Risk and Responsibility

In “World at Risk” (2009), Ulrich Beck asserts that we now live in a Risk Society where the old institutions of industrial society – family, community, social class – have been undermined by the process of global modernisation and where individuals have to learn to navigate society for themselves. Beck does not suggest that we face a world of “unprecedented dangers”; rather that we live in conditions of “manufactured, self-inflicted insecurity.”

Beck’s thesis can provide a backdrop for many current ethical and moral debates. These include discussions about what should be the role of the state in public health interventions and where individuals should be left alone to make their own decisions, based on their individual assessment of risk and with a moral sense of responsibility. This ‘individualism’ conflicts markedly with Elias’ assertion in “What is Sociology?” (1970) that we are interdependent: the term individual can only be understood as referring to interdependent people in the singular, society referring to interdependent people in the plural.

How we organise our social and economic systems relies on the dynamic interweavings in which we engage. The limitations of our linguistic and conceptual abilities lead us into and trap us in dualistic debates about rights versus responsibilities that neglect human complexities and dynamism and how more powerful groups exert power over weaker groups. Thus, for example, poor people rather than globalisation are blamed for their ‘cultures of worklessness’ and the duty of individuals to “drink responsibly” is emphasised over corporations’ responsibility to promote their goods in an ethical fashion.

In 1970, Elias discussed what he saw as the fetishisation of the hydrogen bomb and argued that people projected their fears and blame onto it and the scientists who created it rather than taking responsibility for their own complicity in the reciprocal hostilities which led to its creation. Contemporary discussions about issues such as child abuse follow the same tangent; rather than considering how we have encouraged the development of a culture where sexualised imagery, whether or not involving children themselves, is displayed to them, we lament the discovery that ‘much-loved’ entertainers have been monstrous sexual predators. The individualistic culture responsibilises those monstrous individuals and the ‘victims’, i.e. those who suffer the most demonstrable harm at an individual level are deemed to be unfortunate. We convince ourselves that society has changed, that such abuse is terrible but exceptional.

As individuals and as a society, we carry on as before in our “manufactured, self-inflicted insecurity”.

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