Moral Fundamentalism in Safety

The worst feature of the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics is moral fundamentalism.

Whilst the silences in the Chapter on personhood, care, power and helping are damming, what stands out most is a foundational encouragement for moral fundamentalism.

This is assisted by blending the meaning of morality and ethics (then using them with distinct and separate meaning in the text). Thereby, creating a blancmange of sweet simplistic goop that ends out fostering a ‘check your gut’ deontology. With such an approach it is then easy for the Chapter to make Ethics all about ‘legal obligations’.

This is how everything in safety starts, legal obligations even though the industry offers no expertise in the law. Just read anything by Safework Australia and all meaning and purpose in safety is determined by its focus on legal obligations. This enables the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics to determine that ethics for safety is about duty to the law. Thus, the Chapter sets up a deontological framework, even though there is no mention of jurisprudence in the text nor that safety has any expertise in the law.

The BoK Chapter asserts that safety people are ‘moral agents’ and ‘professionals’ yet in no place draws any connection to meaning and purpose in work in safety. It’s shallow naïve understanding of moral philosophy is best suited for a High School philosophy introduction and ignores a wealth of research in moral philosophy. Again, this helps foster a deontological approach to duty whilst ignoring a host of research on care ethics and other competing ideas in ethics and moral philosophy.

Of course, the text has the obligatory quotes from Dekker, Provan and Schein so that the notion of Justice and Culture can be glossed over as ‘covered’. This is how Safety maintains its many silences on culture and Justice .

The leaps and jumps in the BoK Chapter are astounding as it emerges to a discussion of duty. This is where the Chapter lands with the classic ‘ethical decision making process’ map (Figure 1. Ethical Decision-Making Map).

Figure 1. Ethical Decision-Making Map


The elephant in the room is this, what is this morality based on? What is the basis for ‘check your gut’? On what is this rational, logical and intuitive ethic founded?

In this model, the final step before implementation is ‘check your gut’. The explanation is as follows:

‘The previous stages of this analysis are based on rational and structured thinking and action; however, intuition also has an important role in ethical decision-making. If your gut tells you that something is wrong, it probably is. Pay attention to your gut, but don’t let it make the decision for you as rational decision-making is important.’

Of course, this is NOT how people make decisions.

Human decision making is neither rational, structured or logical.

This is an attribution made by this Chapter that has no evidence. It is a myth and the symbol of the model endorses the myth as true ( There is no evidence to suggest that human decision-making is rational, structured or logical. This is always undertaken ‘after the fact’ but it is NOT how a decision is made in real time.

We see so clearly the foundation of all of this as a substitute for what is known as ‘Natural Law Ethics’ founded on the 200-year-old ideas by Emmanuel Kant. The same is true for popular notions of ‘Just Culture’ (Reason, Dekker etc).

However, there are other views that don’t need such a metaphysical source nor mystical sense of morality.

Indeed, there are ideas of morality that are actually based on how people really make decisions. There is a wealth of evidence in Cognitive Neuroscience to show that human judgement and decision-making is embodied and not limited to a brain-centric view.

The research is extensive but for the purposes of this blog I will just cite one researcher: Johnson, M., (2014) Morality for Humans, Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science. University of Chicago Press. London. Here are a few quotes from Johnson (p.163):

‘I have suggested that the greatest sin of moral philosophy is moral fundamentalism, by which I mean the belief in unmediated access to absolute, universal foundational moral truths. Moral fundamentalism typically takes one or both of two forms: either it assumes that we have access to absolute moral principles, or it assumes that we have access to foundational moral facts (about what is good, right, virtuous, etc.). Fundamentalism is a sin because it (1) attempts to reduce the relevant complexity of human experience to simple abstractions, (2) denies the human necessity for interpretation, and (3) shuts off moral inquiry. These are three of the worst things a person can do when it comes to engaging in moral deliberation.

In the case of the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics this ‘moral truth’ comes from rational logic and intuition, the perfect model of Kantian Ethics. Johnson adds (p.164):

‘My contention in this chapter is that our desire for certainty and the avoidance of doubt—our flight from our fallibility—is so strong that we find it devilishly difficult to avoid regressing to absolutist thinking, even though it is irresponsible from both a scientific and moral perspective to do so’.

Sound like and industry you know? What is the industry that fears uncertainty, fallibility and doubt avoidance? Yes, the zero industry. Johnson states further (p.190):

‘What makes it immoral is that it shuts down any serious form of moral inquiry, since it takes moral truths as self-evident givens. It denies the complexity, depth, richness, and changing character of experience, insofar as it selects one basic consideration as the sole key to the determination of a morally problematic situation. Even worse, it shuts out any further moral inquiry, on the assumption that experience forms a closed, fixed system subject to timeless laws. Whistling “it was good enough for granny, so it’s good enough for me” is immoral. What if granny was a racist, an anti-Semite, a paedophile, a warmonger, a sadist? Neither the faith nor the morality of our “fathers” (or our forefathers) should be regarded as “good enough for us,” at least in any absolute sense.’

Here we have the problem in a nutshell. What Safety does best is shut down enquiry and questioning, close down debate and sanctify its mono-disciplinary view. This is what happens in an industry that only speaks the language of compliance and control. Yet this is what is established in a deontological ethic. How could one question the law and regulation? I mean really. What to lawyers and the courts do?

Without a sense of jurisprudence poor olde safety sits on the side-line pontificating about what is just, moral and ethical, enabling what Johnson calls ‘immoral’ ideas as enshrined in Kantian Ethics. BTW, if you want to read something that tears to shreds Kantian Ethics, Johnson is excellent.

Of course, despite the fact that the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics states that Ethics is the ‘foundation of professionalism’ there is no study of ethics in any safety curriculum.

As always in SPoR we offer an alternative that is positive, practical, doable, researched and supported by evidence.

If you want to learn about how the law understands Ethics then you can register for the workshops in Perth in 3-7 October ( or,

Undertake the Ethic Module online ( or,

Watch the many videos on the law and risk available for free (

2. What Is Risk? from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

Source link

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.