Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moral risk taking

How risk averse are you? Investment advisors routinely query clients about this. A direct correlation often exists between risk and return: the greater the risk, the greater the potential return (or loss). People have different risk tolerances, varying from an extreme of craving, perhaps even needing, risk to the opposite extreme of wanting, perhaps needing, to avoid risk. Entrepreneurs and gamblers tend to have a high tolerance for risk; people who choose a career because it offers good job security tend to have a low tolerance for risk.

After 9/11, political leaders in the U.S. decided that the American public, as a whole, had a low tolerance for risk when flying. They therefore established the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and shaped its operations to create the illusion that flying was risk free. Anyone with a fear of flying knows that air travel is never risk free.

The TSA has certainly not made flying risk free. Kip Hawley, a former administrator of the TSA, recently identified five fixes for what he believes is a broken agency:

1.    No more banned items

2.    Allow all liquids

3.    Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable

4.    Eliminate baggage fees

5.    Randomize security

Hawley’s basic premise is that eliminating risk is impossible. Instead, the TSA should be in the risk management business, emphasizing avoiding catastrophic incidents. He makes a point that I have made previously: passengers and flight crews today would prevent another World Trade Center type incident by taking action, as happened on Flight 93. (Ethical Musings: The al Qaeda threat; Kip Hawley, Why Airport Security Is Broken—And How to Fix It -, Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2012)

Life is inherently risky.

Humans wisely avoid some risks, especially risks in which reasonably expected costs far exceeds reasonably expected gains. In the city where I live, a spate of pedestrians has died jaywalking across a major, eleven-lane thoroughfare. The most recent fatality was a young man unwilling to walk an extra forty feet to an intersection who stepped out into oncoming traffic. The police did not even cite the unfortunate driver who hit the man, finding the driver had no culpability for the accident. The driver will have to live with the memories of what happened.

With equal sagacity, humans ignore some risks, especially risks in which reasonably expected gains dwarf reasonably expected costs. I do not worry about the roof of my house collapsing, a wiring short causing an electrical fire, or my car exploding when I turn it on. These are all possibilities, but so unlikely that spending time thinking about them would be utterly pointless.

Similarly, there are risks I can do little or nothing to mitigate. Beyond adopting a healthy lifestyle (which is important), I can do little to reduce the likelihood of getting cancer. Investing additional thought, effort, or energy in attempting to mitigate my cancer risk is futile. The cause of many cancers is unknown; my genes are mine, i.e., I can do nothing to get rid of any bad genes that I have.

A rationale approach to risk, therefore, consists of identifying risks with potentially significant costs/rewards and factors that I can manage to better shit the odds of a favorable outcome in my favor. Adopting a healthy lifestyle to reduce the chances of getting cancer exemplifies this approach. Many cancers entail high emotional and treatment costs; some cancers have a high fatality rate. A good diet, not using tobacco, consuming alcohol in moderation, having recommended physical screenings, maintaining a reasonable weight, etc. – all the components of a healthy lifestyle – improve the odds against my getting cancer (health and life are high value rewards in my estimation) and therefore constitute sensible risk management.

Morally, risk factors also exist. Known moral risk factors include excessive alcohol consumption, illegal drug use, too much stress, lack of sleep, isolation, and the wrong type of peer influence. In 2011, the U.S. Navy relieved twenty-two commanding officers (COs). In 2012, the U.S. Navy has already relieved six COs, ranging in rank from Lieutenant Commander to Rear Admiral. The Navy carefully screens COs, who must successfully complete training and a series of preliminary assignments before assuming command. Relief for cause occurs in the preponderance of cases because the individual succumbed to moral temptation, e.g., abusing subordinates or personal misconduct. Being a CO is a high stress, lonely position that entails unrelenting responsibility and frequent long hours in an organization with widespread alcohol abuse. The CO relieved for cause is not a bad person but a person who succumbed to moral temptation.

I draw several lessons from this. First, moral risk is pervasive. Past success is no guarantee of future success. Anyone can succumb to temptation and fail.

Second, I want to be part of a community that shares my values and encourages accountability for living those values. This provides positive peer pressure and reduces the moral risk factors. Regrettably, few religious congregations provide this type of community. Small groups within a healthy religious congregation or formal/informal peer groups are the most likely sources of this accountability. A group that I disdain and whose values I reject, Promise Keepers, did recognize the importance of accountability, saw that most men lack accountability, and encouraged men to form small peer-accountability groups.

Third, building fences can help keep one from falling off cliffs. The Jews of Jesus’ era had built fences around the law to keep them from violating God's teachings. Among legalistic Jews, living within the fences became onerous, even impossible, for ordinary people. Sometimes it’s necessary to cross a fence. But staying within fences as a general practice can keep one out of trouble most of the time. In the language of the New Testament, people who are faithful in small things will be faithful in large things.

Fourth, the goal is not to create a set of rules by which to live but to form one’s character such that doing the right thing is a matter of habit rather than a matter of deliberation. I open the door for people, regardless of their gender or age, because in doing so I symbolically place their well-being ahead of my own.

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