Revisiting the Cowardice and Fear that Spawns the Precautionary Principle

Frank Furedi writes and speaks on the vicious problem of the precautionary principle.

By vicious I mean in the Aristotelian sense–pertaining to a vice–in this case cowardice, not a malignant vice, a vice of weakness adn a lack of fortitude. I have always adhered to the idea that fortitude enables all the other virtues.

I put Furedi’s lecture up once before but we must consider the precautionary principle a major factor in modern policy making and public health science and societal attitudes.

This time I just put up the whole things with my comments. You might disagree with my comments, but I hope you see the sense of the Furedi lecture.

I assert that Prof Furedi speaks truth and wisdom:

Dunn notes in parens. You might be put off by some of my negative comments on his examples and some of his biases, but this guy understands the dynamics that create the reign of the precautionary principle in public life. He is articulate and eloquent.

Monday 11 October 2010
Inviting us to bow down before the god of fortune
Today’s deification of fear encourages us to succumb to fate. But we should learn from the Romans and seek to subdue Fortuna.
Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi spoke on fear, fate and freedom at the Philosophy Festival in Modena, Italy, on 18 September 2010.

Who decides our individual fates? How much of our future is influenced by our exercise of free will? Humanity’s destiny has been the subject of controversy since the beginning of history.

Back in ancient times, different gods were endowed with the ability to thwart our ambitions or to bless us with good fortune. The Romans worshipped the goddess Fortuna, giving her great power over human affairs. Nevertheless, they still believed that her influence could be contained and even overcome by men of true virtue. As the saying goes: ‘Fortune favours the brave.’ This belief that the power of fortune could be limited through human effort and will is one of the most important legacies of humanism.

The belief in people’s capacity to exercise their will and shape their future flourished during the Renaissance, creating a world in which people could dream about struggling against the tide of fortune. A new refusal to defer to fate was expressed through affirming the human potential. Later, during the period of Enlightenment, this sensibility developed further, giving rise to a belief that, in certain circumstances, mankind could gain the freedom necessary to influence its future.

In the twenty-first century, however, the optimistic belief in humanity’s ability to subdue the unknown and become the master of its fate has given way to a belief that we are powerless to deal with the perils that confront us.

(Dunn note: more importantly, the polis has been influenced to think they are at the mercy of fate or accident and must look to the state for protection. The individual cannot provide for himself and his family and assure the safety and succor provided by the state—therefore the state must be promoted and the collective must be respected as the answer.)

Today, the problems associated with risk and uncertainty are constantly being amplified and, courtesy of our own imaginations, are turned into existential threats. Consequently, it is rare for unexpected natural events to be treated as just that; rather, they are swiftly dramatised and transformed into a threat to human survival.

The clearest expression of this tendency can be found in the dramatization of weather forecasting. Once upon a time, TV weather forecasts were just those boring moments when you got up to make a snack. But with the invention of concepts like ‘extreme weather’, routine events such as storms, smog or unexpected snowfall have been turned into compelling entertainment. Also these days, a relatively ordinary technical IT problem, such as the so-called Millennium Bug, can be interpreted as a threat of apocalyptic proportions; and officialdom’s reaction to a flu epidemic can look like it was taken from the plotline of a Hollywood disaster movie. Recently, when the World Health Organisation warned that the human species was threatened by swine flu, it became clear that cultural prejudice rather than sober risk assessment influences much of current official thinking.

(Dunn note: Again, the importance and the omnipotence of the state are essential to survival and welfare of the weak and impotent citizen. If the citizen is at the mercy of the hands of fate, the only alternative is an appeal to the state and submission to the states power and capability.)

In recent times, European culture has become confused about the meaning of uncertainty and risk. As a result, it finds it difficult to live with the notion of Fortuna. Contemporary Western cultural attitudes towards uncertainty, chance and risk are far more pessimistic and confused than they were during most of the modern era. Only rarely is uncertainty about something looked upon as an opportunity to take responsibility for our destiny. Invariably, uncertainty is presented as a marker for danger, and change is often regarded with dread.

