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“Ask a Priest: Is It Moral to Take a Risk?”
Q: Before I ask my question, please allow me to propose a couple of scenarios as background. 1) A person desires to go on a vacation, for absolute no other reason than for his own enjoyment. He gets onto a plane. Now, we all know that, each time one gets onto a plane, even though the probability of danger is low, one inevitably, to whatever degree, risks one’s life by getting onto the plane and flying. In this scenario, does God actually approve of our risking our very lives just for the pleasure of a pleasure vacation? Even if the risk is small, is not the mere possibility of death enough to make the trip merely for pleasure a wrong arrangement of priorities (pleasure over [more] certain life)? Indeed, shouldn’t we simply be content with things that are more local or safer around us than to travel such a distance with such a risk of loss of life? Why or why not? 2) Let us, then, look back to the earliest days of merchant ships when the prediction of storms at sea (which were unable to be prevented) was in its infancy. Let us say that a merchant wishes to transport (and a buyer wishes to receive) a shipment of precious jewels unavailable anywhere near where he lives and luxury items meant solely for the enjoyment of the buyer. Would God have approved of the buyer for wishing to have the gold/jewels even at the risk of the men on the merchant ship? Would God approve of the men on the merchant ship for taking the risk of traveling a potentially stormy sea only to provide pleasure to and make money from the buyer? Even in modern times, though ships are obviously better equipped to deal with storms, surely storms can still come up unexpectedly and have the potential to take the lives of those on board ships. Should Christians, then, take cruises or desire cargo transported on them purely for their own enjoyment or gain? In both of these cases, one might argue, the risk is too low, though I would counter that, in the second case, the risk would have been higher than in the first. If this is the correct argument, what risks is, in fact, too high? Put more generally, if one wishes to obtain something that is meant entirely for pleasure but has any chance whatever to lose his or her life, and that a chance unable to be reduced by man’s ingenuity, does God approve of the taking of such a risk? Thanks again for all your help. -M.K.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The short answer to your question is: it depends.
Let me quote from three numbers in the Catechism:
2288 Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good….
2289 If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports….
2290 The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.
There are no hard-and-fast rules on what people should and shouldn’t risk. There are many factors involved.
A person getting on a plane for a winter vacation in Florida might be mentally burnt out and sorely in need of rest. Even getting into a car is risky (more so than planes), yet many people couldn’t easily walk to a supermarket or a doctor’s office. There is a trade-off, in other words.
We risk something when we sit down to eat (death by choking). We risk something when we get a shower in the morning (injury by slipping on a wet floor). There is no such thing as a risk-free life. Temperance and prudence help.
No. 2289 makes an important point, too, that the life of the body is not an absolute value.
A person might rightly take on a dangerous job in order to feed his family. And as for businesspeople and merchants who face dangers for the sake of profit, even there it is not easy to gauge what does and doesn’t constitute a justified risk. Sometimes the financial health of companies, and the employees’ families who depend on paychecks, can motivate businesspeople to take risks.
Ideally, people should be grounded in a strong moral code or religious faith that helps them make these kinds of decisions. Each of us has to make these decisions, knowing that we will be called to account someday.
Experience teaches that these decisions are not easy. Even harder is to try to judge someone else’s decision.
If you are facing these kinds of decisions, you might want to pray about them first. Do your best to weigh the pros and cons, then decide and leave things in God’s hands. I hope this helps.