Monday, May 26, 2008

Risk and Virtue

I have posted a number of times before on the issue of risk and on the virtues of parenting. So today I offer some brief reflections on the intersection of these two themes.

Firstly, some general thoughts on risk. You can’t completely avoid risk of harm. Indeed, to live is to risk pain, suffering and death. But responsible moral agents (let’s call them *virtuous agents*) will adopt a reflective, critical attitude towards different kinds of risks.

Virtuous agents will pursue some risks, especially when the benefits far outweigh the potential losses. In many cases this is pretty obvious. By driving to work today I took the risk of getting in a car accident. But this is a risk worth taking for the payoff of having the life I would like to have the opportunity to live.

Of course my decision to drive to work, even though it has some risk of harm, could fall anywhere on the spectrum from remote to certainty depending on my driving behaviour and other factors (e.g. fitness of my vehicle, weather). It would be irresponsible to drive to work at hazardous speeds, ignoring traffic regulations, or driving with a flat tire or in a severe winter storm. So while I am willing to accept the risks that come with commuting to work each day, even that mundane risk is subjected to provisos and limits. And a virtuous agent will internalize these kinds of considerations for a variety of different activities and risks.

Another obvious example- living a physically active lifestyle. Many challenges face a virtuous agent as they attempt to find the mean between someone who endangers their own health by living an inactive lifestyle and someone who pursues their health in a non-virtuous fashion. The former is rather obvious, but how can one violate virtue in the latter extreme? There are many possible ways that an excessive fixation on one’s physical health could be taken to an extreme. Firstly, if one is over zealous in their exercise they might actually compromise the very thing one aspires to achieve- namely their health. For example, they might suffer a chronic injury due to overtraining. Or if one focuses exclusively on such a goal, to the detriment of other laudable goals (like their mental health, parental responsibilities, etc.) then the extreme of physical fitness can actually be a vice (though not the worst of possible vices).

OK, now a couple of thoughts on parental virtue. Recall this earlier post and paper. I believe parenting poses a number of complex and interesting challenges for the moral development of a parent. And how a parent responds to the potential risks their children will be exposed to is an enormous challenge for any parent, even (aspiring) virtuous parents.

There is an innate parental instinct to protect our children from risks of harm. This is a good thing that increases the likelihood that our children will make it to adulthood! And anyone who has had the joy of raising a child will know the endless possible mishaps a rambunctious child can get into. From wanting to stick everything they find in their mouth (ranging from coins, to dirt and, well, you name it, and a one year old will try to eat it!), to trying to crawl down a flight of stairs and touching hot ovens, a parent only really gets the opportunity to relax and turn off the “What is he/she into now!” button once the young child is finally asleep in bed.

As a child ages, and their own cognitive capacities develop, the parent’s burden of risk management evolves. I say “evolves”, rather than becomes easier because, while it is true that some risks of harm become less likely (like your child unwittingly wandering into a busy road), there are many new risks that come as your child takes on new responsibilities and matures. So there are dangers like drugs, crime, etc. And so a parent will have to learn how to manage these new challenges, drawing on the experiences they have learned from during the early years of caring for the child and their own personal experiences of dealing with such complex issues.

And so this finally brings me to the issue that motivated me to write this post—cultivating risk-taking in one’s children. In my own personal experience, this is perhaps one of the hardest challenges I have faced. We teach our children to obey the rules of the game, to look both ways before crossing, to wear their bike helmets, … but how do you teach them to take the risks that could enhance their lives in ways those who are risk adverse will never experience? Some of the most valuable things in life require risk-taking, like love and friendship. And so permitting your children to learn how to manage risk is an important life skill that a parent can either stifle or cultivate.

After dinner tonight I took my two oldest (though still young) sons out on their bikes, the first real bike ride of the year. In an attempt to help foster some of these traits I pointed out a dirt hill that I thought it might be interesting for them to ride down. At first they expressed some concern that it might not be safe to ride their bikes on this hill. I thought it might be fun, provided they were careful. Sensing that even “protective Daddy” thought it would be OK, they decided to give it a go. They loved it! And I just sat their watching the two of them driving down this hill, as their confidence grew and grew. They even suffered a few minor bumps and scraps, but nothing so grave as to deter them from doing it again and again. Allowing them to take even this small risk was a big step for me.

As I watched the two of them riding their bikes down this small dirt hill I realized how much (and fast!) they have grown. And how hard it has been for me to relax the parental impulse to protect them from all possible risks. But I now realize that doing so has its own risks. It risks them going through life always pursuing the save option- never risking love for fear of a broken heart, never risking friendship for fear it would not be reciprocated, never risking dissent for fear of social disapproval. I wouldn’t want my children to live in a world of people like that.

Experiences like tonight make me appreciate just how incredible parenting is. It permits one to revisit their own youth (I was quite a risk taker myself when I was their age!) and engage in a unique and powerful process of self-discovery and growth. No doubt many more challenges lay ahead for us in the years to come, as we all continue to grow and learn from experience. But that is what living a human life is all about.