Weighing the Risks

How much risk can you put me in?

By: Jay Shapiro, Writer, Film Director, Podcast Host

Figuring out where liberty begins and ends, especially during this time of crisis, is on many people’s minds. We value our freedom, which includes our individual right to take risks in our lives. But what happens when these risks have intended or unintended consequences for others? The jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes captures this tension in the following analogy:

“The liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Risks are all around us . . .

Life entails risks at every moment. Risks are inescapable. If you step outside your door, you are taking a very small risk of getting hit by lightning or stepping in dog poo. But staying inside also has risks like setting a kitchen fire or tripping over a toy. 

And what about emotional risks? These kinds of risks are also inescapable! If you finally build up the courage to ask that girl out for a date, you risk the pain of rejection if she says “no.” But if you don’t ask her, you risk loneliness and missing out on a good relationship. 

Life has risks whether we stand still or charge ahead. But we shouldn’t let the chance of risks materializing rule our lives or prevent us from having fun and taking risks from time to time. And we can never hope to eliminate risk entirely. There will always be mistakes made, incomplete knowledge, and unforeseen dangers.

Are some risks unnecessary?

If you go bungee jumping without carefully checking the cable, you are taking a risk. If you buzz saw a piece of wood without safety goggles, you are taking a risk. And if you step too close to someone who is swinging their fist, you also are taking a risk of a bloody nose.

All of the above risks are easy to understand and they all share similar characteristics. They all entail taking on a risk which puts yourself in danger. If the bungee fails or the saw slips, you are the one who suffers the consequences. But as Holmes’s quote points out, you have the liberty to knowingly take on risks which put only yourself in danger. Do you have the liberty to put other people at risk? 

If you were told that the safety of the bungee cord was checked out by the company but they really skipped that step, they put you at (additional) risk. This could undermine the trust that you put in the company to ensure your safety.

Direct versus Indirect Risks

Another way to describe this particular kind of risk is called “indirect risk.” These are actions that someone takes which indirectly put others at risk to which they did not consent. In reality we are almost always in a situation of indirect risk even when we think it is only us who could get hurt. Because even if you don’t check the safety of the bungee cord carefully and end up seriously injured, you probably have relationships with people who love you and will be devastated to see you in pain. You are putting them in a kind of indirect risk as well.

Our behavior in the time of a pandemic exposes the challenge of understanding the idea of both direct and indirect risk.

We now find ourselves asking questions which only a few months ago would have seemed crazy.

“Is it ethical to throw a birthday party at the park and invite 30 people?”

The people at the party themselves may be young and healthy. They may even understand the risks of serious illness and even death if they get sick with COVID-19. They may be okay with taking on those risks. They may all agree to sign a waiver saying they understand the danger and will only blame themselves if they get sick. They could even calculate that it’s statistically less risky for them than being in the backseat of a car on the highway. They might even be right about those assessments!

But the challenge with a pandemic of this nature is that the party goers may spread the coronavirus amongst themselves without knowing it and then head off in different directions and eventually infect vulnerable persons who did not consent to taking on that risk. Some of those infected may even die. So, the party goers were participating in spreading indirect risk. In Holmes’s analogy, their swinging fists hit innocent noses, even if they couldn’t see them.

This problem of indirect risk is not a new ethical problem at all. Think of another example of holding an event at your school where you intend to invite a very popular political speaker who holds controversial fiery views. Let’s pretend that you are the event organizer. Some students express worry that the ideas expressed on stage could lead some in the audience to feel triggered and commit violence. And let’s say that this actually ends up happening. A person after attending your event goes and hurts someone in the hallways of the school . Did you, as the event organizer, put the person in the hallway in danger and cause them harm by putting them in indirect risk?

The answer to that question is yes to some degree. If the event had not happened, this person likely would not have been hurt. So you may ask yourself:

  • Does that mean you should not have invited that speaker or held the event?
  • Did the person who was in the hallway know that there was a likelihood of something bad happening to them, given the nature of your event?

Keep in mind, though, that we will never eliminate all risk. A world without any risk is not any kind of world at all. We have more considerations to ponder.

The kinds of questions we must ask ourselves may sound like:

  • “Was it worth it?”
  • “Was the event necessary?”
  • “Did the event do more good than harm?”
  • “Am I responsible for what happened?”

In other words, do the benefits of open debate, a culture of open discourse, and the right to hear different views in that school make the small indirect risk permissible? These are very hard questions to answer. There is no one definitive way to assess the morality of that situation. These kinds of questions are what moral philosophy is all about.

Thinking about Risk during a Pandemic

When we think about behavior in this pandemic, we are forced to grapple with the tricky ethics of indirect risk. The risks of a pandemic disease to our precious lives and meaningful economic livelihoods are obviously very serious. But there is another important difference with the risks of certain behaviors in this pandemic from the speaker at the school event as well. In our current situation, the probabilities of the COVID-19 indirect risks are much easier to calculate. We can use data from similar cases in other countries or past experiences to measure with a high degree of accuracy that the risks of throwing a birthday party in the park will materialize into real harm by causing serious illness or worse to several people who did not attend or even know about the party in the park. This would qualify the party as fitting the criteria for an indirect risk, This alone does not fully answer our ethical “Is the risk worth it and for whom?” question. But for many it presents a strong case. 

Thinking about risk can sound scary but we must learn to talk about and live with risk in order to enjoy life. That girl you’re interested in might say yes to the date only if you risk hearing “no”. You might make the basketball team only if you risk not making it. You might get into your top college choice only if you risk being rejected.

Usually we talk about “taking risks” as participating in things that could backfire and hurt us. Holmes’s analogy reminds us that, from a certain ethical lens, we all have the liberty to take those risks as long as we are the only ones who will suffer the consequences. In the tricky situation of this pandemic, that is not the case.

Author Biography: Jay Shapiro is the host of Dilemma, a philosophy podcast. He is a writer and director of films such as Islam & the Future of Tolerance and Opposite Field. More of his writing and media work can be viewed here.