The Notion of Risk in a Risk Society: An Essay

Written by

Thomas Martin

Posted on

13 January, 2021

Reading time

5 minutes

The notion of risk - a process in which objective facts and subjective views are combined to assess the consequences of actions. This process is present in events that range from deciding upon a vaccination plan for a nation of millions to choosing the right child safety seat for a car. Risk is noted because there is a need to consider the consequences of each choice to reduce the extent of danger. And at the same time, maximize the realization of opportunities, which could be increased safety, health, or whatever is found to be the most desirable at a given time. 


Before it can be understood how the notion of risk affects the decisions and choices of different parties, it is first necessary to understand that governments, societies, and people have a collective influence on each other when making decisions and choices. The interdependent nature of this relationship means that the government and society have an impact on people’s decisions and choices, with the opposite being also true as governments and societies mirror the wants and needs of their people. Such a relationship is, therefore, also reflected in the process of considering risk.


Take, for example, the process of forming new road safety laws as a means to explore the notion of risk and the mutual relationship of governments, societies, and people. I chose this example because lawmaking is centred around the consideration of safety, with risk being present in each choice. In this example, the careful notion of risk allows for decisions to be made to increase safety. In other words, to minimize the risk of injury for all parties involved. Thus, when new road safety laws are created, all of the parties mentioned earlier have a collective influence on each other when setting rules that most will honour. This is of course, with the assumption that the government has a purpose in favour of its citizens.


Risk exists in driving because of the presence of danger resulting from the possibility of injury. To understand how the notion of risk takes place in forming a new speed limit by the government, we may first begin from the individual’s perspective. The person in the driver’s seat has two choices to act upon: they may either regard the law and drive under the speed limit or disregard the law and drive above the limit. Here, the person considers risk before taking action. Risk allows for the possible consequences of each action to be thoroughly evaluated. If the person finds speeding desirable, they may consider maximizing their short-term desires and thus, break the law. This decision will be taken if the driver sees that the possibility of injuring themselves, and others, is minimal. However, it is essential to note that the person does not consider risk during this risk assessment without evaluating the risk imposed by society. This is because even if the person knows that the risk of injuring themself or someone else on the road is minimal, then they still might choose not to speed because of societal pressure. This societal pressure may come in the form of the person understanding that there is a risk of being excluded, judged, or even attacked by society. This fear might regulate the driver’s action because individuals aim to decrease the likelihood of being labelled as outsiders in society. In the process of noting risk, the driver must also assess the possibility of potential retribution from society, with this possibility manifesting itself as risk. Therefore, the presence of society introduces risk into each course of action, which has to be assessed when risk is being noted. Consequently, the extent of risk imposed by society affects the choices and decisions of people.


Moreover, considering that the government has already set laws regarding speed limits, the person must also consider consequences imposed by the government before taking a course of action. This is the case because breaking the law causes negative actions to be brought against the person if caught, and that will reduce the person’s short and long-term benefits. In other words, there is a risk of being detained in a correctional facility and, consequently, losing one’s freedom. Hence, governments influence the extent of risk in each of the driver’s actions, and the notion of such risk allows a person to make a reasoned decision on a course of action. Therefore, for the government to maximize the safety of its citizens, it also has to consider how its regulations will impact the decisions of people - another process centred around the notion of risk.

Suppose the government sets rules that are too prohibitive, such as a speed limit of 10km/h on a rural road. In that case, most people will not follow such a regulation, and the benefit for everyone is not maximized. However, if the rules are too relaxed, for instance, 250 km/h in the city centre, people will drive at dangerous speeds, and social benefit is reduced. The benefit of speed limits is not solely to decrease danger; it is also to improve the quality of people’s lives. This additional benefit results as speed limits reduce the following consequences of speeding: excessive background noise, increased fuel consumption, and increased exhaust emissions. These three problems have a significant negative impact on society’s functioning as a society mirrors people’s wellbeing and their overall state. Therefore, when the government formulates a new speed limit, there will be a constant dialogue between each party when noting risk as each choice in lawmaking is heavily influenced by the behaviour of people and society. 

In conclusion, the notion of risk affects the choices and decisions of different parties because each party considers the risk imposed by the other to decide on a course of action that makes them better off. This awareness of others when considering risk especially in this example of safety regulations, however, leads to parties making decisions that make the whole society better off.