Towards a Philosophy of Prevention

Prof. Carlo Chiurco


The first conceptualization of prevention occurred in Greek mythology, with the distinction of the possible forms of wisdom: Prometheus and Epimetheus symbolized the ability of thinking, respectively, in advance and posteriorly. Therefore, from its very beginning, prevention was linked with the ability to anticipate events and behaviours, and to imagine multiple possible outcomes – all features that marks its belonging to the realm of practical reason. Indeed, anticipating events and imagining outcomes implies a strategy that works, for a very simple goal: to minimize damage. This is when prevention crosses its path with ethics, since minimizing damage brings forth the question of vulnerability. We need prevention because we are vulnerable, a universally shared feature that occasionally may become truly dangerous: as the pandemic has shown too well, the vulnerability of a few individuals may soon turn out as the weak sport of much bigger human communities, jeopardize their efforts (not to be contaminated, for instance).

Efforts marks the second point where prevention and ethics cross paths: behind every effort there is never only a strategy, but another force at work: desire. Desire is key to try to understand why prevention efforts so often fail to deliver the promised results, which on paper seemed so easy to reach. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to state that a good prevention campaign needs a thorough, comprehensive planning as badly as an imaginative, empathetic identification with its targeted recipients – and not just in terms of imagining their needs, because, again, desire cannot be reduced to needs.

Nudging has been so far the most popular response to the question about how make people complain with their prevention activities and duties. A more philosophical – i.e., conceptually wider and more comprehensive – approach could well include some remarks found in Arendt’s The Human Condition: sometimes, games are the best model applied to the knowledge of humans, far better than models, which invariably follow a reductionist approach. Therefore, as an activity designed by humans targeting other humans (and potentially all of them), prevention would better refuse automatisms, like (in the end) the consequentialist/utilitarianist approach is, and structure itself according to how as humans are made, becoming desirable.