Environmental Ethics

Volume 14, Issue 3, Fall 1992

John Martin Gillroy
Pages 217-237

Public Policy and Environmental Risk
Political Theory, Human Agency, and the Imprisoned Rider

In this essay, I argue that environmental risk is a strategic situation that places the individual citizen in the position of an imprisoned rider who is being exploited without his or her knowledge by the preferences of others. I contend that what is at stake in policy decisions regarding environmental risk is not numerical probabilities or consistent, complete, transitive preferences for individual welfare, but rather respect for the human agency of the individual. Human agency is a prerequisite to one’s utility function and is threatened and exploited in the strategic situation that produces the imprisoned rider. This problem is created by the policy maker’s assumption that his or her task is to assume rational preferences and aggregate them. The guidelines for evaluation and justification of policy should move beyond welfare preferences and involve an active state protecting human agency and empowering the imprisoned rider. Only in this way can we free all citizens (a priori) from fear of exploitation by those who would impose collective and irreversible risk on each of them in violation of their unconditional right to their own agency.