(Dunn note: for the virtuous and competent, uncertainty creates opportunities, challenges are opportunities or barriers, depending on the attitude of the individual, that is determined by the measure of the individual’s virtue.)

Frequently, worst-case thinking displaces any genuine risk-assessment process. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking – these days known as precautionary thinking – is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and demands that we take action on that basis. For example, earlier this year, the fear that particles in the ash cloud from the volcanic eruption in Iceland could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into the conclusion that they would. It was the fantasy of the worst case, rather than risk assessment, which led to the panicky official ban on air travel.

(Dunn note: pretty simple—consider the positive or the negative, if fear dominates the mental state—precaution is the rule, if virtue as in fortitude, measured effort in the face of risk is the result.)

Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, advocates of worst-case thinking argue that society should stop looking at risk in terms of a balance of probabilities. These critics of probabilistic thinking are calling for a radical break with past practices, on the grounds that today we simply lack the information to calculate probabilities effectively. Their rejection of the practice of calculating probabilities is motivated by a belief that the dangers we face are so overwhelming and catastrophic (Dunn note: FEAR) – the Millennium Bug, international terrorism, swine flu, climate change – that we cannot wait until we have all the information before we calculate their destructive effects. ‘Shut it down!’ is the default response. One of the many regrettable consequences of this outlook is that policies designed to deal with threats are increasingly based on feelings and intuition rather than on evidence or facts.

(Dunn Note: that also is the product of what an individual might consider his level of competence and ability. Those who have no confidence and no experience with success and effort, chose retreat and fear as the default position.)

Worst-case thinking encourages the adoption of fear as one of the dominant principles around which the public, and its government and institutions, should organize their lives. It institutionalises insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness

(Dunn Note: but most of all it is the byproduct of a lack of experience and development of confidence from effort and acceptance of the results of that effort. More than anything, it is the attitude that since there is a chance of failure, best not to try.)

By popularising the belief that worst cases are normal (Dunn note: or unavoidable when one has no confidence or fortitude and determination) , it incites people to feel defenseless and vulnerable in the face of a wide range of threats. In all but name, it is an invitation for us to defer to Fortuna.

(Dunn note: this means that not only are the difficulties and challenges overestimated, but the ability to deal with them is a measure of the lack of confidence, virtue, and fortitude—a self fulfilling prophesy of failure is easy to accomplish or concede.)

Crisis of causality

The tendency to engage with uncertainty through the prism of fear (Dunn note: or the inability to be rationale and analytic in the face of a challenge), and always to anticipate destructive outcomes, can be understood as a crisis of causality (Dunn note: or a crisis of confidence or commitment to being an actor as opposed to a victim or an object.)

Increasingly, policymakers are demanding precaution in relation to various different problems. When events appear to have little meaning, and when society finds it difficult to account for the origins and the possible future trajectory of those events, then it is tempting to rely on caution (Dunn note: or retreat) rather than on reasoning (or engagement and competent confrontation). Human beings have always exercised caution ( and courage if they were capable of it) when dealing with uncertainty. Today, however, caution has become politicised (or assumed as a default position and an easy out) and has been turned into a dominant cultural norm (or a cheap and easy out).

The clearest manifestation of this is the rise of the idea of sustainability. The doctrine of sustainability demands that we don’t take any risks with our future (or assume that whatever we do, it is bad for the sustainability, so it’s best to avoid doing anything and making as little a footprint as possible.). Taking decisive action to promote progress is seen as far more dangerous (or destructive of the precious environment) than simply staying still. That is why, these days, the ideals of development, progress and economic growth enjoy little cultural valuation. In contrast, just to ‘sustain’ a future of more of the same is represented as a worthwhile objective. (Dunn note: the basic assumption being that human action is bad, inaction is good, and we are a cancer on the planet, and the other non human initiated activities or effects are somehow natural and not destructive. Lion’s killing wildebeests is natural, humans killing wildebeests is destructive.)

Today’s precautionary culture answers the age-old question about where fate ends and free will begins by insisting that our fate is to sustain.

