a ‘good’ or a virtue, necessitates an ethic. Unfortunately, even in how Safety shapes its own identity it doesn’t know nor consciously articulate an ethic. Even the brand of ‘professional’ demands an ethic. (It ought be remembered too that an ethic is not a code of ethics).

There has been no attempt to develop an ethic in safety in the SIA Body of Knowledge. Indeed, the assumptions the safety industry makes of human ‘being’ (anthropology) demonstrate a profound lack of self-identity with any moral or ethical discourse. For example, the unanimous acceptance of zero ideology by the Global Safety Congress demonstrates clearly that the industry has no notion of an ethic of safety. Indeed, it is observed in safety discourse in the questions it asks, the contradictions it espouses and the solutions it proposes including, its preoccupation with error, harm and injury rates, that moral agency and ethical knowledge are assumed, agreed and unitary. However, unbeknown to the industry, its attributions, discourse and language are deeply aligned to a Kantian/Augustinian ethic. Kantian ethics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kantian_ethics) are identified with:

  1. The identification of universal moral principles of right action.
  2. The discernment of how these principles can be applied to actual situations and,
  3. The commitment and resolve of the free will to act upon those principles when situations arise.

The dominant moral discourse in safety is about: individual free will, choice and responsibility captured in the mantra ‘safety is a choice you make’.

The safety industry believes in a cognitive skill/power to determine right action and then the development of a resolve of will to enact it. The belief that humans will one day be infallible and injury free demonstrates this naïve belief as is symbolized in the Bradley Curve (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-curves-and-pyramids/). ‘Wrongness’ is apparently demonstrated by injury and the absence of injury defines ‘rightness’.

An essential belief in safety moral discourse is the idea of free will. Free will is the belief that each of us has enough independence of history, culture, context, group, present situation, social influence, heredity and biology to chose freely and being independently responsible for our own actions. This is a construct of Kantian/Augustinian ethics.

There are other ways of thinking morally that don’t accept this construct, for example, in a Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) moral and ethical decision making is not understood as either individual or free from social influence. This also doesn’t mean that a SPoR ethic is determinist indeed, an existential dialectical ethic is completely out of step with a Kantian ethic. Such an ethic is not preoccupied with blame, moral principles, free will, character formation, individualism, positivism or attributed harm. More on this for later discussion.

Of course with a Kantian framework for ethical interpretation, the safety industry is attracted to moral models like that of James Reason and Daniel Kahneman. Both Reason and Kahneman are attractive to safety because they align with Kantian ethics and foster a binary interpretation of right and wrong. Reason’s model of errors is a classic example of binary Kantian-focused ethics. Under the influence of Reason, the safety industry has defined error, just culture and accountability on a naïve belief in free will, independent decision making and an ability to override social psychological context. It is on these assumptions that safety has constructed its ideas about right and wrong.

Yet in the safety curriculum, you won’t find the study of ethics or rigorous critique of false attribution in moral assumptions in incident investigations, definition of safety or beliefs in accountability or responsibility. The ideology of Kant is both assumed and accepted without contestation. It is all then wrapped in the binary ideology of zero discourse and zero vision. Even then, the zero cult has no understanding of how zero can only ever be an unethical ideology (https://safetyrisk.net/wisdom-discernment-and-an-ethic-of-safety/, https://safetyrisk.net/the-de-ethicization-of-the-object-in-safety/, https://safetyrisk.net/no-evidence-for-the-religion-of-zero/).

The demand for absolutes from fallible people is a Kantian construct of the Adam and Eve story which constructs fallibility from the notion of ‘the Fall’ (http://www.academia.edu/8790895/Kant_and_Herder_on_the_Genesis_of_Moral_Consciousness). Don’t tell Safety but there are many other ways of understanding the biblical semiotic/myth than through Kant’s understanding (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/). Fallibility is neither the product of evil nor the sign of weakness/sin.

In the punitive world of deficit safety, wrongness is defined by injury. This is most obvious in the language of Reason who defined safety for an industry by ‘violations’ and non-violations. Unfortunately, the violation of a rule/regulation doesn’t mean one has violated the image of the community, social contract or what it means to be human. A social contract is ‘understood’ as a social-psychological agreement between people. This is neither individualist, rationalist or founded on ‘free will’.

Recently we have observed many corrupt actions by banks, public servants, churches and politicians in high places (https://safetyrisk.net/no-moral-compass-in-zero/). What is often assumed in the discourse is a common definition of justice and morality.

In many enquiries into corruption we often hear a defense that states: ‘I haven’t done anything wrong, I haven’t broken any law or regulation’. How convenient to be obedient to the law and regulation yet to be so corrupt in social contract. It’s so amusing to watch Safety think in similar ways. I haven’t broken any regulation, how can something go wrong?

The most common question in safety is: how can we prevent injury and harm? The moral assumption in the question is that rightness is defined by the absence of injuries and harm. Apparently rightness is when things don’t go wrong, evidenced by injuries. How different would it be if we understood rightness ethically rather than numerically? How different would it be if moral outcome and rightness was defined socially not individually?

In the Social Psychology of Risk rightness is not defined by the presence or absence of injuries but rather by one’s Ethic of Safety. And if you don’t have an ethic of safety by what criteria do you know ‘when things go right’ and when ‘things go wrong’? By what ethical criteria is judgment being made? One can crusade on a rule, law and regulation and be completely unethical. One can by-pass rules and regulations and be entirely ethical. It just depends on what foundation one accepts/constructs of anthropology, ethical practice and moral agency.

What is right or wrong should not be determined by engineering outcomes or numerical outcomes but rather by human-social-ethical outcomes. If we want to focus on ‘things going right’, then we need an ethic of safety that makes social sense out of rightness. If we are sick of judging wrongness by injury counts then how can we judge rightness by the same paradigm?

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
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.

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