Precautionary principle

The precautionary principle, a phrase first used in English circa 1988, is the ethical theory that if the consequences of an action, especially concerning the use of technology, are unknown but are judged by some scientists to have a high risk of being negative from an ethical point of view, then it is better not to carry out the action rather than risk the uncertain, but possibly very negative, consequences.

The concept evolved out of the German socio-legal tradition that was created in the zenith of German Democratic Socialism in the 1930s, centering on the concept of good household management. In German the concept is Vorsorgeprinzip, which roughly translates into English as foresight planning or principle of precaution. The concept includes risk prevention, cost effectiveness, ethical responsibilities towards maintaining the integrity of natural systems, and the fallibility of human understanding.

In some ways, it is similar to one version of the Hippocratic oath, "First, do no harm", or, "Better to do nothing than to cause additional harm." However, it must be remembered that the Hippocratic Oath applies to doctors, who in the course of their duties are by default attempting to treat or cure an existing defect or disease: The Hippocratic Oath does not apply to the same doctor's personal choice between buying a SUV or a solar-powered car; of drilling for, or not drilling for, oil on his own property.

Another way of describing it is that it favours inaction or constraint, at the risk of the negative consequences of preventing actual innovation, over action or freedom, which risks projected or envisioned possible negative consequences.

In the German tradition, precaution is an Interventionist measure, a justification of state involvement in the day-to-day lives of its citizens in the name of good governing. Social planning in the economy, in technology, in morality and in social initiatives all can be justified by a loose and open ended interpretation of precaution. In this sense, precaution is another way of saying "the ability to directly prevent others from freely acting in society, based on fears that, by definition, currently lack substantive evidence."



A major conceptual, and possibly legal, application of the principle is that it seeks to shift the burden of proof in technology-related governmental or legal decision making

  • from: requiring proof of negative consequences in order to oppose an action, [ Freedom ]
  • to: requiring proof of absence of negative consequences in order to allow an action. [ Statism ]

In the context of industrial development and rapid technological progress, actions by industries are by default considered legal and ethical, unless a law exists prohibiting such actions -- for example on the basis of known negative consequences of those actions. This is in accordance with the concept that in a free country, everything that is not expressly forbidden, is allowed. The Precautionary Principle reverses this underlying assumption of individual and corporate freedom of action to the European style of thought that, everything that is not expressly allowed is forbidden, by forbidding action until and unless "sufficient proof" is advanced by the person desiring to act, that the proposed actions are "harmless."

For the precautionary principle to be applied in practice in this type of situation, for example, against the use of genetically modified organisms, which a majority of Europeans believe might have many potentially negative consequences, it is generally necessary that citizens' groups have to debate the issue and put pressure on politicians and industry. So, in order to apply the precautionary principle, some groups (who fear the negative consequences of an action), need only to take protest action themselves, in order to constrain the industry to inaction.

In other words, the precautionary principle generally favours technological, industrial inaction by an industry, and socio-political action by groups of people concerned about the risks of physical action by the industry. Another way of phrasing this idea is the "naysayer's veto" - a concept described on a personal level by the idea that all one's neighbor has to do to keep you from painting your front door red, is to complain that he finds the color to be offensive, an eyesore, and might even make him sick.

This principle is often invoked when the projected consequences are considered great enough that they may require significant economic changes, even when the uncertainties regarding possible consequences remain high. The phrase is most often used by supporters of the Green Movement, and sometimes by politicians like the president of France, Jacques Chirac.

During the early part of the twentieth century, lead paint was often advertised in newspapers as a substance with positive benefits, even though today it is clear that the toxicity of lead is highly damaging to human health. If the precautionary principle had been used by newspaper owners or by government authorities, they would have taken the action of refusing to accept the paint advertisements, or banning the sale of paint -- despite the fact that they themselves lacked any certainty whatsoever at that time regarding the ultimately revealed health dangers of lead.

