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  • Taking Action, Saving Lives: Our Duties to Protect Environmental and Public Health
  • Richard P. Hiskes (bio)
Kristin Shrader-Frechette , Taking Action, Saving Lives: Our Duties to Protect Environmental and Public Health (Oxford University Press2007), 320 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-532546-1. Hardcover.

This is a truly "inconvenient" book; so much so that for many of the corporations, officials, and public figures who it names as targets of blame, it will be a cause for action. One hopes, perhaps idealistically, that action will be ameliorative, not legal. This is also an uncommonly brave book, presenting an argument for protecting human rights to environmental and public health that embraces not only a case for blame distribution to corporations and public officials but also an argument for responsibility that extends to all citizens in a democratic society. So it is a deeply political book as well, presenting a theory of democracy that for once is not about distributing public goods or even liberty equally but about distributing responsibility for environmental harms and health risks.

Finally, as one would expect from a prominent philosopher, this is a major philosophical contribution to the literature of human rights. Shrader-Frechette has written many books that present philosophical arguments concerning the advancement of science, technological risk, nuclear power, environmental policy, and environmental justice. Those arguments stand on their merits as attempts to bridge the gap between philosophy and public policy, though most of them reside solidly within the realm of conventional philosophical analysis. Taking Action, Saving Lives presents a different approach both to making environmental policy and to using philosophy for public ends. In the latter approach, Shrader-Frechette comes as close to the ancient Platonic ideal of merging philosophy, politics, and the public good as any philosopher has achieved since John Dewey's pragmatism early last century.

Taking Action, Saving Lives presents an argument for protecting the human rights to public health programs and environmental safety rooted in the lives of ordinary citizens and the responsibility they share with government, industry, and the scientific community. As such, this is an unusual book in human rights as well, since it endeavors to locate, even name, real people who have either had their human rights violated or, even more unusually, are culpable in the violation of those rights. This book names names; in so doing, it goes beyond the usual abstract theoretical arguments about rights and duties to actually give the reader places to start in identifying whose rights have been violated by whom.

Shrader-Frechette is also a prominent philosopher of science, so it is perhaps to be expected that a prominent theme of the book is the "misuse and manipulat[ion] of science" in the service of the private self-interest of corporations and the resulting threats to public health.1 The first three chapters of the book largely explore the theme of the privatization of science (the term employed is "private-interest science")2 to serve interests opposed to the public interest. It is in this part of the book where Shrader-Frechette identifies by name those she considers culpable (including scientists) in the exploitation [End Page 1022] of nature and of individuals for private gain. The argument here focuses on the complicity of institutionalized science, government, and private organizations in duping the public to believe its interests are being served. Examples and even stories (some horror stories) abound here, providing abundant evidence for the points Shrader-Frechette is seeking to score. In employing this methodology, she is also implicitly challenging philosophers in general to expand the focus of their claims by including empirical evidence, even narratives, as part of what constitutes a good philosophical argument. By doing so, Shrader-Frechette's book is attempting to push the boundaries of what counts as philosophical discourse.

Each chapter subsequent to the first begins with a narrative account of how some ordinary citizen managed to engage the private-interest science/corporate/ governmental monolith and succeeded in protecting either his own or a broader public health. The first story is the familiar account of Karen Silkwood's adversarial engagement with, and subsequent murder by, the nuclear industry corporation Kerr-McGee in the 1970s. The account...


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