THE VIRTUES OF CAUTION
THE VIRTUES OF CAUTION
Article image credit: Illustration: Clifford Harper
A call to awaken our aesthetic responses.
AVARICE, GLUTTONY, vanity, lascivity, envy, wrath and sloth — to these classical seven deadly sins, according to Aldous Huxley, we moderns, despite our inventive genius and after so many centuries, have been able to add only one new sin. The sin? Haste, hurry, rush, speed, momentum, acceleration. Our Zeitgeist is ruled by the Geist of Zeit. We live in the economics of hurry, and the planet itself heats up with the energy of our hastening. Time is money, and therefore the old adages have been cast aside: More haste, less speed; Look before you leap; Haste maketh waste; A stitch in time saves nine; Fools rush in where angels fear to tread; An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Haste, the spirit of hurrying time, affects human biology as well. Menarche comes on earlier and earlier; children grow taller faster; athletes break records, hurdling faster, leaping higher, farther. And haste affects our psychiatric diagnostics: who wants to be considered slow, retarded, passive, withdrawn, regressed, fixated …?
Because time is imagined as a racing river, gathering speed as it flows in one direction only, "He who hesitates is lost," as the saying goes. Caution can only be imagined as timidity, pessimism, recalcitrant obstinacy, stubborn and stupid clinging to old ways. Moreover, the images and rhetoric that urge caution and resistance to the headlong rush revive the images and rhetoric of the ancient God of Mediterranean and Renaissance culture, Saturn/Kronos — old, slow, cold, negative, stable, limiting and mean, an enemy of change.
Thus, when the precautionary principle enters public debate, the sides are drawn on archetypal, even mythical lines. On the one side, optimism, futurism, expansion, positive thinking, a progressivist advance that meets obstacles as they arise and overcomes them with redoubled energy. This is the heroic mind, moving single-mindedly forward, rising to every challenge, confident in its own ability, no monster too large, no wall too impenetrable.
As long as time is imagined in accord with the heroic impulse, caution is doomed from the start. It can only be envisioned as blocking, stopping, an impediment in the river, clogging its flow, producing backwaters and stagnant pools. Caution has only the one face given by heroic single-mindedness.
Three other characteristics of our times are hurled along by the same river: the cults of technology, competition, and celebrity. The principle improvements brought by technological change, until the electronic computer age, were labour-saving and space-saving. A technological advance was measurable in the number of working hours saved by a machine, and the machine could compact and reduce materials into more manageable and transportable size. But now technological change brings mainly the benefit of speed: more done more quickly. What is saved is time.
Time also curses the joys of discovery. It is no longer enough to experiment, ponder serendipitously, discover. There is a crushing competitive pressure to be first with a formula, a method, a product. The first to publish may get a Nobel award; the first in the market makes the most gain. We are in the age of the short-cut, corporate espionage and falsified results — because of competition. As in a foot race, only the one coming in first qualifies; the others are losers. A culture that promotes winners gets more and more losers. I like to remember a precept of Sikh religion: "Always come second." Precaution as a virtue.
The cult of celebrity — the idea that each of us may have our "fifteen minutes of fame", in the words of Andy Warhol — has radically altered the notion of fame. In Roman and Renaissance times, fama, or reputation, was imagined to be like an invisible accompanying spirit, one’s own genius passed to one by one’s ancestors. It was more precious than one’s own life, to be served, honoured, enhanced by one’s actions, and kept untarnished. Its lasting benefits passed on to one’s heirs, descending to future generations with the family crest and name. Now fame has been speeded up and replaced by celebrity, the root of which word is akin to celeritas, celeritatis, and the English ‘acceleration’.
HOW ELSE MIGHT we consider the principle of precaution rather than only from the mythical premises and images of the hurrying heroic ego? By the way, that heroic ego, whose epitome in Mediterranean mythology was Hercules, went mad after racing through his twelve labours, and had to descend to the Underworld of phantoms and the dead, or, in another tale, sit quietly spinning, turning and turning the self-same wheel, all forward action spent.
