ISRF Early Career Fellow 2018-19
ISRF Early Career Fellow 2018-19
Matt Burch is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex. He has a PhD in philosophy and an MSc in Behavioural Economics, and he works on issues at the intersection of phenomenology, action theory, and research in the cognitive and social sciences. At the moment, his research is focused in particular on the stance of objectivity in legal contexts, the breakdown of agency in everyday life, and, the topic of his ISRF grant, the issue of risk in the care professions. His research on risk is an outgrowth of his work on several projects with the Essex Autonomy Project (EAP), including an AHRC-funded project on the compliance of the Mental Capacity Act (2005) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Wellcome Trust-funded Mental Health and Justice project.
His ISRF project aims to bridge a gap between our theoretical tools for conceptualizing risk and the practical decisions about risk made in today’s care professions. The dominant paradigm in today’s discourse on risk stems from decision theory. This discipline has developed excellent mathematical tools for decision-making under risk. However, these tools, as any expert will attest, are only powerful predictors of risk under certain conditions—conditions almost never met in care work (Pecora et al. 2013). Care workers are not like insurance actuaries setting policy prices. They work collaboratively with individuals to solve specific, ethically complex problems in environments where the accurate statistical forecasting of risk is not a real possibility. Care workers thus need an approach to risk designed to fit their actual practice, and Matt’s project aims to develop such an approach. To do so, he will use the tools of philosophy to bring the discourse of risk back in touch with the human condition, and he will draw on social science methods to collaborate with care workers in order to develop an approach to risk fit-to-purpose for the care professions.
Today’s dominant theories of risk offer decision-making guidance based on probabilistic reasoning. While extremely powerful in some domains, such theories offer little guidance for frontline care workers who make decisions about risk in an environment where the relevant probabilities are either unknown or too small to be useful. Unfortunately, this mismatch between the theory of risk and the practice of care is often overlooked, and institutions demand that care workers “manage risks” as if they were in a position to accurately forecast future outcomes. This creates practical and ethical problems on both sides of the care relationship. Care workers labor under near-constant anxiety due to unrealistic expectations about their ability to prevent negative outcomes; and service users frequently have their liberty curtailed in the name of risk, especially persons with disabilities who lack the ability to make decisions for themselves and/or the power to communicate those preferences forcefully. This project aims to mitigate these problems by highlighting this mismatch between theory and practice and developing a new approach to risk tailored to the needs of care workers. To develop this new approach, the project will bring the discourse of risk back in touch with the human condition by articulating a broad concept of risk as a fundamental aspect of life as an embodied, mortal, and social agent. With this broad concept in hand, I will then engage in collaborative work with care professionals to tailor this humanistic concept of risk to the realities of the care setting. The project will be intrinsically interdisciplinary from start to finish. It will draw on research from decision theory, philosophy, bioethics, the cognitive sciences, sociology, mental capacity law, and disability studies. And its methodology will reflect this interdisciplinary character.