Ethics Seminar: "Risk Imposition and Duties of Care"

Ethics Seminar: "Risk Imposition and Duties of Care"

Susanne Burri (LSE) will speak to the Centre for Ethics and Metaethics seminar about "Risk Imposition and Duties of Care". All welcome!

Susanne Burri is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research interests include the ethics of war and normative ethics more generally, decision-making under risk and uncertainty, and the philosophy of death. More information about her work can be found on her web page.


Many of the activities that we undertake in the course of living our lives involve imposing risks of harm on other people. Examples of such risk-imposing activities include driving a car, keeping a dog, or managing a construction project. The risks involved in such activities are usually small, but when they materialise, the resultant harm can be substantial. Despite this fact, it is standardly assumed that it can be morally permissible to engage in risk-imposing activities.

In the philosophical literature, the two main frameworks that are employed in the justification of risk-imposing activities are aggregative and contractualist in character. Most existing justifications within both frameworks assign a crucial role to the size of the risk that an agent imposes through her activities. Roughly speaking, a risk-imposing activity is not deemed morally permissible unless the size of the risk that an agent imposes is sufficiently small. In this paper, I defend a novel contractualist justification for the moral permissibility of engaging in risk-imposing activities. The justification that I defend departs from most existing proposals by tying the individual permissibility of engaging in a risk-imposing activity not to the size of the risk that an agent imposes, but to the agent’s compliance with relevant duties of care. Scanlon (1998) sketches a similar proposal, but does not try to fill in any details. I argue that there are two reasons to prefer my proposed justification over existing proposals. First, the justification that I propose is more closely aligned with our considered judgments. Second, it provides more helpful guidance to an agent who is trying to find out whether engaging in a particular risk-imposing activity would be morally permissible for him or her.

Location: Botany House 1.03