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Our Culture of Caution
Jan 2, 2007, 3:24a - Culture

Last Saturday, Becca, my mom and I took Zoe on a walk in my parent's neighborhood in Santa Monica. I've always hated walking Zoe on a leash - imagine what it would feel like if your parents walked you on a leash when you were little. It seems like a violation of a primal freedom. Of course, most of the time I walk her on a leash because she's prone to run into the street if she sees a cat or squirrel. She doesn't have much fear of cars, so there's some risk to walking her without a leash. But I'm torn: she could live a super-safe life without even the slightest risk of getting hit by a car, or she could live a more exciting, freer life where she gets to decide where to go and how long to linger (within larger limits).

In a quiet residential neighborhood where a car passes only once a minute, I often walk Zoe without a leash. Becca usually becomes upset, and we have a discussion that goes something like this:

Becca: This is dangerous. What if she gets hit by a car?
Me: There aren't any cars around.
Her: But what if there is? We can't risk it.
Me: If a car comes, I'll make sure she doesn't get hit.
Her: What if she bolts across the street cause she sees something?
Me: It could happen, but I think the chances are low.
Her: It's not worthing risking it.
Me: I think it is. How would you feel if you were on a leash?

This simple, common exchange could be chalked up to a difference in risk tolerance, and I believe there is some of that at play. But even if our risk thresholds are different, its not clear to me why that would be. I care about Zoe just as much as Becca, and I've seen first-hand what can happen if a dog gets hit by a car. So why is our tolerance for risk so different?

I believe it's because Becca, like many Americans, has bought in to our Culture of Caution in a way that I haven't. Her consistent abuse of Purell hand sanitizer whenever anything of unknown sanctity is touched is but one of many signs.

Our Culture of Caution has led to a culture of legislation. As of 2007, it is now officially illegal to ride in the trunk of a car, which some teenagers have been doing because recent driver's license laws prevent their friends, who have just gotten their licenses, from driving them. It is also now illegal to install or remodel a pool without also installing either a child alarm or fence. According to the newscaster, pool drowning is the largest cause of death for children under 5.

Every year our Culture of Caution brings new laws, and every year the freedoms of life are eroded ever so slightly. Shouldn't I decide, as a parent, whether to install a fence around my pool? Isn't that my choice - since when did it become the choice of the State?

Of course, this perspective is commonly associated with Libertarianism, and I don't consider myself a Libertarian (at least not yet). But I do empathize with this perspective, and like I said I'm quite torn. I'm torn because of something I call the "Libertarian's Dilemma". If pools are a leading cause of death for young children, wouldn't it be irresponsible not to do something to reduce the risk of drowning? Wouldn't it be negligent of both the parents and by extension the State? But should we always increase social control at the expense of individual freedom?

The real question is, where and how can we draw a line? Should it depend on the impact of the problem? The cost of the solution? The ability for those involved to be able to pay such a cost?

I'm not sure - we currently operate with no unifying framework but with judgements made on an ad-hoc, situational basis. Maybe this is fine, but I'm concerned about it. While increased social control may provide tangible benefits in decreased injury or loss of life, it may have less tangible costs that contribute to a general sense of anxiety and powerlessness in our society.

There is another important issue at stake, concerning the perceived value of life and death. Perhaps we need a greater acceptance of death that goes hand-in-hand with a greater flexibility of life. Of course, logic can never dictate emotional response, and the pain of death felt by the living is usually too strong to be persuaded by this type of thinking.

Another concern I have with a culture of legislation is that it makes nearly everyone a "criminal", which has multiple negative effects. First, it means that anyone can be arrested for nearly anything at any time. This creates a culture of fear, which is not a good way to live. Illegal file-downloading is a prime example of a set of laws that creates criminals out of millions of Americans. Second, a culture of criminalization desensitizes the notion of what it means to be a criminal. This can cause criminal acts that substantially hurt others to not seem as bad. In other words, someone who engages in digital downloading may not feel that real-world stealing is so bad, since they see few negative consequences caused to those from whom they "steal".

