I need you to look at the attached files. Then write a 750-1000 words essay that presents the idea in the files. I am taking an Environmental Conversation class and therefore, your work should mainly bring out the idea of conserving the environment. Ensure that you quote all the files in your writing as it is the readings we had in the class. Also, apart from the files attached, you need to include some information from a movie called VIRUNGA.A Core Precautionary Principle1
“[T]he Precautionary Principle still has neither a commonly accepted definition nor a set of
criteria to guide its implementation. “There is”, Freestone … cogently observes, “a certain
paradox in the widespread and rapid adoption of the Precautionary Principle”: While it is
applauded as a “good thing”, no one is quite sure about what it really means or how it might be
implemented. Advocates foresee precaution developing into “the fundamental principle of
environmental protection policy at [all] scales”. … Sceptics, however, claim its popularity
derives from its vagueness; that it fails to bind anyone to anything or resolve any of the deep
dilemmas that characterize modern environmental policy making.”3
In the recent history of international environmental policy and law, a fundamental new
general principle has emerged: the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle has
been particularly influential amongst policy makers concerned about the possibility of major
human impacts on the global environment. But it remains ill-defined, and its philosophical
reputation is low. In particular, the recent literature tends to distinguish between weak and
I’d like to thank audiences at the International Association for Environmental Philosophy and International Society
for Environmental Ethics joint conference in Allenspark, Colorado in 2004, and also at the University of Utah. In
addition, I am especially grateful to Paul Baer, Roger Crisp, Geoffrey Frasz, Dale Jamieson, Josh MacLeod, Cass
Sunstein and Elizabeth Willott for comments on various versions of the paper.
Stephen M. Gardiner is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington, Seattle. In 20042005, he will be a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University.
Jordan and O’Riordan 1999, p. 22.
strong versions of the principle, and to regard the first as vacuous and the second as extreme and
In this paper, I do three things. First, I identify a core form of the Strong Precautionary
Principle (SPP) by suggesting conditions for its application. In essence, my position is that there
are core cases where precaution is warranted, that these cases satisfy a set of reasonable and
intuitive criteria, and that these criteria allow us to identify a Core Precautionary Principle (CPP).
Second, I argue that the CPP escapes the standard objections. Third, I claim that the CPP allows
us to make sense of some of the debate about precaution in controversial areas such as climate
change and genetically modified foods. Opponents of precaution in such areas are, I suggest, not
so much rejecting this version of the SPP as claiming that it does not apply. Hence, the
resistance to the CPP on theoretical grounds is an unnecessary distraction. The real issues are
Before I begin, I want to be clear about the scope and limitations of the present piece.
The main aim of the paper is simply to sketch out the logical space for an interesting and
functional form of the precautionary principle, and so neutralize some common objections to it.
There is no attempt to offer a full defense of either the CPP itself, or the precautionary principle
more generally. There are two reasons. The first is practical. The paper hopes to further debate
within environmental politics, and so is intended primarily for an interdisciplinary, policyoriented audience. Hence, it omits some of the more technical philosophical discussion that
would be appropriate to a full defense. The second reason is more substantive. Dealing with the
common objections will certainly not silence all potential critics of the precautionary principle.
On the contrary, I believe that the introduction of the CPP raises new complexities, and that these
may give rise to further, more serious, worries about the precautionary approach. Thus, the
present contribution is intended as a beginning, not the end, of a debate about the place of the
precautionary principle in environmental policy-making.
Some say that the precautionary principle is not really new. They claim that specific
versions of it can be found at least as far back as ancient Greece, with the Hippocratic Oath’s
injunction “First, Do No Harm”4; and that its spirit has been widespread in public health practice
for hundreds of years.5 However, considered as an explicit environmental principle in its own
right, the precautionary principle is standardly said to have first emerged during the early 1970’s
from the German notion of “Vorsorge”.6 (“Vorsorge” means “foresight” or “taking care”; the
“Vorsorgeprinzip” is the foresight or precautionary principle.)
The exact characterization of the precautionary principle is controversial, and we will
have reason to consider it in more detail shortly. But for present purposes, we can get a basic
impression of it from one widely-cited standard statement:
“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment,
precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are
not fully established scientifically.”7
Ozonoff 199, p. 100. The precautionary principle is also associated with such aphorisms as “better safe than
sorry”, or “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, and so on.
Raffensberger and Tickner, ‘Introduction: To Foresee and Forestall’, 4.; Jackson 1999.
At the core of early conceptions of this principle in Germany was the belief that society should seek to avoid
environmental damage by careful “forward-looking” planning, blocking the flow of potentially harmful activities.
The Vorsorgeprinzip has been invoked to justify the implementation of vigorous policies to tackle river
contamination, acid rain, global warming, and North Sea pollution. (Raffensberger and Tickner 1999b, p. 4.)
Wingspread Statement, 1998.
Principles of this general form are prominent in a number of international treaties and regional
policy statements. For example, versions appear in the UN Framework Convention on Climate
Change (1992), the Third North Sea Conference (1990), and the Ozone Layer Protocol (1987).
Precautionary approaches are also endorsed by major institutions, such as the UN Environment
Program (1989), the EU in its environment policy (1994), and the US President’s Council on
Sustainable Development (1996).8
The widespread endorsement of the precautionary principle appears to be motivated in
large part by the idea that traditional approaches to environmental management are extremely
flawed. Current decision-making practices in environmental and public health bodies rely
heavily on risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. But critics attack these practices on two
fronts. From a practical point of view, they are said to have produced and promoted ineffectual
environmental policies.9 Critics claim that this is because they set the burden of proof for
regulation too high, and in the wrong place: they assume that a new product or process is
“innocent-until-proven-guilty”. From a theoretical perspective, there are several problems. For
one thing, the usual practices presuppose that humans are presently in a position to “fully
understand the impacts of their activities on the environment and establish levels of insult at
which the environment or humans [can] rebound from harm”10. But this is not true, especially
given the extreme complexity of ecological systems.11 For another, they assume that the issues
These references are from Raffensberger 1999.
For example, the authors of the Wingspread Statement declare: “We believe existing environmental regulations
and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to adequately protect human health and
the environment, as well as the larger system of which humans are but a part.” (Wingspread Statement, 1998.)
Raffensberger and Tickner 1999, p. 2.
Edward Soule makes this point by quoting Robert Shapiro, the CEO of Monsanto. Soule says that despite the fact
that Shapiro is “perhaps the most passionate proponent” of genetically-modified food crops, he warns: “when you
start talking about large-scale introduction of dramatic traits in combination with each other, you are dealing with
systems that are so complicated that no one can effectively model them. You can start with running field trials, just
as when you introduce a new drug you run clinical trials to see if people really keel over. But, just as the human
involved are purely technical and scientific. But they are not. Defenders of the precautionary
“The risk assessment process … is as much policy and politics as it is science. A typical
risk assessment relies on at least 50 different assumptions about exposure, dose-response,
and relationships between animals and humans. The modeling of uncertainty also
depends on assumptions. Two risk assessments conducted on the same problem can vary
widely in results.”12
So, proponents of the precautionary principle are dissatisfied with current environmental policy
making. A new approach to environmental regulation is needed, it is said, with the precautionary
principle at its heart.13
II. Basic Characteristics
What then is the precautionary principle? The formulations found in international
agreements and policy statements are far from uniform. But proponents of the precautionary
principle claim that they share a common core. For example, Carol Raffensberger and Joel
body is a subtle and complicated thing, it may be that only one time in a million some side effect happens.” (Soule
2000, p. 311)
Raffensberger and Tickner 1999b, p. 2.
“We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such a
magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.” (Windspread
“In its simplest formulation, the precautionary principle has a dual trigger: If there is a
potential for harm from an activity and if there is uncertainty about the magnitude of
impacts or causality, then anticipatory action should be taken to avoid harm.”14
The Dual Trigger characterization suggests that the precautionary principle has three important
Threat of harm
Uncertainty of impact and causality
But these components raise several important questions of interpretation. Most obviously:
What counts as a threat of harm? Is any potential harm, no matter how small,
sufficient to trigger the precautionary principle?
