America’s Unwise Desire for a World without Risk

The United States used to lead the world in innovation. Its industry was unmatched, its exploration of space a marvel to the rest of the world, its inventiveness making it one of the most creative societies in the world. All these traits take risks. Inventions can go bad or be risky when first tested before they are perfected. The space program, as with any high risk program, has had its share of disasters. Exploration of new frontiers of any kind involves risk. To grow, a society must accept risks. Somehow, Americans have grown to believe they can live in a world without risk.

Risk is a part of everyday life. Every time you step into a car to drive, you take some risk of losing your health, your life, or your car, or some combination thereof. Crossing the street is risky. Walking in the yard is risky; even if you have made sure there are no rocks in the yard, slip on one spot of animal waste or wet ground and you can lie sprawling on the dirt. If you climb a ladder to change a lightbulb that’s too high to reach otherwise, you might fall. All of this is common sense.

Now parents want their children to live in a risk-free world, snug in gated communities, safe from the scary outside world, playing video games, and God forbid they play outside with the neighbor’s children — too much of a risk of injury. Playing outside by oneself is no longer an option as it was in my childhood. Imagination is stifled under the routine of a tightly scheduled life. Parents mean well, and no parent wants a child to be injured — but if a child never takes risks, the child will never grow emotionally or intellectually. Thus children grow up feeling entitled to safety, to be protected from speech that might offend them, to live in “safe spaces” with cute animals to pet, to subsist in an infantile world, and to grow to adulthood with an infant’s mentality — demanding, expecting immediate gratification, protected from all harms, both physical and verbal. This a world of stagnation.

While in 1967 an accident could kill three astronauts and yet we landed on the moon two years later, today if we had a mission to Mars and a tragic accident occurred, I doubt the country would risk another mission no matter how many safety improvements would be made. Exploration becomes stifled in an orgy of overprotectiveness.

COVID-19 can be a terrible disease, and I know some people who have suffered greatly from it as well as others who had few or no symptoms. I wear my mask to lessen viral load — to others if I sneeze or cough, and to myself if someone sneezes or coughs on me. The initial shutdown was justified, I think, to keep health care facilities from being overrun. Pandemics, however, reach a critical stage when they spread quickly no matter what steps are taken, and COVID-19 seems to be at that stage. Yet politicians are calling for a shutdown, playing to people’s fears of the risk of catching the disease. Even though it is unlikely at this stage that a shutdown would help the situation, fear of increased risk paralyzes people into living a life of isolation and a willingness to destroy their livelihood or someone else’s livelihood for an ephemeral chance of never catching the disease. When cases are expanding so quickly, we should continue to protect the vulnerable, wear masks in public, but to shut down — this is a fear-reaction, fear that politicians are using, pandering to American’s desire for a risk-free world. If they really cared so much about lowering their risks, they would control the things they can control, such as diet and exercise. Yet Americans have a significant problem with obesity and a sedentary life, resulting in heart disease, hypertension, and Type II diabetes. Their attitude is paradoxical. In one instance, they want the government to protect us from the risk of a virus by shutting down the country, while on the other hand they refuse to lower their health risks by taking better care of themselves. Americans rarely have a problem with engaging on actions that contradict their stated desires. They want others to protect them, but they do not want to protect themselves. Such inconsistencies are difficult to understand.

Hopefully Americans will grow up and realize that while should do what we can to prudently minimize risk, we cannot eliminate it unless we stop living our lives and become hermits. The solitary life is a sad and lonely journey.

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Michael Potts

Michael Potts

Michael Potts is Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC.