Wisdom Based Safety

Originally posted on January 19, 2020 @ 9:19 AM

In a appreciative response to a blog on A Philosophy of Safety  John Phillips used the phrase ‘Wisdom-Based Safety ‘(WBS), what a wonderful expression. What a delightful expression and far better than the brutalism of BBS. More on WBS later.

imageThere are two most profound indictments of the safety industry in the AIHS BoK on Ethics. The first is that safety is often Machiavellian and unscrupulous (p.9) and second that Safety has no education process in place regarding Ethics. (p.30). How strange, last time I ever presented at an SIA Conference was on the need to reform the curriculum in WHS (https://safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/) and I was howled down by defensiveness. No wonder the idea of learning and education is not central to the industry (again no mention in the BoK on Ethics about either).

What a strange predicament for this industry that has a fixation on the label ‘professional’, that has no curriculum on Ethics! Yet, the industry expects safety advisors to be ethically competent and aware! How can one be aware of ethical issues if one is not educated in Ethics? Obviously because Safety is not about caring (BTW, the value of care and Care Ethics receives no mention in the BoK) but about policing.

The idea of Wisdom (not mentioned in the BoK on Ethics) like so many other terms associated with maturity (not mentioned in the BoK on Ethics) is one of the great silences of the safety industry. Here is an industry fixated by numbers, worshiping zero (http://visionzero.global/node/6) with no discussion on the essentials to an Ethic of Risk.

One of the oldest ethical dilemmas in text is the story of Solomon and the two women (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Kings+3%3A16-28&version=CEV). Clearly a story from an oral tradition but it poses one of the fundamental problems of all ethical dilemmas, the problem of power and competing values.

The story is about (1 Kings 3:16-28) two women who come to Solomon for a decision. Their babies have been switched by deception during the night and one is dead. Solomon tests the emotions of the women to see who loves the son the most and then determines who is the rightful mother. Not all ethical dilemmas work out so well. However, the story is about wisdom not necessarily about black and white decision making. There is no objectivity in decision-making in ethics (as the BoK on Ethics claims on many occasions) whereas Wisdom is completely subjective. For Safety ALARP, Risk Assessment and Due Diligence (not mentioned in the BoK on Ethics) are such ethical dilemmas (https://safetyrisk.net/zero-a-framework-for-psychological-bullying/ ).

Wisdom literature is common in the Bible and is common to Jewish philosophy (https://www.gotquestions.org/wisdom-literature.html). The story of Job is one such text. If one wants to know about Wisdom then reading Kierkegaard, Jung or Blake on Job would be a good start. There are no ‘solutions’ or ‘fixes’ in Wisdom literature nor the delusions of Just Culture. Instead there is an underlying Ethic that is owned and mysteriously founded in Wisdom. In Job there is no solution to the problem of good and evil nor, any satisfactory construct of god. Only the challenge to self constructed righteousness evident in the Archetype of Safety and its quest for its power for power. Job is not about god or Job but its about us, the reader and the provocation of indignation at injustice. Safety would do well to read it.

Wisdom is not about power (Power receives no mention in the BoK on Ethics) but rather about resilience and learning. Sternberg’s wonderful book on Wisdom (1995) ought to be a foundational text for anyone wanting to study Ethics (not listed in the BoK on Ethics). Wisdom is a virtue but also much more than that, it’s like a collective unconscious cultural embodied dynamic that acts like a social conscience (neither social contract or conscience are mentioned in the BoK on Ethics). As Sternberg states: ‘Wisdom is a reflective judgement and way of knowing in the face of uncertainty’. (p.7) Our First Nations Peoples have a better understanding of this than most westerners in the way they acknowledge ‘Elders’. Instead, we ‘elect’ politicians and hope that one or two might be wise.

Wisdom is the outcome of a love of philosophy and critical thinking, that’s actually the etymology of the word ‘wisdom’. Unfortunately, the issue of Ethics is a philosophical challenge and doesn’t fit the naivety of Safety that believes in ‘common sense’, ‘do the right thing’, ‘safety is a choice you make’ and ‘all accidents are preventable’. All demonstrate the opposite of wisdom and the valuing of ignorance.

So, Wisdom-Based Safety, thanks John. Let’s hope the phrase catches on.

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