Keywords: safety, acceptable risk, risky technology, risky assessment, the right to know, the duty to inform, ethical responsibility, the Challenger disaster, risk assessment
The epistemological and ethical basis of risk assessment in advanced technological systems: the lesson of the Challenger
This paper is devoted to showing that a safety priority should be accorded the highest priority in decision-making and that such a prioritisation is an ethical responsibility. The connection between a safety-first priority and ethics is that an ultimate concern for safety is an integral feature of respect for human life. This paper exposes the illogic behind the misleading phrase "risky technology" and the fallacies which underlie the seemingly morally neutral phrase "risk assessment". It is argued that human beings ultimately possess the responsibility of the choice to employ one technological system as over another and hence the decision to employ unsafe technology is a case of "risky assessment" rather than "risky technology". The phrase "risky technology" implies that the risk factor is inherent to the technology when the risk factor is inherent to the choice of which technology to employ. Risk assessment has been portrayed as amoral numerical calculation without clarifying the basis of the assessment. It is argued here that risk assessment must include the basis of its figures and that, to be epistemologically sound, the basis should be past engineering performance and not "subjective engineering judgement". To be ethically sound, risk assessment must take into account not only probabilities of occurrence but consequences of occurrence, such as life or death risks to risk takers and all those on whom the risk taken will ultimately make an impact. It is argued that risk takers possess a right to know of the specific risks to which they are exposing themselves and that risk makers possess the corresponding duty to inform risk takers. The Challenger case is utilised as a lesson in unsound and unethical risk assessment. It is also utilised as a case in which the right of the astronauts and civilian passengers to know of the risk they were taking was not respected and the ethical duty to inform the astronauts and civilian passengers of the risk they were taking was not observed. Distinctions are drawn between general and unknown risks of space travel and the specifically foreknown risks of a design deficient O-ring which malfunctioned below specific temperature readings. The belief that progress requires risk taking is exposed as an oversimplification since progress can be made as in the case of the development of commercial air travel without taking reckless risks. Passenger aircraft must meet certain criteria of safety to be operable but this is not an obstacle to progress. The observance of the right to know and the duty to inform is an asset to business. In the case of Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines, the decision to notify the public of bomb threats may have given business a boost since passengers have deduced in absence of such a threat that their flight was a safe one as they trusted these airlines.