It is important to remind ourselves what this principle of precaution more exactly refers to. I will define it by a statement neither from international agreements where it has been incorporated into protocols, nor from policies of the German and Swedish governments where it carries the force of law. Instead my definition comes from a most unlikely source, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency of the current Bush administration, Christie Whitman, who said at the National Academy of Sciences Meetings in Washington dc: "Policy-makers need to take a precautionary approach to environmental protection … We must acknowledge that uncertainty is inherent in managing natural resources, recognize that it is usually easier to prevent environmental damage than to repair it later, and shift the burden of proof away from those advocating protection toward those proposing an action that may be harmful."
So far so good, but the Whitman statement remains in the realm of means — how best to proceed, or not proceed. What about the ends which the means serve? What is the wider purpose of a project, what is its telos, in Aristotle’s term, "that for the sake of which" the project has been conceived? If the ends are for competitive advantage, increased profitability, taxation advantages, do not these ends disqualify the means no matter how protective of the environment they may be? Suppose, however, the ends seem more noble — safer cures, a cooler Earth, cleaner water, species conservation — are then the means justified by these ends?
Moral philosophy holds that long-term ends, no matter how noble, can never justify the short-term means, but that the ends must show their nobility in each moment of the means. The precautionary principle has something to offer here for resolving this dilemma of correlating means and ends. That they correlate only too well in predatory corporate economics is visible the world over: exploitation of mineral resources (ends) correlates with the means of ravaged Earth, oppressed indigenous peoples, destruction of ecological balance, deterioration of culture. But how is it possible to correlate means and ends in a positive way?
By slowing and questioning the most evidently efficient means, precaution invites innovations and experiment. An invitation to Hermes with his mercurial mind to try out previously unimagined ways of arriving at the same ends and in accord with those ends. The necessity caused by caution actually becomes the mother of invention.
AS A PSYCHOLOGIST I need to offer psychological grounds for caution beyond the reasonable advantages and mythical implications. Three such grounds are particularly noteworthy.
First, the Hippocratic maxim: primum nihil nocere. Before all else, above all, first, do no harm, harm nothing. Before any action or plan for action consider first the downside before the upside. Explore the risks rather than the benefits. Expenditures on research shall focus on worst-case scenarios, and extend the notion of ‘harm’ fully.
The Hippocratic maxim suggests two thoughts, at least. First, that intervention in the ways of the world, despite the delusions that heroic goodness brings to its ambitions, always invites a shadow. Yin accompanies Yang, always and everywhere. Weigh the consequences of what might lie in the dark of your helping urge, your bright vision. Second, this maxim implies that the Earth has its own virtues and forces: nature may be acting in ways that our lack of caution does not let us see. Hippocratic caution brings with it a background in ancient animism, a respect for the dignity and power of phenomena, inviting a listening ear into phenomena, beyond cost benefits and risk assessments, so as to discover their values, their intentions beyond ours, so that we might work with them, even follow their lead, for their sake as well as ours.
The next backdrop to the precautionary principle is Socrates’ daimon. In several places in the writings of Plato, Socrates is described as holding back from an action because his daimon intervened. This daimon, spirit, angel, inner voice, invisible twin, this "autonomous psychic factor" (Jung) has been called a "cautionary spirit" by commentators on these passages. Its most remembered appearance occurs in the cell where Socrates awaited his hemlock poison. When asked why he did not escape, he said he had not been urged to by his daimon and, as he explains, the cautionary spirit never tells one what to do, only what not to do; it acts only as a caution. It speaks in a peculiarly non-statistical unscientific manner — anecdotally, superstitiously, symptomatically with omens and hints and whispers; even by bodily events like sneezes, yawns and hiccoughs.
A third psychological background to caution is quite simply the endemic background of Westernized societies anywhere: depression. Depression slows all heroic endeavour; the very thought of action is too much! Hence, depression whether of the psyche or of the economy is desperately feared in Westernized societies and every possible measure mobilized against it. The pressures we feel, the drugs we take, the expectations we nurture and the dictates of global economic expansion are all anti-depressive measures. Psychiatry could easily say that the headlong rush of the river itself is a manic defence against depression.
