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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

How uncertain?

I very much enjoyed your editorial in the September issue (‘On the uncertain actuary’), particularly of course your statement that ‘our remit moves ever more to embrace the qualitative as well as the quantitative’, for this is where what we regard as professionalism comes most into play.

‘Qualitative’ is essentially a question of ‘values’ – a most misused word – and in my book The Origin and Evolution of Human Values (available from the Staple Inn library) I have striven to establish what such ‘values’ are (as opposed to what they should be), how they arose, how they change with time, and how they strongly influence, but not necessarily determine, what we decide to do.

I believe that these concepts provide a very useful paradigm, an alternative way of assessing conflicting answers to challenging ethical questions. This does not produce simplistic answers to such difficult questions but does, I have found, make sure that the complexities are better appreciated. Rarely are we faced with questions calling for an answer of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but nearly always required to decide between conflicting ‘rights’ – cf the Law Lords in the Equitable case!

Turning to another aspect of our professional problems, there is an unspoken assumption by many of our highly qualified mathematicians that the application of mathematics, as such, makes it certain, or at least highly more likely, our answers will be ‘right’. However we use mathematics, we have to make assumptions, and these assumptions will depend on the way the question is formulated as well as many other factors not necessarily subject to close analysis. If this is a fair statement then our present ‘Procrustean bed’ – the initial requirement of a high mathematical qualification before we are allowed to quality – does, I suggest, exclude many useful potential members and, therefore, needs careful review in modern conditions.

In reply to your final challenge, I suggest the time for Latin tags is long past – my suggestion for an alternative more in line with reality is ‘Times change, so must we’. I fully recognise the powers that be in the profession would never accept it but that is the truth. At the very least it is far more realistic than our present pretension, that our particular discipline necessarily makes us better at ‘making financial sense of the future’!