The Culture of Caution can also be seen in our pre-nup agreements and our insurance-against-anything services. The thinking goes something like this: If there is something that can be done to reduce a risk and the cost is perceived to be small, it should be done.

I believe that this way of thinking tears ever so persistently at the core binding of successful society: Trust. I've always wondered how many marriages that have pre-nups actually survive - my guess would be that they are more likely to fail. This could just be correlation, but I'm inclined to believe that it is causation.

A Culture of Caution deteriorates Trust, and an untrusting society is not one in which I wish to live. An untrusting society combined with social control erodes individual responsibility and freedom. If we can no longer live as individuals independent of social control, perhaps it's time for a new movement of individualism to be born.

Read comments (3) - Comment

Jon - Jan 2, 2007, 6:01a
The internet is an interesting place for this culture, as well... In the online world, we are trained to download protective programs, be cautious in our footprint, and be skeptical about what we read/see. Yet trust is what forms the most valuable relationships (like, say, with your social network, news site, or, dare I say, search engine). Does this hamper the internet? Does user caution make it a worse place?

The interesting question, and one that goes back to your point, is how can trust be regained. We seem to have lost it as a society - of our leaders and our peers. So can it be brought back, or are we relegated to protecting perceived weaknesses ad hoc because we have no idea about how to create a real 'safe' and trusting environment.

omar - Jan 2, 2007, 11:38p

i wonder what you think of soft paternalism.. i'll grab here from the stanford philosophy encyclopedia for the definition:

"Soft paternalism is the view that the only conditions under which state paternalism is justified is when it is necessary to determine whether the person being interfered with is acting voluntarily and knowledgably. To use Mill's famous example of the person about to walk across a damaged bridge, if we could not communicate the danger (he speaks only Japanese) a soft paternalist would justify forcibly preventing him from crossing the bridge in order to determine whether he knows about its condition. If he knows, and wants to, say, commit suicide he must be allowed to proceed. A hard paternalist says that, at least sometimes, it may be permissible to prevent him from crossing the bridge even if he knows of its condition. We are entitled to prevent voluntary suicide."

now, applying such ideas to dogs is a bit tricky, because i think it's pretty clear that a dog doesn't really understand the dangers inherent in being unleashed. in the dog's case, we need to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of being on a leash at all times while out in the world. i think you may be going a bit far by invoking the culture of caution in the dog scenario.

i actually think that considering individual knowledge is key. for instance, in the "riding in the trunk" scenario, i think those kids have a pretty good understanding of the risk, and i think we may be going a bit too far in legislating against it. at the same time, we must acknowledge that since we live in a society where people are necessarily connected to other people, i think it's the duty of the government to weigh the effects of our actions on others, and i think this duty goes beyond the minimal state that guarantees that you won't be attacked by thugs, which is what is advocated by classical libertarians.

finally, i think we need to measure what's at stake. in many of the examples you've given above, what's at stake is no less than someone's life. that seems like high stakes, and often that's where government should be involved.

btw i think you're throwing around "culture" a bit too much.

nikhil - Jan 4, 2007, 4:47p
the concepts of soft and hard paternalism are interesting. thanks for sharing.

i guess my concern is that almost any action (or lack of action) can be put in terms where someone's life will be at stake. the probability of something bad happening is always non-zero, no matter where you are or what precautions you may take. so the bottom line seems to be what the threshold level should be, in other words, when should the government intervene in some way. For example, if 25% of people who smoke get lung cancer and die 10 years earlier than they otherwise would have, does the government have the right to illegalize cigarettes? What if the percentage was 1%, or 50%? What if they don't die, but those around them increase their risks of lung cancer by 1%?

i guess i'm more of a soft paternalist - if an individual understand the risks that they are taking, let them take it, esp. if a negative outcome primarily affects them. in such a world, government would play a greater role in knowledge disbursement rather than endless legislation.

and in the case of Zoe, since she doesn't understand the risks as a dog, i'm assuming responsibility on her behalf. Becca may disagree with my decision, but it's Becca's unwillingness to take what i perceive to be small risks that is the influence of our culture of caution.

and yes, "culture" was generously bandied about :)

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