Don’t mention the ‘V’ Word

Originally posted on October 10, 2016 @ 4:35 PM

Don’t mention the ‘V’ Word

safety virtuesAny review of the discourse in orthodox safety reveals the omission of many words, language and discourse that are critical for an holistic understanding of safety. Just trawl through conference proceedings for the SIA or blogs or podcasts or books on safety and try and find discussion on fallibility, wisdom, discernment, ethics, morals and virtues. Indeed, do the same with books and leadership and silence.

The challenge of ethics is a triarchic one. Many make ethics, morality and virtue interchangeable and this not only creates confusion but devalues the effectiveness of all three. Of course none of these three are in any safety curriculum in any substantial way so, no wonder there is a vacuum of critical thinking in safety about virtue ethics. Without a clear understanding of ethics, morality and virtue, one is more than likely to see no problem with the statement ‘Zero is the only ethically sustainable goal for safety and health’. ( However, the ethic, morality and vice behind this statement is anchored in a mechanistic binary worldview rather than a humanistic paradigm.

Ethics is the formal study of moral standards and conduct. This is why ethics is sometimes called ‘moral philosophy’. Ethics are concerned with a systematic understanding of morality in response to such questions as: What is good? What is evil? How should I live? How should I behave with myself and others?

Normative ethical systems can generally be broken down into three categories: deontological, teleological and virtue ethics. The first two are action focused and virtue ethics focus primarily on ‘practice’ and character. For the purpose of this discussion I just want to focus on the virtues.

The study and ‘practice’ of the virtues is critical if one wants to live what is ‘good’ in a sustainable future. One learns and is educated about what is virtuous through ‘practice’ in time. We know what is a virtue in time by what happens in society, in our community and in our social arrangements. We know what is a vice by its telos (trajectory). You don’t have to be a genius to work out that cheating, intolerance, hate, abuse, exploitation and greed will clear the deck pretty clearly of friendship and social cohesion. The well being of the community and social arrangements therefore defines ‘the good’.

Virtue ethics are a critical study in the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) and a focal aspect of the SPoR Body of Knowledge. It is through a study of moral philosophy and the virtues that one sharpens critical thinking around goals, discourse, ideologies and behaviours. Unfortunately, a behaviourist discourse (common to Behaviour Based Safety – BBS) is bankrupt when it comes to understanding virtue because it has an individualist focus and therefore cannot understand the trajectory of a vice other than for what benefits self. BBS may have some initial positive ideas but its telos (trajectory) in the end becomes dehumanizing.

The latest distress over the language, actions and ‘practice’ of Donald Trump’ ( and the corruption of the banks ( illustrate the importance of critical thinking about moral character (virtue). In the case of Trump, the exploitation, objectivization and demonization of others is his way of being. This is a discourse that is all about self, power and individual telos. In the end for Trump everything and everyone are just objects for his own utility. There is no collective ‘good’ just the simulacra (fake looking) about what is good (for him). The idea of communality, commonwealth and social well being are totally missing from his discourse. Similarly with the banks. This week we saw four bank executives play out their theatrical script complete with apologies and spin but the vices of greed and self remained.

When we turn to safety, the discourse is totally devoid of discussion about the ‘V’ word. There is no discussion about character and the telos of certain policies and beliefs. As long as we get the binary safety outcome, it doesn’t matter what collateral damage is strewn along the way. Indeed, the idea that safety itself is often declared a ‘value’ indicates just how misguided the sector is about what constitutes a value and a virtue. There is so little discussion in the sector about by-products and trade-offs or any consideration about the trajectory (telos) of principles, ideas, policy or language. This is why intolerance is one of the great vices of the industry. Intolerance is used to justify and demonise (harm) others in the name of safety. This is why the slogans and language ‘safety is a choice you make’ and ‘zero harm’ are profoundly unethical, immoral and foster the vices of judgmentalism, blame and superiority (to harm others). How strange that Safety wants these vices in its daily discourse but in our private lives and relationships we want tolerance, love, hope and trust. The commonweal and sustainable good depends on the flourishing of the virtues in the community. The vice of intolerance destroys community.

Unfortunately, the ZAV claim that ‘Zero is the only ethically sustainable goal for safety and health’ is actually its opposite. A numerical discourse and trajectory will always put people second. So, zero is profoundly unethical because it systematically dehumanises people who are unsafe, turns numerics into tools for intolerance and drives a calculative discourse that proudly counts objects and victimizes (harms) subjects in the simulacra of ‘good’. The safety industry proudly parades zero as some kind of good when its telos (trajectory) harms the community. It is this double speak of zero that people hate.

The trajectory of zero is counting not care, intolerance not tolerance and spin not safety.

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