How does uncertainty figure into this? Is any level of uncertainty sufficient to
trigger the principle, or only a high level? Is there any level of uncertainty which
would be so great that the principle would be unreasonable?
What counts as a precautionary measure? Crossing one’s fingers? Warning
people of the threat? Taking measures to reduce impact of the effects? Taking
Raffensberger and Tickner 1999b, p. 1.
measures to prevent the effects? Taking measures to eliminate the cause of the
The answers to these questions are important. Ultimately, the plausibility of the precautionary
principle depends on them. To see why, consider the following standard objections to the
III. Extreme Precautionary Principles
1. The Ultraconservative Precautionary Principle
The first standard objection is that the precautionary principle is an extreme doctrine.
This objection has two sides. The first may be represented as follows. In a recent piece in the
New York Times, a former member of the Reagan Administration asserted:
“Without any scientific grounds, but on the basis of the so-called precautionary principle
– that is, if we can’t prove absolutely that it is harmless, let’s ban it – the [European]
Union has prevented genetically modified food from the United States from entering its
This characterization suggests an ultraconservative precautionary principle:
Prestowitz 2003. Prestowitz describes himself as “a former Reagan administration trade hawk”.
Ultraconservative Precautionary Principle: Ban any activity that one has any reason
whatsoever to suspect might pose any harm whatsoever.16
I assume that everyone would reject the Ultraconservative Precautionary Principle. It suggests
that if there is any possibility, no matter how small, that an activity might prove harmful, then it
should be banned completely – and this without any consideration for its possible benefits. On
such grounds we would be justified in banning an extremely successful cure for cancer on the
grounds that there was a 0.001% chance that it might cause a minor rash in some patients. This
is surely crazy. If the precautionary principle entails that, then everyone would agree that the
precautionary principle is a bad principle.
2. The Ultraminimal Precautionary Principle
I think that the ultraconservative interpretation of the precautionary principle is
widespread amongst its enemies, and accounts for much of the resistance of political
conservatives to the precautionary principle.17 But we should be balanced in accusing the
precautionary principle of being open to extremism. For the precautionary principle could also
be extreme in the opposite direction: it could be a recipe for extreme complacency. Consider the
following, ultraminimal precautionary principle:
The Ultraminimal Precautionary Principle: We accept the need to act in a
precautionary manner in exactly one case: we should cross our fingers (or just worry)
The label ‘ultraconservative’ is appropriate, since the triggers are conceived of in the most minimal way possible,
whilst the response is conceived of in the most robust way possible.
The conservative resistance to the precautionary principle is not universal. Raffensberger and Tickner report that
in 1998 the Indiana Republican Committee adopted the precautionary principle as the basis for its environmental
platform. (Raffensberger and Tickner 1999b, p. 9.)
in the situation where there is a probability of 99.9% that the world is going to end
immediately due to this experiment.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that anyone, let alone any actual advocates of the precautionary
principle, really accepts the Ultraminimal Precautionary Principle. (Presumably, no one does: it
is just as crazy as the ultraconservative precautionary principle.) Instead, I simply want to make
clear that, by itself, the dual trigger characterization leaves open the possibility of it, just as it
leaves open the possibility of the ultraconservative interpretation. My point, then, is that both of
these views are extreme and seem irrational.
This observation suggests three things. First, there is a sense in which the precautionary
principle itself is not controversial. Given that it can accommodate interpretations as divergent
as the ultraconservative and ultraminimal views, virtually anyone can accept some form of it.
Second, if we are interested in the precautionary principle playing a role in policy, we must
search for some intermediate, moderate form. Presumably, no one believes that we should never
take any kind of precautionary measures; and no one asserts that we should always exercise
extreme precaution either. Such positions are simply straw men, and therefore an unnecessary
distraction. We do not get a better grasp of the precautionary principle by focusing on them.
Third, in the search for an intermediate form of the precautionary principle, the real action
involves identifying the relevant circumstances under which the precautionary principle is
operative, by making clear what kinds of threats and uncertainty trigger the precautionary
principle, and what kinds of precaution are thereby triggered.
These points have important implications. First, they suggest that the extremist objection
to the precautionary principle is badly framed: those who object to the principle on these grounds
really object to certain strong interpretations of its conditions of application, not to the basic
statement of the precautionary principle. Second, this is of practical importance. It shifts the
locus of the debate from the question of whether the precautionary principle itself is a reasonable
principle to that of under what conditions, and in what form, precaution is warranted. The
controversial issue is how one moves beyond the basic statements of the precautionary principle
to a more specific interpretation of how it should be understood and applied.
My basic position, then, is that there is some generic sense in which the precautionary
principle is appealing, but this sense needs to be made concrete if the precautionary principle is
to be useful in policy-making. Specifically, what is needed are characterizations of what
constitute relevant threats, the kinds of uncertainty to which the precautionary principle
responds, and the kinds of precautionary response it envisages. In addition, I will go on to claim
that, in many actual cases of public policy, controversy that is often framed in terms of
objections to the precautionary principle is in fact about these issues of interpretation, rather than
about the principle itself.
IV. Vacuous Precautionary Principles
“The precautionary principle is vague enough to be acknowledged by all governments
regardless of how well they protect the environment.”18
Unfortunately, this initial defense of the precautionary principle against the charge of
extremism immediately invites another prominent objection: that the precautionary principle is
Jordan and O’Riordan 1999, p. 32.
vacuous. For it is natural to think that if the precautionary principle can license both the
ultraminimalist and the ultraconservative views, then it will not be of much use in itself, and can
hardly be expected to be a driving force in environmental policy. Since the above analysis makes
clear that the real action is elsewhere, it might be said, the precautionary principle should be
disregarded in favor of a more helpful environmental principle.
There are several ways in which one might try to save the precautionary principle from
this charge of irrelevance due to vacuity. Here I will consider a number of proposals from the
literature before turning to my own.
1. A Simply Political Precautionary Principle
Some writers admit that the precautionary principle is vacuous; but claim that it can still play an
important political role, as a rallying point for those disaffected with current environmental
decision-making practices. For example, Andrew Jordan and Timothy O’Riordan say:
Admittedly, precaution lacks a specific definition. As yet, it cannot prescribe specific
actions or solve the kind of moral, ethical, and economic dilemmas that are part and
parcel of the modern environmental condition. … 19
But they think that this lack of specificity is actually necessary to its purpose:
Jordan and O’Riordan 1999, p. 16.
[T]he application of precaution will remain politically potent so long as it continues to be
tantalizingly ill-defined and imperfectly translatable into codes of conduct, while
capturing the emotions of misgiving and guilt.20
The reason is that opposition to current orthodoxies in environmental management requires a
concept around which to organize; and precautionary principle can serve as that concept. Jordan
and O’Riordan claim:
Like sustainability, [the precautionary principle] is neither a well-defined nor a stable
concept. Rather, it has become the repository for a jumble of adventurous beliefs that
challenge the status quo of political power, ideology and environmental rights. Neither
concept has much coherence other than is captured by the spirit that is challenging the
authority of science, the hegemony of cost-benefit analysis, the powerlessness of the
victims of environmental abuse, and the unimplemented ethics of intrinsic natural rights
and intergenerational equity. It is because the mood of the times needs an organizing
idea that the precautionary principle is getting attention.21
There is something to be said for Jordan and O’Riordan’s analysis. In particular, it seems clear
that some proponents of the precautionary principle have ambitions of this type. For example,
Raffensberger and Tickner say:
Jordan and O’Riordan 1999, p. 15.
Jordan and O’Riordan 1999, p. 16.
Silent Spring was a call to forestall [the] rapid development and deployment of pesticides
and to return to an ethic of working with nature, not against it. That is the ultimate goal
And another author in the same volume claims:
Implementing precaution is not a discreet task but is intimately enmeshed in the
development of an ecological society.23
Both of these are grand ideals, suggesting that the precautionary principle is derived from a
wider perspective on environmental ethics and policy. Hence, they seem to support Jordan and
I am not opposed to the idea that rallying points and organizing concepts play important
roles in environmental movements and policy. Still, I am skeptical about the idea that this is all
there is to the precautionary principle. There are three reasons. First, the rallying-point view
restricts the appeal of the principle. It suggests that no one who does not share the particular
agenda of (certain parts of) the environmental movement will be motivated by it. 24 This
undermines the principle’s political credibility as a general principle of international
environmental law and regulation. Second, such a restriction seems unduly pessimistic. The
grand ideals of the environmentalists mentioned are not explicit in the basic statements of the
precautionary principle, and yet those statements seem plausible to many people, some of whom
would not accept the ideals. Third, the pessimism seems somewhat self-defeating. If the
Raffensberger and Tickner 1999b, p. 11.
