On regulating the unregulable


Taboo transactions and the safety dilemma Again my thanks goes to Ross Anderson over on the Light Blue Touchpaper blog for the reference, this time to a paper by Alan Fiske  an anthropologist and Philip Tetlock a social psychologist, on what they terms taboo transactions. What they point out is that there are domains of sharing in society which each work on different rules; communal, versus reciprocal obligations for example, or authority versus market. And within each domain we socially ‘transact’ trade-offs between equivalent social goods.

Where it gets interesting is that there’s a hierarchy in these domains and woe betide you if you trade off across the boundary in the wrong direction, which is why it’s OK to sell your furniture for food, but not your children. There are it seems certain comparisons and trade-offs we are not prepared even to consider because we feel that seriously considering them would subvert our standing as a moral being. Trading down the hierarchy may be tolerated, just not up; in the example I gave above trading off a communal relationship (children) for a market one is definitely ‘not OK’. On the other hand applying communal norms to trade-offs that would normally be governed by market prices doesn’t worry people, for example loaning money to a business associate with no interest attached.

While some might see these procedures as callous…we are not attempting to value a human life or injury in a moral sense, we are rather assigning values to life and other loss categories as a means of making social decisions

Barrager 1976

As the example illustrates the most difficult social trade-offs are the ones that go up the hierarchy, in the example that Ross gives in his post increasing the speed limit to improve economic performance as a trade-off against the number of road accidents is ‘taboo’. Political poison in fact, so in this instance a bureaucratic fudge of inserting a margin in speed measurement facilitates the trade-off. Which brings us neatly to the question of the safety of technological systems.

There is simply no morally and socially acceptable way to trade human life … for conventional economic products…morally repugnant

Doniger 1980

The problem is that we live in a world of constraints, thus there’s no way to spend enough time, money or anything else to assure the safety of individuals in society. So where, and how, do you draw the line? The answer, as western societies ballooning health care bill attests to, is not easy. Remember the term taboo? Fiske uses that with a very specific and defined intent. Violating a taboo is not just forbidden, but even discussing such violations brings with it the same sense of moral outrage; unfortunately it seems one just can’t get away with making ‘reasonable’ Swiftian suggestions.

Looking at societal responses it appears that there are three ways we go about dealing with this problem; the first is to transmogrify the decision into something called ‘risk’, if the risk level be sufficiently low then lo it is socially acceptable. This seems to be the method adopted by those countries that share the code Napoleonic tradition and approaches such as MEM and GAMEB. The second is to apply the principles of ‘scientific management’ and conduct a cost benefit analysis, an approach much beloved by the Americans. The final method is one based on the english common law concepts of negligence and the duty of care which introduces a somewhat impenetrable cost, benefit and risk assessment method that we all know as ‘so far as is reasonably practical’.

Importantly all such approaches embody a degree of bureaucratic distancing and obscuratism between those who notionally manage the social weal, and those who actually make the decisions. ‘See’ the decision maker can say, ‘my hands are clean, the oracles of bureaucracy and analysis have spoken’. Which may also serve to explain the role of ‘regulators’ in modern society, not as enforcers of the ‘law’ but rather as private spaces where such taboo trade-offs can be transacted. Conversely when such trade-offs come into the public domain the concept of certain trade-offs being taboo also also explaisn the vociferous moral outrage evinced by their critics..

Ironically while we in the enlightened west decry the practice of more ‘primitive’ cultures such as the Innuit who, when circumstances were truly dire, might leave grandma behind on an ice floe; it seems that our modernist culture of denial may serve a similar end.

End note. If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about relational models theory here’s a very good introduction.

3 responses to On regulating the unregulable


    Congratulations on your great and complex discussion!

    I’ll “segway” from taboos slightly into security as I think they are related.

    Fear is the barrier between ignorance and understanding. Many people make decisions based on fear, taboo and perceived risks rather than actual risks.

    Establishing an appropriate trade-off between money spent, risk and the cost-benefit is sometimes difficult because fear, when when taken to extremes, can turn into taboos and phobias. When you’re living with phobias it’s easy to pass the responsibility to others to make the (bureaucratic) decisions for you and thus the Fear-Taboo cycle restarts and continues.

    When it comes to security, bad security can often be be worse than no security. So we need to move beyond fear and taboo and make sensible security trade-offs when responding to security threats and terrorism.

    It’s also interesting that personified risks are also rated higher than anonymous group risks. We see this separation when comparing attitudes to safety metrics in the aviation and medical industries. .
    “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – (Joseph Stalin)


      Matthew Squair 17/10/2013 at 5:46 pm

      Have you read Bruce Schneier’s Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World? He coined the term ‘security theatre’ which I think about every time I transit through LAX. Interesting that while El Al has a very good security record everyone seems to ignore how they do it.



    Yes I have read ” Bruce Schneier’s Beyond Fear”. An excellent book.

    Bruce provides a five-point checklist for evaluating security.

    I think that his checklist should be learned and adopted by business and government leaders to limit over-controlling forces, before our younger generations have the passion driven from them, business suffer from overbearing “process arthritis”, and precious budgets are wasted,