Varieties of Risk

AHRC sponsored research project


We develop risk pluralism by drawing on other long-standing debates about pluralism in philosophy, for example, pluralism about truth, value, norms, or logical consequence. We argue that risk pluralism offers not merely a descriptively adequate theory of risk judgments, but also that it is the correct normative theory. Our defence of risk pluralism will tie in with current debates about philosophical methodology and epistemic rationality.


It is widely acknowledged that risk judgments that people are inclined to make don’t always align with what the probabilistic account would predict to be correct. In research dating back to at least the 1970s psychologists have identified a range of ways in which people’s intuitive judgments systematically deviate from the predictions of the probabilistic account. These results have been taken to reveal heuristics and biases which guide our judgments. A pluralist account of risk opens up a new way of interpreting these findings: risk judgments which diverge from the probabilistic account could be reconceived as tracking non-probabilistic notions of risk.

Criminal Law

Many of the rules of criminal procedure are designed to minimise the risk of convicting an innocent person. In particular, the high standard of proof for criminal trials–beyond reasonable doubt–is designed to ensure that the risk of mistaken convictions is very low. And yet, as a number of theorists have observed, many features of the criminal trial process are difficult to square with a probabilistic account of risk. We argue that introducing certain non-probabilistic notions of risk enables us to better account for the realities of legal practice. We will also investigate other ways in which risk figures in criminal trials, e.g. in pre-trial decision about bail or detention, definitions of recklessness, or decisions about parole.

Outdoor sport

Outdoor sports and so-called “extreme” sports, such as mountaineering, base-jumping, or off-piste skiing, involve an increased fatality rate which also affects the most competent practitioners in these activities. In recent studies, numerous “heuristics traps” and biases have been identified that can lead practitioners to misjudge the dangers involved, while the visceral nature of an accident can, in turn, lead non-practitioners to overestimate the dangers of such activities. A pluralist account of risk can help to explain such widespread disagreement in risk judgments by showing that some such judgments are responding to a non-probabilistic notion of risk.

Risk Management

The widespread practice of de minimis risk management involves disregarding certain low risk possibilities, while subjecting moderate and high-risk possibilities to a comprehensive risk analysis. If risk is understood in probabilistic terms, this practice cannot be justified–and it has been criticised on precisely these grounds. We will determine whether the practice may be legitimate relative to a non-probabilistic notion of risk.