(Dunn note: more important it is human fate to avoid effecting nature or the planet.)

In Roman times, and during the Renaissance, it was argued that virtus could overcome the power of Fortuna. The ideals of virtue upheld courage, prudence, intelligence, a dedication to the public good, and a willingness to take risks. Petrarch’s remarkable The Remedies of Both Kinds of Fortune (1366) proposed the very modern and radical idea that mankind had the potential to control his destiny. In the context of the Renaissance, the conviction that people had the power to transform the physical world began to gain ground. In the current climate, however, when Western culture is so apprehensive about dealing with uncertainty, (Dunn note: not true, it is not uncertainty that is our problem is is guilt about our existence and a sense that we are invading a non human perfect natural world because we exercise free will and act in ways that non humans cannot.)

our aspiration to transform, develop and progress has been overwhelmed by the ethos of caution and sustainability. (Actually overwhelmed by our sense of guilt for existing. We think and teach that we are destructive and defile the planet and the universe by our very existence. We seek to become invisible.)

The crisis of causality expresses a profound sense of unease towards people’s capacity to know. This has a significant influence on the way that communities interpret the world around them. Once the authority of knowledge is undermined, people lose confidence in their ability to interpret new events. Without the guidance of knowledge, world events can appear as random and arbitrary acts that are beyond comprehension. This crisis of causality does not simply deprive society of an ability to grasp the chain of events that led to a particular outcome; it also diminishes the ability to find meaning in what sometimes appears as a series of arbitrary events.

Frequently, the dangers faced by humans are represented as problems that we can’t really understand. (Dunn note: again, not true, since we know plenty and our problem is justifying our existence and the effect we have on the world.)

In contrast to the Enlightenment’s conviction that knowledge could eventually solve all problems, the intellectual temper today tends to focus on the impossibility of knowing. (or the fact that we have no right to be here at all.)

This pessimistic view of our capacity to understand (or our moral right to be here) has important implications for how society views its future. If the impact of our actions on the future is not knowable, then our anxieties towards change become amplified. The skepticism about our ability to anticipate outcomes is often based on the idea that we simply don’t have the time to catch up with the fast and far-reaching consequences of modern technological development. Many experts claim that since technological innovations have such rapid consequences, there is simply no time to understand their likely effects. (Dunn note: merely a cheap excuse for the fact that uncertainty creates a chance to act rightly or wrongly and, by definition, humans act wrongly for the planet, since they act for their own interests and nature has no motives.)

In a roundabout way, the devaluation of knowledge expresses a diminishing of belief in the power and influence of human subjectivity.

(Dunn note: not true, humans don’t devalue knowledge as they are convinced by culture and dogma to think that human effort and knowledge are always negative and always produce a blight on the planet.)

That is why it is now commonplace to hear the Enlightenment project described as naive, or to see scientists castigated for ‘playing God’. The idea of diminished subjectivity, as communicated through the precautionary culture, inexorably leads to a reconciliation with – if not a deference to – fate. (Dumb nature is now the measure of wisdom, human action and effort are evil and mendacious and destroy the perfection of Gaia and nature.)

One of the most important ways in which today’s sense of diminished subjectivity is experienced is through the feeling that individuals are being manipulated and influenced by hidden powerful forces. Not just spindoctors, subliminal advertising and the media, but also powers that have no name. That is why we frequently attribute unexplained physical and psychological symptoms to unspecific forces, such as the food we eat, the water we drink, an extending variety of pollutants and substances transmitted by new technologies and other invisible processes.

(Yes, the ignorant attempt to find mythologies to explain their sense of powerlessness.)

The American academic, Timothy Melley, has characterised this response as agency panic. ‘Agency panic is intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the conviction that one’s actions are being controlled by someone else or that one has been “constructed” by powerful, external agents’, writes Melley. (When people lose the sense of control and the ability to control, they rationalize. Melley ignores the obvious, ignorance, cowardice require something to fill the void and excuse the lack of virtue and competent action—why not some unknown force or consipiracy?)

