Review of ON RISK – Mark Kingwell

2020, Biblioasis, 154 pages

In May 2021, Canadian Cycling magazine interviewed University of Toronto philosophy professor and cyclist Mark Kingwell. Kingwell’s book On Risk, Or, If You Play You Pay: The Politics of Chance in a Plague Year had recently come out. In the book, Kingwell draws on popular culture and personal anecdotes–including a close call where his bicycle was struck by a car and crushed–to illuminate the hidden workings of risk and chance. As a cyclist who also writes on risk, I was intrigued. In fact, I read the article at a newsstand during a break on my 122-kilometre cycling trek that day–my longest day in the saddle so far. I resolved to remember the title and read it at the first opportunity. Risk was in the news daily. Covid was in the air. A new book by a philosopher-cyclist explaining what risk means to us today: what could be a more fascinating read? Or so I thought.

On Risk is a small book. Fast readers can finish it in one sitting. The book is divided into four chapters: “The Game of Risk,” “Luck,” “Politics,” “Death and Taxes.” They can be read individually as discrete essays, but, read together, they build up to Kingwell’s progressive vision of government stepping in to equalize risk and reward for the haves and the have-nots. The slender volume has no index. Here is my summary, beginning with the preface.

Preface: The Plague Years

The coronavirus distributes risks across North American societies asymmetrically, with greater risks to Indigenous, Black, Latino, aged, and poor populations. This asymmetrical distribution of risk is further exacerbated by the poor choices of conservatives and conservative politicians who downplay the dangers of the pandemic. Risk is political because risk is the expression of who lives, who dies, and who decides.

Chapter 1: The Game of Risk

The board game Risk, card games, dicing, roulette, betting, poker, and other games of chance illustrate how difficult it is for people to understand risk: many bets are simply illogical. Risk is hard to understand because risk is for all time, eternal, and hardly possible for short-lived mortals to model. In fact, our reality may be part of a multiverse where many types of risk exist which we may not even be aware of: if the nuclear force (one of the fundamental forces of nature) were stronger, life would not exist. But even though risk is so multi-faceted and our knowledge so limited, it is good to try to understand the odds and play the game of life.

Chapter 2: Luck

Kingwell uses luck as a springboard to talk about gambling and risk. That conversation shifts into Einstein’s comment that “God does not play dice” which leads into a conversation about fate and free will with some obligatory comments on Oedipus. A discussion of how poorly people evaluate and understand risk follows (this is a recurring theme). For society as a whole to benefit, the “greed is good” mantra of capitalism must be overcome; in an egalitarian society risk and reward must be shared. Many examples of how people misunderstand risk (or chance). A discussion of insurance, individual, and communal risks with the conclusion that risk, in the final examination, is societal and political.

Chapter 3: Politics

Risk is always political. Three examples of political risk: order-one risk, order-two risk, and order-three risk. Order-one risk is living in impoverished areas without access to clean water and food. Order-two risk is also known as birthright risk, or the idea that some win the lottery in terms of whether they are born in a rich or poor country to rich or poor parents (this seems to me to also be true of order-one risk, not sure why Kingwell classifies them in separate categories). Order-three risk is one’s penchant for taking risks, which may be biological rather than due to free will. Society tends to reward (or bail out) risk takers, so this is unfair to those who do not take risks. Government should get involved to even out the “bonuses” that big risk takers get from making big bets. This involves increasing the inheritance tax and making loans available to poor people.

Chapter 4: Death and Taxes

In the universe, or even in all the multiverses, “The horizon of all risk is death,” says Kingwell. Death is the final risk event. There is personal death. Then, there may be death for whole peoples. At the far end, there is the possibility of an extinction event for the sapiens. Risks that happen are metaphysically different than near misses that almost happened. Statistics, sadly, do not incorporate the data from near misses, skewing our perception of risk. But despite all the existential and collective risks, we still must play the game. In playing the game, we benefit as a species by balancing the possibility of risk and reward for all the players: many players in the game are disadvantaged. We can balance the game by reforming the tax system to make the rich pay more, introducing a guaranteed basic income, and ending corporate bailouts.

A More Concentrated Focus, Please

I wish this book were more concentrated. It is diffuse. In two paragraphs, Kingwell covers the question of suffering. Then, in a few pages, he blazes through fate, free will, and risk. Another couple of paragraphs, and his critique of neoliberal economics is concluded. Each of these topics, by itself, could have been a book. I almost fell out of my chair at one point when I read: “Marketing and advertising follow in wake of these [e.g. actuarial science and economics], but I lack the space to address them.” Really? If you could cover Foucault in one paragraph, couldn’t you cover marketing and advertising in a few sentences?

I felt that Kingwell attempted to cram too much into this slender volume. I had a hard time following his train of thought as he jumped from Homer Simpson to the question of suffering to theodicy to Covid to politics and so on. The Kirkus review speaks kindly when it says that On Risk is “sometimes meandering.”

Who is the Audience?