M’Gonigle 1999, p. 142.
See Bjorn Lomborg’s criticism of the IPCC. (Lomborg 2001, 319ff.)
precautionary principle itself is vacuous, and cannot be defended in any more robust form, surely
this would be bad for its appeal as an organizing concept. Organizing concepts can be useful for
bringing people together; but if there is, ultimately, no way for them to make good on their
promise, then they quickly fade, and this risks undermining the coalitions they are supposed to
2. A Purely Procedural Precautionary Principle
Thus, I think that we should reject the purely political precautionary principle. Still, there
is more to say about Jordan and O’Riordan. For their view is actually more complex than I have
suggested so far, and this generates a second possible defense of a vacuous precautionary
principle, as a purely procedural principle. There are two components to Jordan and O’Riordan’s
more robust view. The first is the claim that there is a deep reason for the emptiness of the
precautionary principle: namely, that the very notion of precaution is essentially contested:
[P]recaution is a culturally framed concept that has evolved along different pathways and
at different rates in different countries. Searching for a single, all-encompassing
definition is, therefore, likely to be a fruitless endeavor because individuals will never
agree upon what is or is not precautionary in a given situation. Cultural theory tells us
that there is no one single context of risk perception. We all “see” the world in a
different way, although four broad archetypes can be distinguished. … So those who
regard the environment as inherently robust and capable of withstanding sustained human
impact will tend to be less precautionary than those who regard human impact on nature
as unpredictable and potentially calamitous. These value positions are deeply
entrenched, and scientists and policy makers need to be more sensitive to this when they
communicate risk to the body politic.25
Hence, Jordan and O’Riordan claim that risk perception is a deeply cultural phenomenon,
involving entrenched values which have evolved differently in different countries. And they
conclude from this that we should expect agreement on what precaution means neither in specific
cases, nor as a general principle.
The second component of Jordan and O’Riordan’s view is the claim that the contested
nature of precaution is essential to the political agenda of the precautionary principle as they see
it. For they suggest that the fact of contestedness implies that working out what the
precautionary principle means in any context necessarily involves going through a consultative
process26; and that this means that the precautionary principle contains an essential recognition of
the need for democratic procedures in good environmental management.27
I am not convinced by Jordan and O’Riordan’s pessimism about either the notion of
precaution28, or matters of value more generally.29 Still, for current purposes, we can sidestep
Jordan and O’Riordan 1999, p. 18.
Jordan and O’Riordan 1999, p. 19.
This seems to be a welcome result. For one thing, many precautionary principle enthusiasts, including Jordan and
O’Riordan, believe that democratic consultation is a core component of the precautionary approach to environmental
policy. For another, it suggests that, though the precautionary principle itself is empty, it is empty in a useful kind of
way, and one that is amenable to practical resolution.
The pessimism about precaution rests on some questionable assumptions and a dubious argument. Jordan and
O’Riordan appear to reason as follows:
Precaution has evolved differently in different countries
Therefore, individuals will never agree on what is precaution in a given situation.
Therefore, search for a single, all-encompassing definition is likely to be fruitless.
But this argument is questionable in several ways. First, the meaning of premise 1 is unclear. This is partly because
Jordan and O’Riordan stress commonalities as well as differences between cultures in their understandings of
precaution. In particular, they assert not only that there are different pathways which countries can share, but that
there is something like progress along a pathway, so that different countries can progress at different rates along the
those issues and highlight some general deficiencies of the Purely Procedural Precautionary
Principle (PPPP) itself. The first problem is that the PPPP plays a very diminished role in
decision-making. Its function seems simply to get parties together and then endorse their
agreements. It does not direct decision-making in any substantive way: the agreements
themselves are made on other, unspecified grounds. This seems to reduce the practical
importance of the precautionary principle, and make it unlikely that it can really serve as a
foundational principle of international environmental policy and law.
The second problem is that the PPPP seems to undermine itself in two important ways.
First, its pessimism appears to undercut its own application. Jordan and O’Riordan’s core idea is
that, because the concept of precaution is so deeply contested, the PPPP can play no role other
Second, this undermines the crucial claim in premise 2. For one thing, the existence of common pathways
and rates of progress along the same pathway would suggest the possibility of convergence in at least some cases.
For another, many environmental problems, and especially global ones, may constitute new contexts for thinking
about precaution, and ones that different countries can share.
Third, the inference to premise 2 is in any case invalid. It commits a genetic fallacy: one cannot infer from
the fact that people’s beliefs have different origins that there is no prospect of their coming to an agreement. (For
example, there might be independent standards to which they might refer in generating new beliefs, such as other
beliefs that they have (e.g., scientific beliefs).)
Fourth, the foregoing points undermine the inference to the conclusion in 3. But even if the conclusion
could be established, this would not necessarily defeat the precautionary principle, since the precautionary principle
does not requires “a single, all-encompassing definition” of precaution. For example, it might be enough for many
purposes that the precautionary principle is shown to be reasonable in a certain set of core cases; and there is a much
better chance of agreement here.
Consider some relevant considerations. First, Jordan and O’Riordan make strong claims about attitudes to risk:
that risk perception is a “deeply cultural phenomenon”; that this is because of “entrenched values”; and that this
means that precaution is “essentially contested”, in the sense that issues about it are not resolvable by appeal to a set
of commonly recognizable standards or cases. But all this might be questioned.
Second, Jordan and O’Riordan’s claims about environmental value need to be questioned. For one thing, it
is not clear why issues of risk should be interpreted as issues of value (as opposed, say, to issues of rationality); for
another, even if it were, it is not clear why this would make practical issues which invoke such attitudes irresolvable.
(Of course, it is likely that Jordan and O’Riordan’s claims simply emerge from a more through-going skepticism
about value. But many environmentalists would want to resist such a metaethics. More importantly, we ought not
simply to build such assumptions into a general analysis of the precautionary principle.)
Third, it is not clear why we should accept that all that is at stake in such matters is “cultural framing”. For
example, is it really true that any possible view about the fragility of the earth is acceptable? Science surely plays
some role here. For example, many environmental philosophers seem to think that ecology in particular is
transformative of our ethical views.
Finally, we could accept some level of cultural framing and not give up the precautionary principle. After
all, what counts as a harm and scientific uncertainty is a matter external to the precautionary principle itself. Hence,
there might be ways to fit such factors into a precautionary account other than by giving up on the core notion of
than simply that of getting all interested parties together (environmentalists, developers, stripmining interests), to see what can be agreed. But this creates two worries. One is that, if
precaution is really as contested as Jordan and O’Riordan claim, this would seem to count
against the possibility of easy practical agreement. The other is that the PPPP does not seem to
help here: nothing about the PPPP suggests that it can facilitate the making of either more or
better agreements. Second, the PPPP might undermine the motivation for a precautionary
approach. For interpreted as a purely procedural principle, it is unclear how the precautionary
principle constitutes a distinct approach to environmental policy, and in particular how adopting
it would help to overcome the deficiencies of current policy-making through cost-benefit
The final problem is perhaps the most important. It is that, even if agreements can be
made, the PPPP offers us no reasons to believe that they will actually do anything to protect the
environment. This is because the PPPP imposes no restrictions on what is decided or on how
such decisions are reached.30 This objection rests on the intuition that precaution is not, in fact, a
purely procedural notion. Advocates of the precautionary principle usually believe that there are
at least some substantive constraints on what could count as precaution.31
I conclude that, at best, Jordan and O’Riordan’s account of the precautionary principle
should be accepted only as a last resort. We need a less controversial precautionary principle if it
is to be an effective principle in environmental decision-making, and one that provides more
This implies, amongst other things, that the PPPP provides no defense against ultraminimalist and
ultraconservative interpretations of the precautionary principle.
