Uncertainty and Risk: Does harm reduction do more harm than good?


A recent article by Pete McMartin in the 21 June, 2012 Vancouver Sun (titled: Can David Berner reduce harm reduction?) page A4 examines whether David Berner’s vehement stance against harm reduction (for drug users) merits serious consideration.

David apparently takes the view that harm reduction encourages and nourishes drug addiction. He is also concerned that harm reduction disconnects the “humane” treatment from some awkward ancillary issues:

  • “I am not going to ask you where you got your drugs.”
  • “I am not going to ask you where you got the money to pay for your drugs.”
  • I am not going to ask you what you are going to do after you have shot up.”

This post isn’t going to argue for or against either side of this social policy (I honestly don’t know whether the program really works), rather it is going to use the perspectives of David to consider the potential implications of handicapping a person’s ability to understand and learn from dealing with life’s choices in terms of these choices uncertainties and risks.

I have defined and described what uncertainty and risk mean in other posts (Uncertainty and Risk: Only Death Gives us a Certain and Risk Free Setting) and I have also suggested that we learn about this feature of being alive so that it is a learnable competency (Talent Management: The Need to Learn About Uncertainty & Risk, A Life and Leadership Core Competency).

Given my thoughts on what and how we learn how to deal with uncertainty and risks, it is a logical step to ask ourselves how any strategy, plan of action aids or impedes our learning and getting more competent. I believe we should create as often as possible opportunities for people to learn from life choices’ consequences.

I believe this learning is beneficially a life-long endeavour because as we get older many of us become involved with significant choices where the uncertainties and risks, if they materialize, are serious (even devastating) and can be wide ranging. The recent trading losses by JP Morgan traders is in the billions. BUT, billions is such an abstract notion, for the trader they are numbers on a computer monitor. In reality, we are talking about investors livelihoods and financial wellbeing.

At some point in our lives more learning arises from experiences rather than schooling oriented settings. Hence, if we are going to promote learning how better to deal with uncertainty and risk events then we need to ensure that the consequences for choice are reflective of the impacts of these events.

This is an interesting challenge to those who flatter themselves that they are effective at establishing performance management schemes. I really can’t recall any such scheme that intentionally and materially sets out and operationalizes the principles ono uncertainty and risk highlighted above.

I believe David’s concerns warrant serious consideration. If the harm reduction approach does not deal with ensuring the delivery of appropriate consequences then there is an argument to be made that these programs run the “risk” (rather than uncertainty) of failing in two ways:

  1. They don’t help people move away from self destructive behaviours that also necessarily involves  collateral damage on others (i.e., the victims of the drug user’s crimes).
  2. They don’t strengthen the drug user’s capacity to deal with life’s exposure to, and experience with, uncertainty and risk.

As I say, I am not an expert on the specific harm reduction programs. I do not know if, or how, they compensate for David’s concerns about the lack of consequences to support dealing with the two concerns just above.

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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