Asked in a briefing, in February 2002, about the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, entered into a poetic reverie that unintentionally described risk. In his answer he declared:
… as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
The conceptualisation of risk with which we are working in this issue of Working Notes is distinct from what might be called threat because it exists in Rumsfeld’s territory of the “unknown.” Threat and risk both exist along a spectrum where not-yet-certain events cause harm, but threats can be fleshed out with data and some degree of calculation.1
In this issue, “Debt Hurricane,” by Heron Belfon, a lawyer from the Caribbean, considers a “known known.” We know that climate breakdown will exacerbate tropical storms. We know this will intermittently, but increasingly regularly, devastate Caribbean economies. We know that debt will compound this damage. We know that those who contributed least to the problems of climate breakdown will suffer the most. What Heron describes is not in doubt. Her argument – that we need a new international Jubilee movement to deal with the problems of debt in the age of climate breakdown – is an important and compelling claim. We know we need to act; Belfon shows us a way.
We might then come to understand Maynooth University Lecturer in Social Policy, Joe Larragy’s essay, “Ageing, Risk, and Housing in Ireland,” as an exploration of Rumsfeld’s category of “known unknowns.” We do not know yet how deep the demographic problem of housing provision will be as the growing number of precarious renters on middle-to-low incomes find themselves trying to make ends meet with drastically reduced incomes in retirement. This is a major as yet under-explored element of our housing crisis and it demands a policy response from the next Dáil.
We move into the territory of “unknown unknowns” when we turn to the JCFJ Social Theologian, Kevin Hargaden’s essay, “Nudging Ourselves to Death.” If threats can be anticipated, risk is the cumulative, intersectional, unpredictable accumulation of unintended consequences that cannot be anticipated. The threat of speeding in urban spaces can be addressed, but as Hargaden argues in his piece on nudges, the risk turns out to be the harm inflicted on the human respiratory system by increased air pollution. Embedded in this essay is a theological response to the problem of risk for policy-makers, should they have ears to hear it. Explicitly articulating political questions in terms of the things we share in common is a fundamentally safer way to proceed than the technocratic temptations of nudges and other market interventions. Responding to problems with nudges makes unanticipated risk almost inevitable because the true business of politics has been by-passed.
Depending on the day, we can imagine any number of threats and vulnerabilities generated by internet technologies, but the Computer Scientist, Margaret Synnott has mapped out how the risk of monopolistic Surveillance Capitalism now affects us. Dr Synnott was instrumental in the defeat of the vulnerability-laden Irish e-voting scheme and her decades of careful consideration of the ethical and political implications of Computer Science are fully on display in this essay.
Keen readers will have noted that back in 2002, Rumsfeld left an obvious category undiscussed – the unknown knowns. Psychoanalysts and historians can surely speculate profitably on what would have motivated that particular oversight. This category would describe those facts which are evident, but which we refuse to acknowledge. In his debut essay for Working Notes, the new JCFJ Social Policy Advocate, Keith Adams, raises the possibility that the Irish NGO sector is dealing with a risk of this kind. His essay, “In Evidence we Trust,” illustrates that the risk posed by the blind spot may be the most dangerous of all. Adams, harnesses years of experience within the policy sector, questioning the philosophical and methodological robustness of the evidence generated within many “evidence-based” policy interventions. This provocative argument calls everyone in the policy sector in Ireland to reflect self-critically on how our best methods, deployed casually, risk creating a self-justifying loop.
Risk is unavoidable. It is the nature of time that we draw on past experience, in the present, to try to make the best decisions possible for a future that we do not know. Invariably, we find known threats are quickly joined by unknown risks. All we know is that we know these unknown problems will arise.
Risk is inescapable, but how we respond to that knowledge is within our control. We find ourselves perpetually suspended between what we know, what we do not know, what we cannot know, and what we choose not to know. This may be uncomfortable territory for those involved in public policy conversations, but it is home-ground for Christian reflection. Most famously in Søren Kierkegaard, Christianity has long and rich intellectual traditions that emerge out of the recognition that all our commitments invariably entail real risk. The missing dimensions that allow us to navigate that risk successfully is trust. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard famously interprets, and reinterprets, and then interprets again one of the biblical passages that modern readers find most troublesome, the Aqedah – the story of Abraham binding his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).2 The Danish philosopher comes at the story from different angles and raises a range of moral problems and in the end successfully shatters our trust that serious decisions will be straightforward. The supreme ethical risk is complacency. Where we put our trust is a matter of first importance.
In a world of real risk, having relationships and connections we can trust makes all the difference. Heron Belfon is calling us to a global commitment that the people of the Caribbean can trust. Joe Larragy is exploring how the assumptions we used to trust about ageing are increasingly fragile. Kevin Hargaden suggests we cannot trust ourselves, Margaret McGaley warns we should not trust the techno-giants, and Keith Adams decisively calls our shared trusts into question.
Rumsfeld stumbled into his profundity while helping to weave a most elaborate public lie. That was a risk no one could have anticipated! In an age of climate and ecological breakdown, thinking seriously about threats, risks, and how they relate to our assumptions is a critical task for everyone concerned with public policy and social justice.
1. Donald Rumsfeld, “Defense.Gov Transcript: DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers” (US Department of Defense, February 12, 2002),
2. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (London: Penguin, 2003).