One example would be that the destruction of the earth not be the necessary result of applying the precautionary
V. Weak Precautionary Principles
Another way to see how a middle ground might be staked is to look at actual applications
of the precautionary principle in public policy. These are often classified as either weak or
strong.32 But both versions have been subjected to serious criticism.
Edward Soule characterizes weak versions of the precautionary principle as having two
main features. First, they are comprehensive, in the sense that they “do not seriously restrict the
factors that decision makers can legitimately take into account”. Second, they are optional, in
the sense that “regulators do not receive any specific guidance on the relative weighting of any
These features, Soule says, imply that the weak precautionary principle is a pragmatic
principle. Its main function is simply to enable regulators to consider a wide range of risk factors
(including, but not limited to, economic efficiency), and to weigh them against each other on a
case-by-case basis. Hence, the practical importance of the precautionary principle on the weak
interpretation is mainly rhetorical: it provides some kind of authoritative basis on which to justify
what are actually pragmatic decisions to weigh environmental risks very heavily on particular
occasions. Soule says:
“If the Weak Precautionary Principle does anything at all it is this: it provides the
authority to override other factors and make environmental risk the paramount and
deciding concern. Regulators might consider all the factors of a practice and judge the
Soule 2000; Foster et al 2000.
Soule 2000, p. 313.
environmental hazards to be so profound that they dismiss as secondary any findings of a
cost- or risk-benefit analysis.”34
If Soule is right, in cases where the WPP is invoked, the precautionary principle does not
function as an independent decision-making principle. Instead, it merely provides cover for
environmental decisions made on other grounds. The real work is done through a pragmatic
juggling of environmental and nonenvironmental costs and benefits.35 It is just that if this results
in a decision to restrict or prohibit the product in question, and if environmental risks turn out to
be the biggest factor in the decision, then the judgment is labeled as an instance of the WPP.
Thus, the WPP provides a kind of ex post justification: it simply highlights the point that in this
case those judging believe on independent grounds that environmental risks outweigh other
factors.36 For such reasons, Soule says that in most contexts,
“Weak formulations of the precautionary principle represent somewhat innocuous or
feeble additions to the regulatory landscape.”37
He therefore regards them as mostly unobjectionable, regarding them as essentially vacuous.38
The WPP seems very close to the vacuous precautionary principles, and shares many of
their faults.39 Still, one difference may mark it as at least a slight improvement. The WPP does
Soule, p. 313.
On Soule’s view it is not clear how this is to be done. The most likely candidate, CBA, is ruled out, since Soule
says that the WPP can conflict with CBA. Perhaps the idea is that there is a process of intuitionistic weighing. But
then, given that he says nothing about either what should be weighed or how the weighing should be understood, it
is unclear why Soule is as sympathetic as he is to the WPP. For example, why does he say that it is ‘innocuous’?
Surely there is some chance that it may allow the process to be hijacked by the personal agendas of the regulators.
Soule offers as an example of the WPP a communication from the Commission of the European Communities.
(Soule 2000, p. 313.)
Soule 2000, p. 315.
Soule does think the WPP can be problematic in international contexts.
not presuppose that there is some kind of problem with the notion of precautionary action.
Instead, it is compatible with, and in fact appears to suggest, the idea that there are clear cases
where a precautionary approach would justify action. The role of the WPP is then to authorize
action in such cases, even though it does not itself identify them. Hence, the WPP does not
imply that “anything goes”, that the precautionary principle is simply a procedural constraint,
with no concrete implications. Rather it allows for the possibility that environmental concerns
will prove strong enough to justify action, even when such action would not be justified purely
on grounds of a cost-benefit analysis.
VI. Strong Precautionary Principles
Although it is less extreme than the vacuous precautionary principles, the WPP seems to
have too much in common with them to serve the purposes of environmental policy. Let us see,
then, whether the strong precautionary principle can do any better.
Soule characterizes the SPP as having two main features. First, it is exclusive in scope,
in the sense that it considers only the environmental risks posed by the policies it considers. (It
does not, for example, weigh these risks against possible economic gains.40) Second, it is
determinative. Environmental risk is the decisive factor in decision-making, and regulators are
required to act on it.41
For example, it provides no way in which to guard against the ultraminimal or ultraconservative interpretations of
the precautionary principle, and so no defense against the charge of extremism. Furthermore, it does not seem
distinct from CBA in the way proponents of the precautionary principle envisage. For, although it allows for the
possibility of acting against CBA, this is simply a result of its general permissiveness about how decisions are
justified: it is equally true that it does not exclude the possibility that the CBA will be one’s only basis for decisionmaking (since the CBA allows for an accounting of risks, in terms of probability, and then a weighing, as the WPP
Soule 2000, p. 317.
Soule 2000, p. 318. Soule cites as an example the Third Ministerial Declaration on the North Sea, 1990, which
urges governments to:
The SPP is criticized on several grounds.42 The objection that particularly concerns Soule
is that it is obsessively narrow. For one thing, it focuses on environmental risk, to the exclusion
of other environmental factors. So, for example, Soule claims that in assessing the merits of
genetically-modified pest protected plants (GMPPPs), the SPP ignores the fact that existing
environmental practices involving the widespread use of agrochemicals such as pesticides
involve large environmental costs.43 For another, nonenvironmental factors are not included.
[T]he choice between two environmentally risky technologies might legitimately involve
factors other than their relative environmental risks. It is at least arguable that GMPPPs
contribute to an affordable and abundant food supply. It is wrong to suggest that these
Apply the precautionary principle, that is to take action to avoid potentially damaging impacts of [toxic]
substances … even where there is no scientific evidence to prove a causal link between emissions and
Foster et al. cite the World Charter for Nature (1982), which states that “where potential adverse effects are not fully
understood, the activities should not proceed” (Foster et al. 2000, p. 979).
One common objection is that it relies on an incoherent attitude to science: on the one hand, proponents of the
SPP want to say that there is enough scientific evidence to show that a given policy poses genuine risks; on the other
hand, they claim that the science is too impoverished to establish that the policy is safe. Hence, opponents accuse
advocates of SPP of wanting to have it both ways with science, and claim that this is incoherent.
This criticism should be rejected. As Soule argues, there are often different evidentiary demands for
demonstrating risk versus demonstrating safety. In particular, he says:
“Assessing risk involves identifying only one potentially harmful effect of an activity. However, very few
commercial practices have only one effect. Rather they have many effects and demonstrating safety
involves showing that none of them pose serious hazards. Simply put, there is just more involved in
demonstrating safety than in identifying risk. Because safety requires more in the way of evidence and
research, it is not unusual that verifying safety would come later in the game than risk assessment. In the
meantime, the best available science might support precautionary regulatory actions. … The Strong
precautionary principle is not absurd but is instead based on a reasonable epistemic intuition.” (Soule 2000,
There are actually two concerns with agrochemicals. One is about their known environmental costs. This is what
the current objection relies on. But another is that they may pose environmental risks of their own which are
comparable in importance and uncertainty to the risks of GMPPPs. Soule emphasizes the second concern in the
latter part of his article.
are not legitimate social concerns. To claim otherwise, as the Strong precautionary
principle does with GMPPPs, requires an argument that it not made.” (324)
Now, I think that these are legitimate concerns. The SPP’s combination of exclusivity (in the
concerns it is willing to consider) and determinative force seems problematic and liable to lead to
irrationality. The critics are right to question a principle that is both narrow and decisive.
VII. The Rawlsian Maximin Principle
I now want to suggest a more appealing way of understanding one form of the
precautionary principle. This involves setting parameters on its application, and draws on the
work of John Rawls in identifying criteria for the application of maximin principles. Understood
in this way, the precautionary principle is neither the WPP nor the SPP as previously understood;
however, it turns out to have more in common with the SPP than WPP.
