Risk frames the great moral conflict of the age. The capacity to take risks is intrinsic to moral adulthood: I alone am responsible for the path of my life. I may bring others – family, friends, doctors, investment advisors – into the circle of my choice-making, but even that is a decision for which I am responsible. My life is thus high drama, at least for me. If I gamble with my money, if I jump off a bridge, I alone must face the consequences.
Because individuals vary wildly in their tolerance of risk, its definition becomes problematic. I once knew a young man who loved rock climbing. He was tall and handsome, with a brilliant future ahead of him, but he tumbled to his death from a cliff wall. I thought then – still think today – that rock climbing is a frivolous risk of life. I thought the young man died pointlessly.
Should the government ban rock climbing? This type of logic leads to perplexing places. Many more people die in car accidents than rock climbing, for example. Should the government ban cars? An even larger number die of hospital-induced infections. Should the government ban hospitals?
My daughter was taught in her health class that obesity, because of its cost, is a burden “on the community.” Should the FDA assign a food police to restaurants, to throw me in prison if I eat too much?
Maybe the problem of risk is qualitative rather than statistical – an attitude of criminal recklessness, a disregard for life. But who can judge for another? I wouldn’t presume, not even for the young rock climber. He chose his fate. Who am I to do it for him?
Every attempt to move beyond common sense and tradition in the definition of risk will get lost in a labyrinth of arbitrary decisions. Any attempt to erect an abstract standard for acceptable risk will quickly sink to the lowest common denominator of elitism, conservatism, and bureaucratic immobility.
We know this because such a standard already exists: the “Precautionary Principle,” first perpetrated by the 1992 Earth Summit but now sanctified as EU law, adopted by the UN Convention on Climate Change and our own EPA, and written into the municipal codes of American cities like San Francisco and Portland.
The original version of the Precautionary Principle proclaimed that a “lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” This sounds more like the Ignorance Is Bliss Principle, and resembles an infamous Vietnam-era maxim: when in doubt, take it out.
Here’s a newer version: “Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be prohibited unless the proponent of the activity shows that it presents no appreciable risk of harm.” On this account, rock climbing and cars should both be banned – as indeed should every conceivable human activity.
I first read about the Precautionary Principle in Kevin Kelly’s brilliantly original What Technology Wants. Allow me a moment of astonishment that I had not heard of it before. Was it ever debated in the full hearing of the public? Did the bureaucrats in the UN and EPA, or the politicians of the EU and San Francisco, ever say out in the open, “This is the instrument of our power – this is how moral adults deal with risk, on your behalf”?
The Precautionary Principle isn’t a “standard” at all, since only a few insiders know of its existence. It’s a weapon of control, deployed by elites to obliterate the democratic process and impose their will on the restless rabble.
Whoever defines risk using the Principle commands the power of life and death. Because excessive spraying of DDT harmed some animals, the US government banned its use and led a campaign to globalize the ban. Today two million people die of malaria worldwide – a much higher incidence than in the 1950’s, when DDT was available.
Kelly’s abiding interest is in technology and the pace of innovation. The practical effect of the Precautionary Principle, he notes, would be to freeze technology at the present moment: “Safety trumps innovation.” (Had the Principle been applied since the beginning of time, we would still be trilobites, scuttling quietly along the ocean floor.) Kelly continues:
The safest thing to do is to perfect what works and never try anything that could fail, because failure is inherently unsafe. An innovative medical procedure will not be as safe as the proven standard. Innovation is not prudent. Yet because precaution privileges only safety, it not only diminishes other values but actually reduces safety.
There are risks in avoiding risk that the precautionary philosophy has not dreamed of. To anyone interested in such “substitute risks,” I recommend spending some time with Kelly’s fascinating book.
My concern here is with the moral effect of the Precautionary Principle, which is to establish a class of definers and deciders, of moral adults who absorb all responsibility for making choices on behalf of an infantilized population. Members of this class, I imagine, will meander down the labyrinth of arbitrary opinions. For some reason, or no reason, they will allow some innovations and disallow many more.
The details are unimportant. What matters isn’t whether this or that particular activity is judged too risky, but the impaling in the heart of liberal democracy of a new Aristocratic Principle: Who defines risk, commands all.