Value Avoidance

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Frank Furedi, whom I have mentioned here before in connection with Europe's absurd, unnecessary response to the Icelandic volcano eruption (But also see this.), takes up a topic closely related to the precautionary principle: risk avoidance. He does not explicitly put the issue this way, but it might actually be more accurate to say that he is speaking both of risk avoidance as an intrincicist ethical standard, and as a ritual of a subjectivist ethics. He takes the Gulf oil spill as his point of departure.

Fascinatingly, Furedi notices that, as applied to industry, this elevation of risk avoidance to a standard for judging action/putting on the appearance of risk avoidance results in the production of what he calls "fantasy documents" on policy -- including responses to emergencies -- that provide no real-world guidance. These documents, he holds, are a manifestation of a more widespread cultural phenomenon.

There is now a widespread culture of deception -- often self-deception -- in the West's confused relationship with risk, and it is widely codified and institutionalised throughout society. As I have argued before, risk is no longer regarded as an opportunity but as a hazard to be avoided. As a result, risk-taking is now culturally stigmatised. People who take risks are frequently denounced for being, by definition, irresponsible. Parents who let their children roam in the outdoors are told off for "taking a risk with your child." Scientists and businesses engaged in experimentation or technological innovation are often treated as pariahs for "putting communities at risk." In contrast, risk aversion, the act of avoiding risk, is increasingly held up as a positive value. [minor format edits]
This is a profound point, and probably more so than Furedi realizes.

As living beings, we face an alternative: perform certain actions in the pursuit of the values we need to live -- or die (or, at least, fail to flourish). As Furedi and others have noted in the past, there is a vast difference between worst-case thinking and rational risk assessment, and that difference is best appreciated when considering the relationship between values and actions noted above in light of the concept of risk.

Consider the dictionary definition of risk: "exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance." Consider further the fact that every possible action one can take involves risk, even if only of the waste of time that could be better spent doing something else. Worst-case thinking, as Furedi has noted, "is based on an act of [imagining] the worst-case scenario and then tak[ing] action on that basis."

Furedi is right, but is still not quite out of the woods. Why? Because those who see risk as intrinsically bad are smuggling in advocacy of a course of action whose risk is assumed to be practically zero.

To take a simple example, suppose I need to shop for dinner tonight. The grocer is across the street. I could get hit by a car on the way, so I decide to minimize that risk by staying home. Left out of that equation are many, many things, including: the risk of starvation if I maintain such a zero tolerance policy for the risk of car-pedestrian accidents, the risk of my home burning to the ground if I stay there and fall asleep, and the risk that, if I order pizza instead, the deliveryman may really be waiting for a chance to kill me in a home invasion. Some of these risks are practically nil, but they are all risks, and must be weighed rationally. Such a weighing says, "Cross the street and buy the groceries." This is because the risks of not doing so outweigh the risks of doing so. Put positively, I will gain the greatest possible value for that period of time by picking up what I need for dinner.

The pursuit of values, and indeed life itself, entail risk. To avoid all risk is impossible, and to fail to weigh risks rationally will diminish or even end one's life.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

Gus, there's a difference between stating that you do something to gain a greater value and saying that you do it as the lowest-risk alternative, and you kind of confuse the two with your example even though this probably wasn't your intent.

I think another common characteristic of this kind of thinking is that people see risks/problems/obstacles as something to be AVOIDED as opposed to something to be DEALT WITH. I prefer to think of problems as something I deal with rather than avoid. Some things you can *only* deal with via prevention (AIDS, for instance). Some things are best to deal with via prevention because that's the lowest-cost solution (health insurance, for instance). And some things you just deal with as they come up because THAT is the lowest-cost solution.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[T]here's a difference between stating that you do something to gain a greater value and saying that you do it as the lowest-risk alternative..."

That's an excellent point.

When considering a course of action, both risks and potential values need to be weighed. What I focused on in this post was the fact that today's common fixation on risk involves a certain amount of blindness to the risk of failing to achieve values.

But, as you indicate, what I needed to be more explicit about was the fact that some risks may not be tied to the pursuit of values (or even to anything one does) at all. (e.g., various "acts of god," like tornado strikes)

Thanks for raising that issue.

Jennifer Snow said...

I think that the concept of insurance pretty much demonstrates the proper approach to risk: treating risk as a *part* of the cost of any activity, so that a cost/benefit analysis is basically identical to the risk/reward analysis. This makes it easy to take into account losses like opportunity costs that so many people fail to take into account when making a risk/reward calculation.

Gus Van Horn said...

I think you're probably right, although extensive state meddling in the economy muddies the issue in various ways -- by appearing to insulate people from risks they might ordinarily think about (e.g., bank deposit "insurance") or by forcing people to assume the consequences of risks that properly belong to those others who take the risks (e.g., via socialized medicine, smoking becomes a "public health" issue).

A general result may well be that people aren't in the habit of considering risk properly, and so feel unconfident about handling it.