The phrase ‘maximin’ means ‘maximize the minimum’. Maximin principles thus assess
the possible outcomes of various courses of action, and then decide what to do by focusing on
the worst possible outcome of each course of action and choosing that action which has the least
worst of the worst outcomes. Consider the following example. Suppose that in a given situation
you have two actions, A and B, available to you. If you choose A, then there are two possible
outcomes: either (A1) you will receive $100, or (A2) you will be shot. If you choose B, there are
also two possible outcomes: either (B1) you will receive $50, or (B2) you will receive a slap on
the wrist.44 According to a maximin strategy, one should choose B. This is because: (A2)
I learned this specific example from T.H. Irwin. For similar illustrations, and a more general discussion, see
Freeman 2003, pp. 14-18.
[getting shot] is the worst outcome on option A and (B2) [getting a slap on the wrist] is the worst
option on plan B; and (A2) is worse than (B2).
The Maximin Principle (MP) has something going for it. For one thing, many people
think that the MP gets the right answer in examples such as the one above. For another, we seem
both to behave in accordance with maximin thinking in important areas of decision-making in
real life, and also to reflectively endorse such behavior, as paradigmatically rational.45 But
maximin thinking cannot be rational in general. For there are cases in which almost everyone
agrees that the MP would lead one seriously astray. Consider the following famous example,
from John Harsanyi:
“Suppose you live in New York City and are offered two jobs at the same time. One is a
tedious and badly paid job in New York City itself, while the other is a very interesting
and well-paid job in Chicago. But the catch is that, if you wanted the Chicago job, you
would have to take a plane from New York to Chicago (e.g., because this job would have
to be taken up the very next day). Therefore there is a very small but positive probability
that you might be killed in a plane accident.”46
Harsanyi complains that the MP would demand that you take the bad position in New York City,
even though the plane crash is very improbable. Hence, he says, the MP is highly irrational:
“If you took the maximin principle seriously then you could not ever cross the street
(after all, you might be hit by a car); you could never drive over a bridge (after all, it
By this I mean not only that it fits our behavior but that we continue to endorse such behavior even on learning of
the problems of applying the MP more generally.
Harsanyi, p. 39.
might collapse); you could never get married (after all, it might end in a disaster), etc. If
anybody really acted this way he would soon end up in a mental institution.”47
Harsanyi is correct that applying the MP under the circumstances he mentions would be
irrational. But he is not right to say that doing so necessarily follows from taking the MP
seriously. For we might just say that there are circumstances – including those of the type
Harsanyi’s examples identify48 – under which the MP does not apply. This is Rawls’ strategy.
Rawls agrees that adopting a maximin strategy in general would be irrational, for the
reasons Harsanyi identifies.49 But he argues that maximin is a plausible principle under three
general circumstances. The first is that decision-makers either lack, or have reason to sharply
discount, information about the probabilities of the possible outcomes of their actions.50 Rawls
“Thus it must be, for example, that the situation is one in which a knowledge of
likelihoods is impossible, or at best extremely insecure. In this case it is unreasonable not
to be skeptical of probabilistic calculations unless there is no other way out, particularly
if the decision is a fundamental one that needs to be justified to others.”51
Second, the decision-makers care relatively little for potential gains that might be made above
the minimum that can be guaranteed by the maximin approach. Rawls says:
Harsanyi, p. 40.
Situations where there is a very low probability of loss, and a very high probability of substantial gains.
Rawls 1999, p. 133. Rawls says: “Clearly the maximin rule is not, in general, a suitable guide for choices under
uncertainty. But it holds only in situations marked by certain special features.”
In the technical jargon of economics, this makes the situation one of genuine uncertainty, not mere risk.
Rawls 1999, p. 134.
“The person choosing has a conception of the good such that he cares very little, if
anything, for what he might gain above the minimum stipend that he can, in fact, be sure
of by following the maximin rule. It is not worthwhile for him to take a chance for the
sake of a further advantage, especially when it may turn out that he loses much that is
important to him.”52
Third, the decision-makers face unacceptable alternatives. Rawls says:
“Rejected alternatives have outcomes that one can hardly accept. The situation involves
VIII. A Core Precautionary Principle
The question now becomes whether the example of Rawls’ conditions is helpful in
discerning a middle ground in the debate about the precautionary principle. Two points emerge
at the outset. First, suppose we begin by imagining that the Rawlsian conditions constitute
criteria for the application of the precautionary principle such that if those criteria are met, the
precautionary principle demands action. On this reading, the PP would be determinative, like the
SPP (not merely optional, like the WPP). But, second, the Rawlsian criteria also make the
precautionary principle comprehensive, like the WPP (not exclusive, like the SPP). For they do
not restrict the kinds of considerations relevant to outcome assessment, either with respect to
what counts as a relevant gain, or what counts as a relevant disaster. Hence, the Rawlsian
Rawls 1999, p. 134.
Rawls 1999, p. 134.
criteria pick out a worthwhile intermediate position between the WPP and SPP as Soule
Let us call the intermediate, Rawlsian principle, ‘the Core Precautionary Principle’. Such
a name is appropriate for two reasons. First, the Rawlsian criteria appear only to pick out certain
instances where it seems clear that the precautionary principle applies. They do not necessarily
assert that these are the only circumstances where it applies. (In other words, on the way I am
employing them, the Rawlsian conditions pick out sufficient conditions for precaution, not
necessary conditions.) Second, the precautionary principle might not coincide with other kinds
of maximin thinking (or even with maximin thinking per se) outside of the domain constituted
by the Rawlsian criteria.54 Hence, the convergence of maximin with precaution might be limited
to specific kinds of context.
Now, I do not want to claim that Rawls has necessarily got the criteria for either maximin
or core cases of precaution exactly right. For my purposes, it would be enough merely to show
that the criterial approach itself is reasonable, and that Rawls has the right kind of criteria. For
this would be sufficient to suggest that some form of core precautionary principle is defensible,
and worthy of further investigation. It would defeat, or at least postpone, the standard objections
about the precautionary principle’s being extreme or vacuous.
We have, then, a sketch of the core precautionary principle and the criterial approach. It
remains to make a case for it. Here I will attempt only a modest defense,55 focusing on three
In particular, it seems plausible that normal maximin thinking covers a much more limited domain than the idea of
This is partly because this is all I am in a position to make. But it is also because I do not want to get bogged
down in, or distracted by, the details. Since my main aim is to defend the plausibility of some form of core
precautionary principle through defending the criterial approach as such, I want my argument here to be as general
How does the CPP deal with the usual objections to the precautionary principle?
What might the Rawlsian criteria amount to in practice? Does the CPP cover the central
cases which enthusiasts of the precautionary principle would like to cover?
How might one defend the CPP against some standard objections both to the
precautionary principle and to maximin principles?
as possible, and from this point of view it is good to leave many details to be filled in later, because this could be
done in a variety of different ways and still be compatible with the main aim.
IX. Extremism Revisited
1. Knowledge Conditions
How might the CPP address the basic criticisms of the precautionary principle we have
mentioned already? Let us begin with the objection of extremism. The first thing to notice is
that, under the CPP conditions, the precautionary principle does not look extreme compared to
some of its rivals. Indeed, one might even argue that there is a presumption in favor of the CPP.
If one really were faced with the genuine possibility of disaster, cared little for the potential gains
to be made by avoiding disaster, and had no reliable information about how likely the disaster
was to occur, then, other things being equal, choosing to run the risk might well seem like a
foolhardy, and thereby extreme option. It might, for instance, appear to show an obsession with
How then should we conceive of the extremist objection? The first possibility is
provided by Harsanyi. Harsanyi’s diagnosis of the problem with the maximin principle is:
“Conceptually, the basic trouble with the maximin principle is that it violates an
important continuity requirement: It is extremely irrational to make your behavior wholly
dependent on some highly unlikely unfavorable contingencies regardless of how little
probability you are willing to assign to them.” (40; italics in original.)
One principle which would yield this would be that of maximax (trying to maximize the maximum possible
outcome). Maximax might be rational under other conditions, such as where we don’t care much about losses, but
do care a lot about gains. But it does not seem rational under the Rawlsian conditions.
A more likely principle would be that of trying to maximize the value of the average outcome. But without
probabilities to guide one’s assessment this seems like an odd strategy. (If the possibility set were well-determined,
it would be like trying to maximize the median outcome. But it is not clear that this is reasonable under the disaster
and care little for gains conditions. Furthermore, it seems likely that many actual cases where the Rawlsian
conditions are met would not allow such a fine-grained individuation of the alternatives.)
