Thursday, September 28, 2006


Colin Farrelly has an interesting post on what we should do about risk management. (Incidentally, I still hope to meet him, and maybe tomorrow's CSSJ rights conference will be my chance)

I bring it up, because it reminded me of something said by Cecile Fabre. The very last line of the final chapter to her latest book (which was recently plugged over at CT, and which I'm reviewing) says:

"[W]e cannot and will not ever be able to live in a risk-free society, particularly one free of the emotional risk of parenthood. Nor, in fact, should we aspire to do so"

Whose Body is it Anyway? p.218

Farrelly's post nicely bring out the 'damned if you do, damned if you don't dilemma of a government simultaneously charged with running an overbearing nanny state (where flower baskets are reputedly banned because of risk of injury) and with not doing enough to protect their citizens from risks (particularly terrorism and the latest SARS/bird flu/MRSA/whatever epidemic)

He suggests four criteria that should govern responsible risk-management:

1. How probable is the risk of harm? The greater the probability of harm (all else being equal) the greater the case for intervention.
2. How severe and pervasive is the disadvantage in question? The greater the harm (all else being equal) the greater the case for intervention.
3. What is the likelihood that intervention will have the desirable effect (i.e. prevent or reduce the risk of harm)? The greater the likelihood that intervention will make a difference (all else being equal) the greater the case for intervention.
4. What is the cost of intervention? The cheaper the cost of intervention (all else being equal) the greater the case for intervention.

All seem sensible enough, and I wouldn't argue with any, but I would like to add one.

In so far as the focus is on government intervention to manage/reduce risks (and it isn't clear this is the exclusive focus of Farrelly's post), I think another important consideration is the control individuals have over their exposure to risk.

Risks of extreme sports, say, are ones that individuals need not expose themselves to. If they choose to, they bear the costs (a standard luck egalitarian claim - in deference to Anderson, it can be supplemented by a minimal safety net). Interference in one's self-regarding activity smacks of paternalism, which is why J. S. Mill thought no one should be forbidden from doing anything on the grounds it was harmful to them.

There are other risks that individuals can't do much about - including say the risk of nuclear reactor meltdowns or pollution more generally. Many of these risks are externalities or 'public bads'. Here it seems the government can play a co-ordinating role, ensuring we are not exposed to more risks than we would rationally want (though in a democracy this may be some 'average risk' - some may prefer more or less of course)

Then there are the more problematic middle cases - e.g. smoking. In so far as the main risk-bearer is the smoker, they choose whether or not to accept the risk. But what about those around them? Again, smokers impose health risks on others. Perhaps if we simply avoided smokers (as Milan suggests, didn't have sex with them), the problem would be mitigated. But, to what extent should we have to go to avoid these risks? Not entering pubs?

I think it's obvious that the extent to which individuals can, if they wish, freely avoid risks on their own (by taking adequate precautions) should have a significant bearing on government interference. It's a position that suggests danger signs may be more appropriate than fences. (Though I am, of course, talking about in a world of free and equal rational citizens; obviously with children and even animals to consider, there's a case for fences, even though the greater protection from danger means greater reduction in liberty)

Of course, part of my original point is that we can't avoid all risk. Even when the smoking ban comes in, I could get run over on my way to the pub (or, more likely, back from). But, on the other hand, sat at home I could be caught in a fire, a kitchen accident, etc, etc.

Back to Fabre - she makes the (quite obvious, I'd have thought) point that, in order to rescue someone in trouble, you can be required to risk a cost you are not required to pay. For example, I am not required to die to save a drowning swimmer, but I can be required to jump in and help them when there is a small chance I will be killed in the process. She suggests:

"[A] reasonable risk, as incurred in the course of a rescue, is one no greater than the risks most individuals routinely incur, and impose on others, in their everyday life, when driving, cycling, and so on."

Whose Body is it Anyway? p.46

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