Summary of Safety, Risk Acceptability and Morality

Previous attempts to define safety have failed to address the subjectivity introduced into by such definitions. Macpherson reckons that their attempts have failed because both Lawrence and his successors define safety in terms of the notion of risk acceptability (378). It then follows that for any definition of safety to be plausible it must seek to define safety in other terms other than risk acceptability.  This is what Macpherson sets out to do.

Attempting to define safety in terms of risk acceptability, however attractive the option, is ultimately an effort in futility. In most cases it would appear that regardless of the extent to which something is deemed as unsafe, there are always people who will consider the risks and judge them as acceptable. Take stunt riders for instance. They engage in activities that most of us would deem as being unsafe and risky, yet they appear to willfully accept some degree of risk. Macpherson attributes this to the fact that people have different standards of risk acceptability i.e. we judge risk differently (381).

While safety is objective, risk acceptability is subjective. What is unsafe to one person should in effect be unsafe for another but the same cannot be said of risk acceptability. Macpherson asserts that this is because risk acceptability considers and takes into account the potential benefits to be accrued from taking the risk and in contrast safety does not (381). The subjectivity stems from the fact that what is beneficial to one person may not be perceived as such by another.

The concept of safety can take two forms. We deem something to be unsafe if there is a probability that it will cause harm or there is the chance of harm being caused to it. For simplicit, Macpherson terms the two categories as unsafe qua cause and unsafe qua recipient respectively (382). The two terms need to be defined so as to get a wholesome view of what it really means for something to be termed as unsafe.

Several conditions must be fulfilled to warrant something to be termed as safe or unsafe qua recipient. Macpherson articulates that the object must have considerable value, there must be a significant probability of loss occurring and there must be a set of circumstances that could bring about a loss in value (382-383). Similarly several conditions must be met for something to be termed as unsafe qua cause. Top of the list is that there must be what Macpherson terms as an interaction context (384). This details that to be safe or unsafe qua cause is dependent on the identity of the person interacting and the nature of that interaction. Something can be safe for somebody to use in one way but the same object can prove to be unsafe if put to another use. The other condition is that for an object to be termed as unsafe qua cause, the loss must not have been intended in any relevant way (384-385). This last condition precludes objects that would naturally not cause harm but are used intentionally in a way that causes harm from being termed as unsafe qua cause.

Macpherson is quick to point out that subjectivity may still creep into his definition of safety (385-387). The use of the term probability in his definition may be interpreted to mean degrees of belief. As he reckons, this may introduce subjectivity back to the definition since different people have different degrees of belief. This can however be factored into the definition of unsafe qua cause by stating that the probability should be based on the opinion of somebody who has all the necessary information about the object. Subjectivity may also be introduced by the concept of value. This is because the very nature by which people attach importance to things is a highly subjective matter.

Macpherson is in concurrence with the idea that epistemic certainty affects peoples judgments on what is safe or unsafe (387-388). Epistemic certainty coupled with what an individual knows to be true helps to question the reliability of different knowledge claims and decide what to base judgment on.

The concepts of risk acceptability and safety correspond with the consequentialists viewpoints and the deontological viewpoints respectively. The deontological viewpoint, just like the safety concept works on absolutes, with the nature of the action being the only determinant as to whether something is morally right or not. In contrast, the consequentialists viewpoint much like the notion of risk acceptability, considers the benefits to be gained from any decision. Macpherson notes that this comparison underscores the need to define safety and risk acceptability as distinct terms (390). Only then will the two viewpoints get a base for their arguments.

From the course work, a contrast can be drawn between the concepts safety and cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is of the belief that x is right if a majority of people in a certain culture believe that it is right. From the foregoing discussion, safety is associated with objectivity. This implies that for something to be deemed as being safe, then a majority of people must consider it as such and not a selected few. In contrast the concept of risk acceptability can be compared to subjectivism theory. This is true because the very concept of risk acceptability is highly subjective and it depends on the person taking the risk.

Macpherson states that consequentialists base their moral decisions on the benefits to be accrued from undertaking a certain activity. This is in concurrence with what consequential ethics, discussed in the coursework deem to be permissible or impermissible. Consequentialists base their judgments on consequences i.e. if the consequences are good then the activity is considered ethical. This introduces the element of subjectivity because what may be considered beneficial good by one person may not be seen as such by another. It therefore becomes difficult to distinguish between subjectivism and consequentialism.

From the coursework deontological ethics considers something to be ethical if it fulfills a duty. Macpherson agrees with this notion when he asserts that the deontological viewpoint is objective. This implies that if an activity meets a certain criteria then it is considered as moral. Macpherson therefore agrees with deontological ethics.


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