Ethics & International Affairs Volume 21.3 (Fall 2007): Features (Peer-Reviewed): Reconstructing Precaution Deconstructing Misconceptions [Abstract]

Sep 26, 2007

The precautionary principle, widely endorsed at national and international level, continues to be at the center of a heated debate. Some authors claim that the principle is unscientific; others argue that the principle is paralyzing and gives the decision-maker no direction. Confusion and misconceptions are generated by the multiplicity of definitions and interpretations of the precautionary principle.

This essay contributes to the debate on the precautionary principle in two ways: 1) it clarifies what is entailed by a mild formulation of the principle and 2) it identifies a number of misconceptions underlying some of its main criticisms.

A reasonable understanding of the precautionary principle requires both substantive and procedural elements; the substantive element suggests that, in circumstances where uncertainties and risks of irreversible harms are present, decisions should err on the side of environmental preservation; the procedural element suggests that the principle should favour decision-making processes that are iterative and informative over time and that integrate experts’ assessments of the risks to be governed and people’s preferences and values.

Against this background, six misconceptions underlying the main criticisms of the precautionary principle are identified and deconstructed. The analysis of the misconceptions sheds further light on the fact that following the principle, processes of learning are stimulated and accordingly technology is not halted; to the contrary, the application of the principle leads to better understanding of technological developments and their effects.

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