Your Mind is Not Safe

Apologies in Advance

What is safety? What are we safe from? How do we know when we’re safe? How do we know when others are safe?

The term safety gets used a lot. Which is fair enough, as we live in a dangerous place. A giant rock, hurtling through a vacuum, orbiting an enormous fucking fireball. Yikes. But not much we can do about that.

Safety is the second layer of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. After our urgent physiological needs are met (food, water, shelter, air, sleep, etc.) we seek safety. But what did Maslow think we were seeking safety from?

It’s not obvious. But basically, by safety, Maslow meant i) securing long-term access to resources that meet our physiological needs and ii) reducing exposure to harmful things, like predators, disease, natural disasters, or other people. On the one hand, it’s the preservation of Good Things. And on the other, it’s the prevention of Bad Things.

This is why safety is used so much. It denotes the presence of Good Things. It denotes the absence of Bad Things. There are a lot of Good Things and a lot of Bad Things. But why does safety become a political topic? Why is it a confusing topic? There are a few reasons:

  • Other people can be the Bad Thing,

  • Improving physiological safety often involves limiting individual freedoms,

  • Non-physiological safety (and what is a Good Thing and a Bad Thing) is hard to define universally.

First and foremost, humans are both safety-seekers and potential hazards. We have a long history of causing harm to one another. This can be due to conflict over resources or conflict over ideology. The conflict can be real, as in the case of limited resources, or artificial, as in the case of ideology. Either way, it’s an unpleasant experience. You are threatened by another person, regarded as the Bad Thing, or both. 

Second, improving safety requires limiting individual freedoms. We are not allowed to kill each other, commit arson, or drive drunk. These behaviors are made illegal because they turn a human being into a Bad Thing for other human beings. People don’t like limiting their freedoms, so there is a challenging trade-off here. Some of what we consider to be Good Things have to be given up to prevent Bad Things.

Third, non-physiological safety is hard to define. Going back to Maslow’s definition of safety, it is the preservation of some resource or the prevention of some harm. But at the higher levels of the pyramid – Belongingness, Esteem, and Self-Actualization – how do we establish what is a “resource”? 

At the physiological layer, there is an almost 1:1 match between needs and resources. Air is air, water is water, and calories are calories. But what makes someone feel like they belong depends on the person. Same with a source of esteem. It depends. So, the notion of “psychological safety” is highly context-dependent. It also runs into the above issues, where people are hazards and freedoms need to be limited. 

The average fatality rate in the U.S. coal mining industry has fallen by 96.66% from 1911 to 2014. That’s a testament to human ingenuity, technological progress, and the solvable nature of the problem of physiological safety. 

It’s probably a mistake to use the word safety to refer to the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Studies of safety are grounded in physical, chemical, and biological processes. As of yet, we haven’t determined the real-world processes that lead to consciousness. There is not a 1:1 match between psychological states and physiological states. So, we won’t be able to rely solely on the concept of safety to improve belonging, esteem, or self-actualization. 

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