The perception that one’s behaviour and action are controlled by external agents is symptomatic of a heightened sense of fatalism, which springs from today’s sense of diminished subjectivity.

(Why do intelletuals talk in stupid terms? What is diminished subjectivity—it is not a rationally explicable phrase. Does he mean diminished sense of control of ones life—sure, subjectivity means nothing.)

The feeling of being subject to manipulation and external control – the very stuff of conspiracy theory – is consistent with the perception of being vulnerable or ‘at risk’. As Melley observes, this reaction ‘stems largely from a sense of diminished human agency, a feeling that individuals cannot effect meaningful social action and, in extreme cases, may not be able to control their own behaviour’.

The re-emergence of pre-modern anxieties about hidden forces is testimony to the weakening of the humanist sensibility that emerged as part of the Enlightenment. The loss of a sense of human agency has not only undermined the public’s engagement with politics – it has also altered the way in which people make sense of the world around them. The crisis of causality means that the most important events are now seen as being shaped and determined by a hidden agenda. We seem to be living in a shadowy world akin to The Matrix movies, where the issue at stake is the reality that we inhabit and who is being manipulated by whom.

(Movies are plays and make believe, and add nothing to this discussion, but seem to be something intellectuals like to do, to show they are regular people who attend movies. Idiots can attend movies.)

In previous times, that kind of attitude was mainly held by right-wing (so goofy conspiracy theories are right wing?) populist (also right wing or maybe lefty wing?) movements, which saw the hand of a Jewish or a Masonic or a Communist conspiracy behind all major world events. Today, conspiracy theory has gone mainstream, (no, ignorance and fear and lack of virtue have become more widespread)
and many of its most vociferous promoters can be found in radical protest movements and amongst the cultural left. Increasingly, important events are viewed as the products of a cover-up, as the search for the ‘hidden hand’ manipulating a particular story comes to dominate public life. Conspiracy theory constructs worlds where everything important is manipulated behind our backs and where we simply do not know who is responsible for our predicament. In such circumstances, we have no choice but to defer to our fate.

(he repeats himself to no advantage)

It is through conspiracy theories that Fortuna reappears – but it does so in a form that is far more degraded than in Roman times. To their credit, the Romans were able to counterpose virtus to Fortuna. In a precautionary culture, however, fortune favours the risk-averse, not the brave.

(Not true if favour means something, since favour means creating an advantage—precautionary conduct does not favour anyone, it is cowardice in the face of uncertainty or the acquiescence to fear as opposed to action and an effort to be effective and achieve success.)

The current deification of fear instructs us to bow to fate. In such circumstances, there is not much room left for freedom or the exercise of free will. Yet if we have to defer to fate, how can we be held to account? In the absence of the freedom to influence the future, how can there be human responsibility? (indeed, virtue is its own reward, mr. speaker)

One of the principal accomplishments of the precautionary culture has been to normalize irresponsibility (or cowardice and inaction with a dash of decadence as opposed to virtue and maturity and responsibility). We should reject this perspective, in favour of a mighty dose of humanist courage. (Yes, Yes, Yes.)

The above is a speech given at the Philosophy Festival in Modena, Italy, on 18 September 2010. An edited version was published in the Australian on 9 October 2010.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

reprinted from:

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2 responses to “Revisiting the Cowardice and Fear that Spawns the Precautionary Principle

  1. A few years ago, an email was sent out to everyone at my workplace. The subject line was worded very badly: “Which of your co-workers do you want to have get hurt today?” I posted it on my door, and the best remark penciled in at the bottom was “I have a list”.

  2. the precautionary principle is now and always was a cowardly act as noted in the article. What is particularly shocking and noteworthy is the lack of any opportunity cost evaluations whenever the EEyores and Chicken Littles push for laws and regulations to ‘protect’ them from something. More often that not their supposed protective law or regulation creates more damage than the original problem.

    Generally it is the sheeple being driven by activists that bleat for protectionist laws and an overall Nanny State to protect them. The activists generally are driven by their desire for power over others as much as any true belief in a clear and present danger.

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