Precaution finds little value from this perspective. In fact, the furious opposition the precautionary principle provokes conforms exactly with outbursts of fury from manic patients when interrupted, slowed, or even asked to repeat themselves. To insinuate caution into a manic society means to it only depression, and therefore the precautionary principle must be introduced in manic terms as innovative, progressive, cutting-edge thinking, visionary, and beneficial on a worldwide scale. Which, by the way, it could very well be!
Besides the Hippocratic, Socratic and depressive backgrounds to the psychology of caution, there is a fourth: beauty. As noted by Thomas Aquinas and repeated by James Joyce, beauty arrests motion. Beauty brings us up short. We catch our breath, stand in surprise, or in awe and wonder or even terror, as Rilke said. This momentary suspension in the face of a moment of beauty is true as well for ugliness, for, as Plotinus said, ugliness makes the soul shrink back within itself and turn away.
The gasp, "ahh-h", lies at the root of the word ‘aesthetic’. This aesthetic response whether to the ugly or the beautiful shows an immediate instinctual awareness regarding the world before aesthetic judgements and before taste. Beauty comes upon us at a glance, seizes and lets go; as does horror. The aesthetic response is given with the psyche like the inner cautionary daimon that holds one back, like the depressive mood that refuses action.
Beauty, however, prompts action. That is, the naive aesthetic response leads on to aesthetic protest against ugliness on the one hand, and on the other to aesthetic desire to preserve, protect and restore the beautiful. Of course, the various attempts to conserve can turn into reactionary conservatism hostile to technological change. But going backwards is not the intention of the aesthetic response, nor of precaution. Going backwards results from the identification of beauty with the particular moment of its appearance; a particular style, which then crystallizes into an ideology of beauty, whether naturalism, romanticism, modernism, formalism, nationalism, popularism, vernacularism or idealism. Each of these holds the aesthetic response captive, chained to dogma and deprived of its naive spontaneity, whereas what the response more freely seeks is a heightened sensitivity and breadth so that the response comes into play ever more frequently and perceptively. In earlier times this was called the gradual improvement of taste.
Here we must distinguish the moment of arrested movement from an identification with the arrest itself, as if beauty must stand still. But beauty, like caution, is not meant to stand still. The saying is not "Don’t leap," but "Look before you leap." Beauty means only for us to arrest for a moment the senseless insensitive forward thrust, in order to open the senses by inviting the aesthetic response. Then, as the arresting moment flees, the principle of precaution can incorporate into its innovative explorations an aesthetic awareness, insisting that any plan or project does not neglect the demand that beauty makes, or the deleterious effects of ugliness.
Were we to arouse our senses from their psychic numbing, their anaesthesia, many of the products and programmes, the very river of time itself, hastened on its course by the powers that rule governments, economists, corporations, media and industries, would slow enough to seep into other channels that have not yet been irrigated and so have never had a chance to bloom.
Anaesthesia seems necessary to heroic fortitude. Like a blinkered horse, its eyes only on the prize, it rushes headlong into ugliness — the very world it has constructed. Were our aesthetic responses to awaken, we would not need the admonitions implied by the principle of precaution — not even Hippocratic warnings and Socratic omens. The individual human’s aesthetic response would alter the very course of history and the shape of things we live among.
Our noses too, and our eyes and ears, are political instruments, protesters. An aesthetic response is a political action. Like the daimon of Socrates who indicates only what not to do, we too know instinctively, aesthetically when a fish stinks, when the sense of beauty is offended. Standing for these moments — and these moments occur each day, within every airless office building, seated in each crippling chair, inundated by senseless noise and fattened on industrial food — standing for our responses, these aesthetic reverberations of truth in the soul, may be the primary civic act of the citizen, the origin of caution and of the precautionary principle itself with its warnings to stop, look and listen.