Now, on the face of it, the CPP clearly deals with this objection. It claims that a condition of
application of the precautionary principle is that we either lack probability information, or have
reason to distrust the information we have. So, the CPP will not apply in a situation of
Harsanyi’s sort, when we do have probability information that we believe to be reliable enough
to be the basis of a decision.57
Still, this response is unlikely to satisfy the critic. For the worry remains that the
precautionary principle might assign too much weight in deliberation to extremely unlikely
outcomes. Commenting on the precautionary principle specifically, Neil Manson puts this
challenge in another way. He imagines a version of the precautionary principle he calls ‘the
catastrophe principle’, and says:
The catastrophe principle only requires the mere possibility of catastrophe, and since
mere possibilities are so easy to construct, any application of the catastrophe principle
will confront a fatal problem: the reasoning it employs can be used to generate a demand
for a contradictory course of action. In other words, as it stands, the catastrophe principle
is useless as a guide to action. … [I]t would be practically impossible to show that there
do not exist any catastrophic outcomes that might possibly come about as a result [of
precautionary action]. (273)
Manson’s central concern is that the epistemic standards for the application of the catastrophe
principle are extremely low. Mere possibility is enough. This creates two problems. First,
Strict Bayesians will not like this response, since they think that all probability assignments are ultimately
subjective, and such assignments can always be made. But I defer discussion on that issue until the end.
surely mere possibility is not enough to justify drastic precautionary actions.58 Second, since
mere possibilities are easy to construct, Manson thinks that the catastrophe principle can easily
be made to license the avoidance of not only any action, but also its contradictory.
Manson has a reasonable concern. However, I think that a proponent of the CPP can
overcome it. The first point to be made is that some writers on precaution distinguish between
three epistemic situations.
Risk: “all possible outcomes are known in advance and … their relative likelihood can be
adequately expressed as probabilities”.
Uncertainty: “the adequate empirical or theoretical basis for assigning probabilities to
outcomes does not exist”
Ignorance: “not only … a lack of certainty as to the likelihood of different outcomes, but
… some of the possibilities themselves remain unknown”59
Of these situations, the CPP properly applies only in the second, that of uncertainty. The first
Rawlsian condition explicitly rules out circumstances of risk, since it stipulates that probability
information is known. More importantly, strict ignorance of some possibilities is also ruled out,
because the CPP assumes that in order even to apply a maximin principle one must be able to
compare the possible outcomes. And, although this does not mean that one needs to be able to
individuate all possible outcomes in a fine-grained way, it at least requires that the range of
This, of course, echoes the complaints of the writer in the New York Times.
European Environment Agency 2001, p. 170, box 16.1.
possible outcomes has been identified, and so excludes the possibility of outcomes outside the
It is clear then that the CPP requires some kind of knowledge of outcomes. Hence, it
escapes objections to the precautionary principle based on strict ignorance of outcomes.60 Still,
this is not quite enough to dispel Manson’s worry. For Manson sees no gap between ignorance
and knowledge of possible outcomes: instead, he imagines that the proponent of the
precautionary principle is committed to counting any imaginable outcome as possible. I do not
think that Manson is correct. But this naturally raises another question: how can the proponent
of the CPP distinguish between bare possibilities and members of the legitimate range of
outcomes? How can she avoid taking bizarre possibilities seriously? This, I think, is the central
concern of those making the extremist objection.
To respond, the CPP needs some way of distinguishing a set of reasonable outcomes to
contrast with those outcomes which are merely imaginable.61 This suggests that the three
Rawlsian criteria mentioned so far must be supplemented with a further requirement: that the
range of outcomes considered are in some appropriate sense “realistic”, so that, for example,
only credible threats are considered.62
This kind of case may be important, and may be an important part of a general precautionary movement. But the
CPP does not address it. Since the CPP aims to capture only part of precautionary thinking, it leaves it open what the
proponent of precaution should say under such circumstances. So, the point here is part of my core case strategy.
One might think it should be simply a realistic threat criterion. But one should not be asymmetric. In particular, it
does not seem reasonable to have a demanding standard for the disaster criterion and an undemanding one for the
care little for gains criterion.
Actually, it is not clear if “supplement” is the right word. The criteria may be intended by Rawls himself to apply
only in situations of uncertainty rather than ignorance. Hence, they may simply presuppose a background account of
the outcome set to be considered, which presupposes a notion of realistic threat. Alternatively, perhaps the problem
is implicitly dealt with by the conjunction of the ‘care little for gains’, and ‘disaster’ conditions. For it may be that
the real objection to taking the bare possibilities seriously is not that their epistemic status, but the costs involved in
doing so. The idea might be that precautionary measures in those cases would be prohibitively expensive or
restrictive on normal human life – so much so as to constitute a disaster in their own right. (This fits well with a
Bayesian account – but I argue later that, at least at the present level of analysis, the CPP need not oppose, and
indeed should be compatible with, such a picture.)
2. Realistic Outcomes
The need for a criterion for realistic outcomes is explicit in some criticisms of the precautionary
principle and implicit in many others. Some might say then, that it constitutes just one more
objection to the precautionary principle, and to the CPP. But it is not clear that this is so. For I
would claim that the CPP itself simply assumes that we can have some such criterion. It does
not take a position on what it would be.63 This suggests that the CPP is not so easily criticized on
these grounds. There are two reasons.
The first is that it seems reasonably clear that some such (explicit or implicit) criterion
will be necessary on any view of how to deal with uncertainty and ignorance. So, the CPP is in
no worse position than any other view here. The second reason is that, though there does seem to
be a serious problem with generating a general set of necessary and sufficient conditions for
what constitutes a realistic outcome, this does not mean that the realistic outcome criterion itself
is useless. Consider the following. First, even when it is not clear where the exact threshold
should be, there can be clear cases where it is exceeded.64 (This, I would claim, is the case for
climate change. There we have a basic theoretical understanding of the greenhouse mechanism,
strong empirical evidence that the concentrations of greenhouse gases has increased through
industrialization, and some evidence which suggests that this is already resulting in climate
change.) Second, there are intuitive reasons which suggest that finding general conditions might
be difficult. For one thing, it is well-known from empirical work that we tend to
compartmentalize our thinking about practical matters into different domains. And it seems
Manson seems to suggest that mere logical possibility is enough for the Catastrophe Principle. But proponents of
precaution usually demand some kind of scientific reason for thinking that there may be a problem. So they
envisage natural possibilities. (The standard cases involve scientific evidence for the threat. For example, in
climate change, there is scientific knowledge of the basic greenhouse mechanism, together with a body of empirical
evidence; with genetically-modified foods, there is some previous experience with newly introduced species.)
See Gardiner 2004.
reasonable to think that we count outcomes as catastrophic in some domains which we would not
in others. For another, there are reasons to think that reasonable threat thresholds are not
necessarily fixed across all domains and contexts. This is largely because they are not
necessarily independent of the other outcomes in question – e.g., they might vary with badness of
the disastrous outcome.65
3. Extreme Response Condition
The considerations so far have been about objections of extremity in the trigger
conditions for precautionary action. But there are also concerns about extremity in response.
The basic objection here is that precaution will automatically mean banning a procedure just
because of some poorly understood threat. Here the fact that the CPP is a maximin principle
actually helps it. For it is extremely important to such a principle that all the available options
are considered, where those outcomes include estimates of the effects of a range of precautionary
measures themselves. This explains why, in a range of cases, advocates of precaution are also
keen advocates of “safe exit” strategies – that is, strategies that serve to minimize the impact of a
realistic outcome that would be very harmful. Where good ‘safe exit’ strategies are available,
this changes the set of mutually exclusive action options. Hence, for example, one can go on
with an experiment which would otherwise have been banned if one can change the worse-case
scenario associated with it.66
Indeed, this probably accounts for the usefulness of distinguishing a range of opinion about levels of confidence or
proof: from ‘scientifically based concern’ to ‘reasonable grounds for concern’ to ‘balance of evidence’ to beyond
reasonable doubt’. Different levels of proof can be appropriate for different purposes. (European Environment
Agency 2001, p. 184.)
