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Perrow suggests that most risk analysis procedures are really a way for some people to think clearly about the risks to which they will subject other people. People who are doing a risk or safety analysis are usually those hired by the company to protect itself from risk. There are mixed motives here: by protecting themselves from risk, they also protect the safety of those in using their products.

Ford Motor Company made itself infamous by explicitly comparing risk to the company (in dollars lost from lawsuits) to risk that consumer faced (from inadequate design of gas tanks in the Pinto). They decided that it would cost less to pay the lawsuits than to fix the car. Here the calculations were all financial. But it is at least up for debate whether all companies make decisions in this manner. In many, the motives are mixed: protection of the company and safety of the consumer.

But AECL’s priority seems odd even in the light of self-protection. Its risk analysis seemingly was not done to protect the company, but to certify their already strongly held belief that the machine was safe. This sort of unfounded optimism regarding technology at least provides them with the defense of ignorance. But this defense is less persuasive when offered by those with power over other’s well-being. Often, when individuals or corporations are given more power, we are also more likely to hold them more responsible for their actions.

At any rate, this case is clearly an issue of who has power to enforce the acceptance of risks on others. This power may be economic (as in the case of AECL) or political (as in the FDA).

But at the individual level, the power may simply be positional--acquired because you happen to be the software engineer assigned to a particular project. This is what Huff has called unintentional power--the power that a designer has over the users of a product. Someone with unintentional power uses it without intending benefit or harm to the ultimate user of the product. This is another case of the defense of ignorance. In this case, the defense is harder to believe, since the software controlled a potentially lethal radiation beam. But the intention of the programmer, or of the operator, was not to harm patients, or even to place themselves in the position where they could harm them. But taking a job as a programmer entails this unintentional, positional power. It is better to know this than to ignore it.

These sorts of power differentials exist at all levels of the social analytical framework. And a careful ethical analysis of power will ask what duties go along with that power, and what rights are held by those with less power.

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