Systemic risks are risks produced through interconnected non-wrongful actions of individuals, in the sense that an individual’s action is a negligible cause of the risk. Due to scale effects of interaction, their consequences can be serious but they are also difficult to predict and assess via a risk assessment. Since we can have good reason to engage in the interconnected activities giving rise to systemic risk, we incur a concurrent collective responsibility to ensure that the risks are fairly distributed and well regulated. James argues that fairness in this context requires taking reasonably available precautions ensuring for each risk-bearer a favourable ratio of expected benefits over expected losses. In sections 2 and 3 we argue that such a conception of fairness applies but only on the condition that the systemic risks created are irreversible risks and that the general background conditions of justice are imperfectly fair. When risks are reversible, compensatory justice can correct for unfairness in risk imposition. Where risks are irreversible, compensatory justice necessarily fails, giving rise to a collective responsibility to regulate fairly ex ante. Additionally, where background conditions of justice are fully fair and the systemic risk is well understood, risk bearers can be said to have consented to the systemic risk. If they are not fair, we argue that the primary political obligation should lie in fixing the fairness of the backgrounds of justice. A related reason for addressing the general background conditions of fairness is that James’ account of fairness in systemic risk imposition encounters a baseline problem. If expected risks and benefits are calculated again an unfair historic background condition, systemic risk imposition would not be fully fair. Section 4 shows why differences in evidentiary uncertainty as to probability and levels of harm and effective responses require a normatively appropriate response in the form of additional precautions. We show that the evidentiary standards set for risk-based cost-benefit analysis have a connection with deontology because they express a postulate of equal treatment in formal terms. Systemic risks can have different possible degrees of epistemological certainty due to factors of social and natural origin, such as more available research funding or higher degrees of complexity for some systemic risks but not others. These differences have to be mitigated by taking even greater precautions in difficult-to-research systemic risks.
Alexia Herwig and Marta Simoncini, Risk, Precaution, Responsibility, and Equal Concern, volume 30, issue 3, pages 259–272, September 2017.