The back cover (quoted below) presents this book as a primer for all the people who want to learn more about risk because the pandemic has made risk the “it” word. While much of the book is conversational, parts of it I found hard to follow. Take this explanation of consciousness in the multiverse:

To be precise [Daniel] Dennett holds to a “multiple drafts” model of consciousness, without a central homuncular observer in the “Cartesian theatre” notion of singular consciousness. This view makes room, therefore, for modular distribution of mindedness.

I felt that, for me to have a chance of understanding any of this, these three sentences would have needed to be expanded into three pages (or more!) of concise writing. It is the same with the Kolmogorov zero-or-one law of probability theory. Kingwell mentions the law that seems to imply there are no odds in between zero (impossible) and one (absolute certainty) but before he explains how it works, he is already onto the next topic. I would have been fascinated to learn more about the Kolmogorov law.

Chance or Risk?

I was confused about how he uses the term risk. Much of the time, when Kingwell refers to risk, I thought he ought to be talking about chance. Take this example. At one point he says that “Risk is theoretically neutral and indifferent.” Is risk neutral and indifferent? If you take a risk, say, by taking a corner at 100kph instead of 40kph or by standing up to a bully, it is not going to be “neutral and indifferent”–something will happen, either in your favour or not. If he had said “Chance is theoretically neutral and indifferent” I would have understood better. Many of his anecdotes I’ve found in books on chance and probability, where they’re classified under chance. Certainly chance and risk overlap, but I found myself thinking “chance” many times when he wrote “risk.” Despite several pages on etymology, I found myself wishing that Kingwell would have clearly defined what he meant by “risk,” a word that can mean many things including danger, the exposure to danger, fate, destiny, and more.

I Learned More About Kingwell than I did on Risk

Reading this book, I learned more about Kingwell’s likes and dislikes than I did on risk. Kingwell likes: Gillian Anderson, liberal thought, Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Paul Krugman, and Stanley Kubrick. Kingwell does not like: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump, Ayn Rand, Kenny Rogers, Napoleon, neo-liberal capitalism, and Midwestern voters. If your tastes line up with his, you may find this book enjoyable. Some of his vitriolic struck me as unnecessary sidetracks that detracted from the points he was making. Take this comment on one of his colleagues at the University of Toronto: “This [e.g. that the university is a privileged environment] is one of the few points on which I agree with the world view of my polemical and lately deranged University of Toronto colleague, Jordan Peterson, who made this very point during a panel discussion on student mental health on which we both appeared.” Kingwell, I thought, could have made his point quite equally well without bringing up Peterson. Elsewhere, Kingwell celebrates “four hundred-plus years of liberal thought” that “has been about creating community through the inclusion of the Other.” In word he celebrates the inclusion of the Other but, in deed, he calls out his colleague for being “deranged” at a symposium on mental health?

If you’re looking for a primer of risk, there are others out there. One of my favourites is Peter L. Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. Bernstein goes into depth and he is a great storyteller. A lighter read on risk would be Chances Are… Adventures in Probability by Michael and Ellen Kaplan. On risk and catastrophe, there is Mark Buchanan’s enjoyable Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen. On simulating risk on the stage of theatre, there is my own The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Kingwell’s book, despite its title, really isn’t a primer on risk. It could have been more usefully called On Risk and Social Justice or something along those lines.

Finally, there was, to me, a contradiction within the book. One of Kingwell’s strategies to equalize opportunity in society is by implementing higher taxes, in particular, the estate or inheritance tax. That position itself is not controversial. But on every other page of his book, he lambasts the government. The response of the American government, for example, to the Covid crisis was like flying an airliner straight into the side of a mountain face in plain sight. Presidents of the United States are corrupt, lying, war-mongers. The electorate cannot tell up from down, voting for policies that harm everyone. Government relief programs are inefficient and nepotistic. The question I asked myself as I read his book was: if government is as bad as he claims, how could giving them more money help society?

Book Blurb

“Risk is theoretically neutral and indifferent,” writes Mark Kingwell, “an exercise of pure randomness. But as the 2020 pandemic has shown us, when natural forces meet social and cultural conditions, risk can get redistributed very fast.” With the new Covid-era focus on the risks of even leaving the safety of our homes, now is the time for deeper consideration. How should a society manage and distribute risk? If it can never be eliminated, can it be controlled? At the heart of these questions–which govern everything from waking up each day to the abstract mathematics of actuarial science–lie philosophical issues of life, death, and personal safety. Mortality is the event-horizon of daily risk. How should we conceive of it?

Arthur Blurb

Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, and has written for publications ranging from Adbusters and the New York Times to the Journal of Philosophy and Auto Racing Digest. Among his twenty books of political and cultural theory are the national best-sellers Better LivingThe World We Want, and Glenn Gould. In order to secure financing for their continued indulgence he has written about his various hobbies, including fishing, baseball, cocktails, and contemporary art. His most recent book is Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), which won the 2020 Erving Goffman Award for scholarship in media ecology.

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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
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