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A normative account of risk Ahmad, Rana Amber


Risks, even though familiar, are in fact more complicated than might first seem. To call something a risk is to describe potentially harmful events in the world. However, sometimes we mean to do more than merely describe the chance of harm occurring. To call something a risk is to also mean that some action ought to be taken to avoid it. By providing reasons for action, risk can also be a source of normative force. There are therefore two senses of risk, the descriptive and the prescriptive, yet it is often the case that only the descriptive sense is recognized. Many technical views, such as those of risk analysts or scientists assume that risks are objective matters of fact, however it is assumed that what counts as harmful includes a limited range of events such as illness, injury or death. Criticisms from other disciplines such as the social sciences and psychology have challenged the narrowly construed technical views and argued that in fact, it is difficult to distinguish what is harmful, tolerable or desirable. Incorporating these concerns I argue that a more encompassing definition of risk is the chance of some harm occurring, where harm is understood to be whatever negatively affects something of value to someone. This thesis will provide an account of normative risk by first placing it in historical context to explain how this definition of risk emerges. I will then provide an argument against the idea that risk is an objective matter of fact, and thus an ontological categorization, in favour of the view that it is subjective harm is a matter of evaluation. Following this, I then propose that risk is weakly normative in a similar way to morality. Finally I argue that when risk is understood as what might negatively affect something of value, and since a single situation might involve a threat to different values at the same time, it might be the case that different actions are prescribed.

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