Consent to risk fallacy

A common argument against counter-terrorism measures is that more people are killed each year by road accidents than by terrorists.  Whilst this statistic may be true, it is a false analogy and a red herring argument against counter-terrorism. It also ignores the fact that counter-terrorism deters and prevents more terrorist attacks than those that are eventually carried out.

This fallacious argument can be generalised as follows: ‘More people are killed by (fill-in-the-blank) than by terrorists, so why should we worry about terrorism?’  In recent media debates, the ‘blank’ has included not only road accidents, but also deaths from falling fridges and bathtub drownings.  However, for current purposes let us assume that more people do die from road accidents than would have died from either prevented or successful terrorist attacks.

Whenever we travel in a car, almost everybody is aware that there is a small but finite risk of being injured or killed.  Yet this risk does not keep us away from cars.  We intuitively make an informal risk assessment that the level of this risk is acceptable in the circumstances.  In other words, we consent to take the risk of travelling in cars, because we decide that the low level of risk of an accident does not outweigh the benefits of car transport.

On the other hand, in western countries we do not consent to take the risk of being murdered by terrorists, unless we deliberately decide to visit a terrorist-prone area like Syria, northern Iraq or the southern Philippines.  A terrorist attack could occur anywhere in the West, so unlike the road accident analogy, there is no real choice a citizen can make to consent or not consent to the risk of a terrorist attack.

The Consent to risk fallacy omits this critical factor of choice from the equation, so the analogy between terrorism and road accidents is false.



Filed under Logical fallacies

23 responses to “Consent to risk fallacy

  1. Paul Norton

    In my comment “traffic actions” should read “traffic accidents”.


  2. Paul Norton

    Do we really *consent* to the risk of travelling by car? The causes of risks of traffic actions are human acts of omission and commission for which people, corporations and governments can be held accountable, and which societies make considerable efforts to prevent or remedy. We do not “consent” to vehicle manufacturers making cars with fuel tanks that are prone to explode, we do not “consent” to certain local governments in northern NSW failing to maintain local roads in a trafficable condition, we do not “consent” to our fellow citizens drinking a skinful and then getting behind the wheel. These acts of omission and commission may not be as heinous in their motivation as terrorism, but it is in order to make cost/benefit/risk analyses of the actions we take to prevent or rectify them, and the actions we take to prevent terrorism, and to consider whether the relative levels of social resources and social effort we devote to each of these tasks represents the optimum use of finite resources where there are always opportunity costs.


    • The fallacy is only about the difference in consent between traveling in a car and living in the West. We have alternatives to travelling by car, but no alternative to living in the West. That’s why the analogy between car accidents and terrorist attacks is false.


  3. Same false equivalence is used for American gun deaths. Gun owners and their children also travel by car. Some of them consent to the risk but consent is actually an irrelevant point. Cars , guns, terrorists, these are all incremental risks.


  4. Robert

    Not everyone in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan is a member of a terrorist organization, but they face the daily threat of being killed by the war against terror waged by the USA and other first world countries.


  5. While I agree that there is a difference between risks we feel in control of and those that are random or controlled by others, I don’t think you’ve made a valid argument here.

    The examples you use, both as your central criticism and your comparison, are flawed/superficial. The argument isn’t that more people die in X, therefore don’t worry. The argument is that to prevent terrorism we are having rights (or other things) removed for very little gain in safety. Hence we need to be aware of how uncommon something is in order to make a better risk assessment and allocation of resources.

    The car example misses the very important point that people make the assumption they are better than average (illusory superiority bias). They think they can lower their risk, and are again making a bad risk assessment. Which means you could argue they haven’t consented to the risk, because they haven’t understood the risk.

    I’m not sure that anyone is saying that we shouldn’t have counter terrorism activities, but that its importance not be overblown.


  6. Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:

    I have added another paragraph to this fallacy.


  7. Richard

    Terrorism is murder. No one ever consents to being murdered.


    • Of course they don’t, but this analogy is about the consent implied by taking risks. As I say in the article, we take the risk of being killed in a car accident, but we don’t take the risk of being murdered unless we travel to dangerous foreign places.


  8. Iris Lowe

    This sort of argument assumes what’s in the head of the average person. People can only consent if they think about the risk and people vary a lot in what they actually think about vs what you’d logically think that they think about. For example, when I go by car I’m so used to it I forget the risk and so I’m not driving because I consent to it but because I want my goal. When I go by plane though, I do think about the risk – both of crashing and a terrorist attack – and so by getting on the plane I am consenting. It’s a good point though that consent is often left out of the risk comparison equation.


    • Consent can be given by actions as well as a thoughts. I would argue that the mere act of voluntarily getting into a car is sufficient to count as consent to the risks of car travel. To assess the risk of road accidents as zero would not be rational.


  9. Tim must live somewhere that you don’t need to travel by car if you want to function as a human being. Go to work, school, shop for food/clothing/etc, etc. Lucky him. Now if he was talking about travel by plane being a real choice, I would agree his consent to risk analysis had some validity.

    But its certainly true, as he says, that without counter-terrorism measures, there is a risk that terrorism would kill more people. Though some of the measures like telephone/internet metadata retention and video monitoring the activities of the entire population, are obviously more useful for catching the terrorists after the event than actually preventing them.

    And this emphasis of technological counter-terrorism measures, it seems to me, must serve to detract from good old-fashioned policing/detective work. For which smart hard working coppers are needed, not the kind of cop who mindlessly watched CCTV and trawls through metadats.


    • I could get by without a car, but it would be inconvenient – which of course is beside the point. There are plenty of people who don’t even own a car.

      I would also make the point the deterrence is an important component of prevention, so catching terrorists or criminals after the event is not a waste of time.


  10. Sorry, I’m afraid that’s a straw man argument you’re making. No one in their right mind is making an analogy between terrorism and road deaths: they’re merely comparing the risks.

    I more often see the risk comparison being made between getting killed by terrorists and being struck by lightning — in other words, “struck by lightning” directly replaces “killed in a road accident” without affecting the point.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Of course they are comparing the risks of road accidents and terrorist attacks – that’s what I am criticising. My point is that this comparison is erroneous because it doesn’t include the consent to risk factor.


      • The comparison is a straightforward mathematical one. Such factors as “consent” don’t play any part.

        If you want to draw a moral conclusion (terrorism = bad) then that’s fair enough. But it doesn’t seem to have any relevance to a statement (right or wrong) like “you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than blown up by a terrorist”.


      • If you don’t think that consent plays any part in risk taking, then either you have not read what I have written carefully enough or you have not understood it. I don’t see how I could explain it any clearer.


  11. Mark Perew

    Can you demonstrate that the “consent to take the risk” excludes the risk of harm via terrorism?


    • Yes, every time you get into a car, you are consenting to take the risk of a road accident. You are making a choice – you don’t have to get in a car, because there are other alternatives such as public transport or walking. There is no equivalent choice with a terrorist attack in the West, because it could happen anywhere. Thus there is no consent to the risk of a terrorist attack.


      • Timothy Roscoe Carter

        This is just factually incorrect. All of your alternatives to a car have risks. Walking, taking the train, staying home: all have some risk. You do not consent to the risk, you just chose between them. Likewise there is risk of terrorism living in the West: The Klan, the IRA, the Unibomber, and incel nutjobs are but a few of the West’s home grown terrorists. They are a threat everywhere. I consent to none of them, I just chose between them because I have no other choice.


      • You do have a choice as to whether to travel by car or not – there are other alternative means of transport. Therefore every time you get into a car you are consenting to that risk. There is no such choice about living in the West – anywhere you live could be at risk of a terrorist attack.


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