There are some theoretical problems for maximin principles in determining how different courses of action are
individuated. But this does not count decisively against such principles. For one thing, similar problems beset other
decision procedures that require action-individuation. For another, in practice one has to be very careful to imagine
the real alternatives including safe exits precautions one might take.
IX. Myopia Revisited
A second standard objection to the precautionary principle is that it is myopic. This
objection might take several forms.
The first is easily dismissed. Sometimes people object to maximin principles because
they say that they irrationally focus on the worst outcome to the exclusion of everything else.
This might suggest that maximin principles are guilty of a procedural failure, in that they simply
refuse to consider the full range of outcomes. But this objection would be a mistake. For one
thing, it is not true of maximin principles in general that they ignore the full range of outcomes.
After all, initially all outcomes have to be compared, in order to see which is the worst. More
importantly, on the Rawlsian interpretation, there are further comparisons of outcomes in the
second and last criteria. What maximin principles and the CPP are guilty of is ignoring the other
outcomes in their substantive final decision, in the sense that they do not choose them. But this
is not an error – any decision between mutually exclusive options would do that.
The second form of the objection is that the precautionary principle is narrow in the kinds
of outcomes it considers worth taking into account. So, for example, Soule objects to the version
of the SPP he considers on grounds that it is exclusive: it considers only environmental risk.
This is a serious objection. But, again, the CPP is well placed to respond. First, the CPP
provides a check against myopia. For, as a general maximin principle, the CPP is not exclusive,
but inclusive: it includes consideration of all kinds of outcomes, including continuing with the
status quo. Second, a Rawlsian analysis can help to explain why actual advocates of the
precautionary principle may appear to be applying it in an exclusive way. The kinds of issues to
which the precautionary principle is standardly applied are global environmental issues with
deep importance to human (and other) life. (So, for example, climate change raises issues of
climate security, and genetically-modified crops of the security of the world’s food.) It is easy to
see how the precautionary principle may fail to appear comprehensive in these cases. For many
will simply be taking it as obvious that nonenvironmental considerations are irrelevant in these
contexts, just because they assume that the second and third Rawlsian conditions are met – i.e.,
that serious climate or agricultural disruption is unacceptable, and that the costs of preventing
them are relatively minimal.
A final form of the myopia criticism is theoretical. It is that maximin principles conflict
with a more general Bayesian theory of rational decision-making, and so should be rejected. But
this objection can also be rejected. For one thing, the Bayesian theory might be incorrect. For
another, and much more importantly, it is not clear that Bayesians should resist the Rawlsian
criteria. This is because the controversy about maximin takes place at a level that need not
threaten wider theory. Arguably, there are core cases where maximin behavior seems rational,
and it is as much a burden on Bayesians as others to justify such behavior. If this is so, then the
Rawlsian criteria might be useful to Bayesians as well. Indeed, Harsanyi himself might accept
this. He says:
Of course, Rawls is right when he argues that in some situations the maximin principle
will lead to reasonable decisions. But closer inspection will show that this will happen
only in those situations where the maximin principle is essentially equivalent to the
expected-utility maximization principle (in the sense that the policies suggested by the
former will yield expected utility levels as high, or almost as high, as the policies
suggested by the latter would yield). Yet, the point is that in cases where the two
principles suggest policies very dissimilar in their consequences so that they are far from
being equivalent, it is always the expected-utility maximization principle that is found on
closer inspection to suggest reasonable policies, and it is always the maximin principle
that is found to suggest unreasonable ones. (Harsanyi 1975, 595-6; emphasis in original)
So even Harsanyi seems to think that maximin decision making is reasonable in some contexts.
He simply insists that in such contexts it can be justified on Bayesian grounds. But this leaves
open the possibility that the Rawlsian conditions, or some other set of appropriate criteria,
capture the appropriate context for maximin.
X. Vacuousness Revisited
The final problem to address is that of vacuousness. Here I will argue that the CPP does
much better than other versions we have considered. However, I will also concede that difficult
issues of interpretation remain.
There are three main reasons to think that the CPP responds well to the charge of
vacuousness. The first is that, at an intuitive level, there seem to be clear cases where the
Rawlsian conditions are met and precautionary action seems justified. Consider, for example, the
standard example of taking out household insurance against fire. It is well-known that, in strict
probability terms, insurance is a bad bet. The reason is this. In order to stay in business,
insurance firms must charge premiums that reflect not just the probability and costs of adverse
outcomes, but also salaries, administrative costs, and profits for those in the industry. This
implies that the premium charged to customers is higher than would be justified by the cost and
probability of a negative outcome alone. Hence, anyone with a risk neutral attitude to the
possible costs of failing to insure and the benefits foregone by insuring would not buy insurance.
But, of course, for cases such as fire insurance, we not only do insure, but think that it is rational
to do so. The CPP can explain this. For it seems that in such cases, we count the possible costs
(losing our home and possessions) as disastrous, and the forgone benefits (the component of the
insurance premium that does not reflect the risk) as mattering little.67
The second reason is that the CPP appears to work well with those global environmental
issues often said to constitute paradigm cases for the precautionary principle, such as climate
change and genetically-modified crops. For the Rawlsian conditions appear to be satisfied in
these cases.68 Consider the example of climate change. Standard thinking about climate change
provides strong reasons for thinking that it satisfies the Rawlsian criteria. First, the “absence of
reliable probabilities” condition is satisfied because the inherent complexity of the climate
system produces uncertainty about the size, distribution and timing of the costs of climate
change. Second, the “unacceptable outcomes” condition is met because it is reasonable to
believe that the costs of climate change are likely to be high, and may possibly be catastrophic.
Third, the “care little for gains” condition is met because the costs of stabilizing emissions,
though large in an absolute sense, are said to be manageable within the global economic system,
especially in relation to the potential costs of climate change.69
The third reason to think that the CPP is not vacuousness is that it can often help to
explain disputes about the paradigm cases. Consider climate change again. Here the first
The CPP also does well with many cases where the conditions are not met and where precautionary action seems
unwarranted: e.g., insurance against tennis shoe malfunction. In the standard cases, insurance seems rational
because we care comparatively little about the cost of insurance relative to the costs of losing one’s home or
belongings, whereas insurance in the tennis shoe case seems irrational because the relative cost of a new pair of
tennis shoes does not constitute a disaster.
Again, this is improvement on the vacuous and weak precautionary principles.
Some projections suggest costs of around 2% of global product per year. This is a large amount of money in
absolute terms, but many writers point out that it constitutes only a delay of a year or two in projected growth.
Other models claim that such projections underestimate the indirect benefits of reduced fossil fuel consumption, and
that, once this is factored in, mitigation might actually be beneficial even if there were no climate change.
Rawlsian condition (the “absence of probabilities” claim) is relatively uncontroversial.70 But
skeptics often dispute the second and third conditions. For example, Bjorn Lomborg claims both
that the impacts of global warming will not be that bad, and also that we should care a great deal
about the opportunity costs of climate change mitigation. Hence, he implicitly questions whether
the “unacceptable outcomes” and “care little for gains” conditions are met.
Now, I do not think that Lomborg is correct in his claims.71 Still, it is interesting that he
chooses to attack precautionary measures in this way. For if we interpret the precautionary
principle as the CPP, then Lomborg need not really be against precaution in principle. Instead,
he could be taken as endorsing the Rawlsian conditions, and merely arguing that they do not in
fact apply in this case.
Similar observations can be made about some aspects of the debate about geneticallymodified foods. Consider the following two examples. First, one argument often presented in
their favor claims that they offer a solution to the problem of world hunger. This argument
denies the Rawlsian “care little for gains” condition. On the other hand, opponents of
genetically-modified foods often respond by claiming that such technology is neither necessary
for, nor particularly likely to achieve, a solution to global food security. Hence, they might be
construed as claiming that the same Rawlsian condition does hold. Second, some advocates
claim that the application of the precautionary principle ignores the fact that the main alternative
to genetic modification of food crops – industrial pesticides – also have seriously negative
environmental effects. And they often assume that this counts against the precautionary
At least, this is true for those inclined to be against precautionary action. The less skeptical are might dispute it.
