14 February 2010

Risks and Responsibility

The Boston Herald thinks the "IOC owes athletes a safe Olympics," pointing to the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on Friday as evidence it is not living up to its moral obligation. An Australian luger, Hannah Campbell-Pegg, is quoted as saying, "I think they are pushing a little too much. To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives."

I think this is nonsense. No one is throwing Campbell-Pegg, or anyone else, down the tracks. She is not a lemming: she is a free moral agent, fully able to take responsibility for her decisions. If she deems it too dangerous, then she should quit--period. If she instead continues, then it is she who bears responsibility, not any mysterious "they" on whom she would apparently like to put responsibility for her actions.

Luging, like most sports in the Olympics, contains inherent dangers. That is part of the thrill, part of the reason people watch it and part of the reason athletes compete in it. In luging there is a tradeoff between safety and speed; reasonable people might differ about how much speed to sacrifice for safety. Unless you ban the sport altogether, however, it will never be entirely "safe."

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the father of the tragically killed Georgian luger had told him that he was scared of the track. Some will no doubt take this as further evidence that the IOC, or perhaps someone at the site in Vancouver, was at fault and should be blamed or punished for his death. But he was not a boy: he was twenty-one years old, a legal adult in this country, in Canada, and, I suspect, in Georgia as well. That means that he was responsibile for his actions.

There can, moreover, be no single threshold of "acceptable" risk that holds for all people. I would not go down any luge track, because the risks are, for me, too great. Clearly lugers have higher thresholds for "unacceptable" risk in this regard than I do. In both cases, however, we are making free decisions and should therefore be held accountable for them.

That does not lessen the tragedy of what happened on Friday. I do think, however, that crediting Kumaritashvili as a responsible agent shows him respect: He died doing what he wanted to be doing, in full knowledge of the risks, which he accepted. To blame anyone else is to consider him to have been less than a full moral agent, as someone incapable of fully understanding or properly assessing risks. For reasons that are her own, Campbell-Pegg is pretending that she is not a full moral agent; but she is. Regardless, to pretend now that Kumaritashvili was not responsible for his fateful decision to take the track last Friday is to deny him the dignity I believe he deserves.

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