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Philosophy of Risk: An evaluative account of risk and safety and the methodological consequences for risk research

Final Report Summary - PHIL-RISK (Philosophy of Risk: An evaluative account of risk and safety and the methodological consequences for risk research)

Project overview and aim
Risk research is a rapidly growing discipline with contributors from many areas of the natural and social sciences. This reflects a growing concern about risks in society. Both professional and non-professional awareness of risks is increasing, and much effort is put into risk assessment, risk managing and risk communication. However, in risk research there is a deep disagreement between two seemingly incompatible ways of understanding the fundamental concept of risk. One camp perceives risk as a natural science phenomenon, an objective property of world independent of individual beliefs: either the bridge is safe to pass or it is not. An opposing camp view risk as something essentially subjective or socially constructed: people from different cultures have very different views on what constitutes a risk, and there is no fact of the matter over and above these individual or cultural views.
The aim of Phil-RISK has been to develop an account of the concepts of risk and safety that is more nuanced than either of these two camps, and to investigate the consequences of the resulting account for the process of risk analysis. A central hypothesis corroborated in the project has been that risk and safety are evaluative concepts – primarily analogous to moral concepts such as justice and good rather than to natural concepts such as water and electron – and that this has important consequences for risk research, since our method of investigation into evaluative concepts differ in important ways from that of natural concepts. Importantly, however, current developments in moral philosophy have demonstrated that many evaluative concepts bear substantial similarities with basic scientific concepts that render them more robust than merely subjective opinion. An important task of the project has been to investigate how the concepts of risk and safety combine these evaluative and objective dimensions, as well as the consequences of the resulting account for the process of risk and safety analysis.

Results and conclusions
The result of the project investigations may be summarized in four conclusions: (1) that risk and safety are thick concepts, (2) that there are several evaluative dimensions of risk and safety, (3) that these evaluative aspects do not threaten the objective dimensions of risk, but (4) that they suggest that the process of risk analysis must involved more deliberate methods.
Risk and safety as thick concepts. In contemporary moral philosophy, so-called ‘thick’ concepts have been heavily debated. Thick concepts are concepts that have a significant amount of descriptive or factual content, but that are at the same time are evaluative - paradigmatic examples include cruelty, courage and kindness. In the project, it has been argued that risk and safety belong to this class of concepts. Moreover, it has been argued that thick concepts – and in particular risk and safety – cannot be further reduced to descriptive concepts alone: a correct analysis of thick concepts must include the evaluative aspects.