For example, the IPCC 2001 report does assign probabilities to the outcomes it considers, and these are of
On the first issue, Lomborg is almost amazingly optimistic. (For example, he envisions a worldwide shift to solar
power by 2060. See Lomborg 286.) On the second issue, his claim that the money would be better spent on the
world’s poor seems to falsely assume that these are mutually exclusive options.
principle itself. But this need not be so. Again, what might be at issue is either the second
Rawlsian condition, or the claim that relative to the context, the introduction of geneticallymodified foods constitutes an unacceptable outcome. For example, opponents of geneticallymodified foods are likely to admit that the environmental effects of pesticides are deplorable, but
claim that they are better understood, and of a lesser magnitude than the potential effects of
introducing new organisms. Once again, the real debate seems to be about the reasonableness of
such claims, and so about the application conditions of the CPP, rather than about whether the
precautionary principle itself is an acceptable principle.
In summary, the CPP seems to be a considerable advance over the previous specifications
of the precautionary principle. For one thing, the Rawlsian conditions appear to track our
intuitions about some core cases, including the paradigmatic environmental ones.72 For another,
they appear to explain the dissent of opponents of precaution in those cases. Hence, the CPP
appears to be an improvement on the WPP, which merely allows for the possibility of cases of
precaution, but does nothing to characterize or identify them.
Nevertheless, there remain reasons for caution. In particular, the employment of the
Rawlsian conditions does not remove all concerns about how the precautionary principle is to be
applied because the CPP does employ “thick”, or “value-laden” concepts which require
interpretation. For example, in order to judge whether the Rawlsian conditions are met we need
to decide, amongst other things: what it takes to lack probability information, or for such
information to be deemed unreliable; what counts as caring little for gains; and what constitutes
an unacceptable outcome. Hence, there remains some issue about the practical robustness, and
so usefulness, of the precautionary principle even on the Rawlsian interpretation.
Similarly, the criteria allow us to avoid the obvious counterexamples. We do not refuse to fly to Chicago in order
to take an excellent job, because we do care a lot about the potential gains in that case, and because we do think we
have a decent grasp of the probabilities.
Now some advocates of precaution will see this development as positive. For, whilst, on
the one hand, it suggests the need for the kind of democratic participation in environmental
decision making that they take to be essential to, and characteristic of, a precautionary approach;
on the other, it also adds structure to the decision-making process in a way that focuses
discussion and so might facilitate debate and agreement.
However, others will take the invocation of thick concepts to constitute a decisive
refutation of the CPP. Despite its initial promise, the CPP, they will say, shares the main
weakness of the earlier vacuous and weak precautionary principles, in that it fails to provide
practical guidance. They might also add that this problem is likely to be especially prevalent in
just those controversial cases where value judgments are most prominent and entrenched.
This is not the place for a full response to this objection. However, three general remarks
may serve to take the sting out of the complaint. First, the CPP does seem like a noteworthy
advance over the earlier principles. For one thing, it is not always unclear how thick terms are to
be interpreted: as we have already argued, there are clear cases in which almost everyone will
agree that the Rawlsian conditions are met. For another, even if in some cases the CPP alone
does not provide immediate and univocal practical conclusions, this does not mean that it does
nothing. In facilitating a move from “precaution” to other thick terms, the CPP provides added
structure to practical debates and so makes more focused and substantive discussion possible.
Second, the employment of thick terms is not unusual in practical principles, and may be
essential. For example, many other legal principles require interpretation (for example, the legal
notion of “reasonable doubt”). And such principles seem to function reasonably well within
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the objection may rest on a controversial account of
the role of principles in practical decision-making.73 For example, suppose one’s implicit picture
of principles is top-down and prescriptive. On this view, to be legitimate, the precautionary
principle must be a universal, substantive principle of choice, such that, amongst other things, it
is (a) known in advance and (b) always, and on its own, sufficient to guide people to a correct
decision without any need for further interpretation. Clearly, the CPP does not meet these
demands – but then neither do almost all other reasonable practical principles.
One alternative to this picture is to suppose that principles are bottom-up, descriptive and
explanatory devices. On this view, the role of a principle might be simply to summarize and
draw our attention to the salient features of our reasoning in particular cases. And here the
limitations of the CPP might seem appropriate. For then its role is to identify some
considerations relevant to our judgments in certain core cases. Hence, it need not claim to be
either (a) a comprehensive guide to judgment in all cases74, nor (b) completely transparent to
those unwilling to make those judgments, nor even (c) absolutely determinate in advance of a
detailed consideration of any given case and its context. Still, this does not make the role of the
principle disappear. For principles of this kind can capture and explain our reasons to others by
making them salient, and they can be useful when considering new cases, by testing for salience.
It is just that they do not function as a completely independent, “one size fits all” toolkit. This is
because they do not have any decisive justificatory power of their own: they must always be
understood in the context of the cases from which they emerge and to which they are applied.
Recent work on this debate includes Hooker and Little (eds.) 2000, and Dancy 1993.
This is important. Even though it captures salient features, a principle of this kind may not exhaust the
considerations relevant to the judgment. Hence, one may not be able to simply lift the considerations over from one
case to another and say that the same approach is warranted. There may be background conditions that are
unexpressed, or perhaps have not even been directly considered, which differ between the situations and so can
disrupt the attempted generalization. (Jonathan Dancy calls such considerations “defeaters. See Dancy 1993.)
In this paper I have tried to defend a version of the Strong Precautionary Principle against
some standard objections. My approach has been to distinguish criteria for the application of a
core precautionary principle, modeled on the Rawlsian criteria for the application of the maximin
principle. I hope to have shown that a criterial approach might allow the precautionary principle
to escape standard objections, and that such an approach provides for a more robust version of
the principle than has yet been envisaged. It therefore provides a promising setting in which to
discuss the future of precautionary approaches.
Dancy, Jonathan. 1993. Moral Reasons. Oxford.
European Environment Agency. 2001. Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary
Principle 1896-2000. Copenhagen.
Foster, Kenneth R., Vecchia, Paolo, Repacholi, Michael H. et al. 2000. Science and the
Precautionary Principle. Science. May 12, 979-981.
Freeman, Samuel. 2003. Introduction. In Samuel Freeman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to
Harsanyi, John. Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality? A Critique of John
Rawls’ Theory. American Political Science Review 69 (June, 1975): 594-606. Reprinted in John
C. Harsanyi, Essays on Ethics, Social Behavior and Scientific Explanation.
Hooker, Brad and Little, Margaret. Eds. 2000. Moral Particularism. Oxford.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2001. Climate Change 2001 : The Science
of Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at .
Jackson, Wes. 1999. Foreword. In Raffensberger and Tickner 1999.
Jordan, Andrew and O’Riordan, Timothy. 1999. The Precautionary Principle in Contemporary
Environmental Policy and Politics. In Raffensberger and Tickner 1999a, pp. 15-35
Lomborg, Bjorn. 2001. The Sceptical Environmentalist. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Manson, Neil A. 2002. Formulating the Precautionary Principle. Environmental Ethics 24: 263274.
M’Gonigle, R. Michael. 1999. The Political Economy of Precaution. In Raffensberger and
Ozonoff, David. 1999. The Precautionary Approach as a Screening Device. In Raffensberger and
Prestowitz, Clyde. 2003. ‘Don’t Pester Europe on Genetically Modifed Food’, New York Times,
Raffensberger, Carolyn. 1999. Uses of the Precautionary Principle in International Treaties and
Agreements. Available at: http://www.biotech-info.net/treaties_and_agreements.html
Raffensberger, Carolyn and Tickner, Joel, eds. 1999a. Protecting Public Health and the
Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Raffensberger and Tickner. 1999b. Introduction: To Foresee and Forestall. In Raffensberger and
Tickner 1999a, pp. 1-11.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Revised
Soule, Edward. 2000. Assessing the Precautionary Principle. Public Affairs Quarterly 14: 309328.
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Precautionary Principle. February 19, 586. Available at: http://www.psrast.org/precaut.htm
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