Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A philosophy of danger

The post-war years in the Western world have featured a general drive to reduce the incidence of accidental injuries and deaths in society. This drive falls under the notorious aegis of Health and Safety.

There are some, however, who have resisted, and continue to resist this drive towards ever higher levels of safety. Those who work within the Health and Safety industry, (the true acolytes, if you like), believe that such people simply haven't thought things through properly. Consequently, they think that a neglect of safety can be remedied by greater Health and Safety education. In particular, the Health and Safety people believe that the deviants can be reformed by showing them the suffering experienced by people who have been involved in nasty accidents, or the grief of those left behind by the deceased.

There is, however, a logical flaw behind this Health and Safety evangelicanism: It is consistent to appreciate that accidental injuries and deaths are bad things, which we don't want to happen, and which we regret, or feel remorse towards when they do occur, without entailing that laws and regulations should be introduced to reduce the incidence of such injuries and deaths.

The Health and Safety community make the following inference:

Accidental injuries and deaths are bad things, therefore they shouldn't be permitted to happen.

Whilst the premise of this inference is a negative evaluative statement, the conclusion is a proscriptive statement. The Health and Safety community implicitly rely, therefore, upon the following assumption:

A negative value judgement entails proscription.

Or, in more colloquial terms:

Bad things shouldn't be permitted to happen.

Can this assumption be justified? As a general proposition, I'd argue that it cannot, that it leads to contradiction for the following reason:

Some bad things are a necessary by-product of things which are, on the whole, good.

If some bad things are a necessary by-product of good things, then stopping those bad things requires stopping the good things, and if stopping a good thing is considered to be a bad thing, it follows that stopping a bad thing requires one to do a bad thing, contradicting the initial assumption that bad things shouldn't be permitted to happen.

So the general proposition doesn't work, and one could certainly argue that it is a good thing for the people in a society to encounter some degree of danger, risk and fear in their lives. Successfully negotiating danger and risk, and conquering fear, is a necessary part of healthy human development; it helps us to appreciate being alive. The inevitable by-product, however, is that some people will get injured, or even killed, in accidents.

Whilst the general proposition doesn't work then, how should danger and risk be handled on a case-by-case basis? This is where Health and Safety wins, because one can only compare the intense suffering and grief that results from each type of accident to the negligible damage caused to society as a whole by reducing the frequency of the circumstances which sometimes lead to those accidents. For this reason, one can't argue against Health and Safety on a case-by-case basis. The cumulative, long-term effect, however, is to produce a neurotic, excessively risk-averse society.


Toast said...

Wow, dude, that's the most abstruse way of saying "how you gonna keep 'em on the farm once they've seen the city" I ever heard. Do you do requests? How about your special rendition of "a fool and his money are soon parted." Would you do that for me? Please?

Gordon McCabe said...

Keanu! Way to go, dude!