On the other hand, vaccination programs have faced opposition from those who worry about possible damage they can inflict. Were the precautionary principle to be applied, these programs would never be run. Millions of people would suffer and die from the diseases these programs would have prevented, much more than the few who do get sick from vaccines. Institutions in charge of these programs try to balance the potential for risk and for reward when deciding whether to run a program, rather than requiring absolute proof of consequences or of no consequences.

The principle might also be called a rule of abstention.


Critics of the principle argue that it is impractical, since every implementation of a technology carries some risk of negative consequences. Proponents counter that the principle is not an absolute rule, it is a conceptual tool to clarify arguments. Someone in a debate regarding a proposal can say, I oppose this proposal on the grounds of the precautionary principle, without necessarily invoking the precautionary principle for other proposals. However, such selectivity in its use is in itself criticised, because it leaves open the possibility that it will only be used in the context of technologies that advocates of the principle typically oppose - such as nuclear fission or genetically modified organisms.

Another standard criticism of the precautionary principle is that it is only applied to new technologies, not the existing technologies that the new technology might supersede. Proponents of the principle argue that this is a misapplication of the principle - existing as well as new technologies should be applied. It is, however, quite uncommon to use the precautionary principle as an argument for a new technology.

The precautionary principle, as stated, does not take into accounts the potential positive benefits of a technology, which may be substantial. Thus, it assumes a zero lost opportunity cost, or that there is no cost associated with doing nothing. The precautionary principle also assumes that there are no costs involved in actively restricting other people's rights to innovation and invention -- what might be termed "lost freedom costs."

This omission is particularly pointed out by proponents of the Proactionary Principle, who insist that such opportunity costs are quite real and should not be overlooked in a fair and balanced evaluation of any technology. It is difficult to imagine how, for instance, it would be possibile to rationally examine a mosquito abatement program in a malaria-infected area of the world, if the only factors one could take into account were the possible environmental dangers of spraying pesticides, and the fact that this abatement would save a million human lives through preventing malaria were excluded.

A fourth criticism of the principle involves its logical deconstruction: It is a principle of logic that evidence has to be provided by the party making an assertion, not the party rejecting it. In logic the person who rejects an assertion does not need to provide any justification at all. The precautionary principle seeks to turn logic on its head by claiming that if Party A makes a claim, like "nanotechnology is dangerous", then Party B is to be prevented from all further progress, until they bear all the costs of attempting to prove Party A's vague assertion to be wrong.

A fifth criticism stems from the fact that, in many cases, no proof of safety will be accepted by the party citing the precautionary principle. For example, say there was a proposal to introduce substance X into the public water supply at 1 part per million. Further suppose that study A showed that eating pure substance X (1 million parts per million) could cause an upset stomach, but study B showed that drinking substance X at 100 parts per million in water had no effects other than improved health. Someone could cite study A, cite the precautionary principle to oppose the proposal, and refuse to believe study B. Any attempt to proceed with the proposal would be met with claims that the precautionary principle was being ignored, despite the fact that even genuine proof of safety failed to satisfy this objection.

The fourth and fifth criticisms are sometimes combined. Studies to prove safety can cost a lot of money, and if it can be shown that even the most overwhelming proof of safety would be fruitless since it could be dismissed by a determined objector, these studies would be viewed as a waste of money and not performed - even if the studies really would have shown that the proposal was unsafe. This leads to a sixth criticism: using the precautionary principle, as opposed to risk assessment or similar approaches, actually impairs safety in practice, even if one ignores any opportunity costs.

Its use is often interpreted as protectionism (such as the case of beef fed with hormones, dealt by the World Trade Organisation), or as Luddism in the case of opposition to genetic engineering, nano technology, stem cell research and related therapy, or even development of wilderness areas, in the form of rationalization for eco-terrorism.

Applying the Principle

An application of the principle is that the presence of significant systematic uncertainties, related to the actual state of scientific knowledge, should not postpone the adoption of effective and proportionate measures to prevent the risk of innovation by others in society.

Strong and weak applications of the principle could be distinguished as follows.

  • A strong application is one in which the precautionary principle overrides all other decision making factors, for example as part of a national constitution which, in principle, excludes short-term public debate from having any input to the decision.
  • A weak application is one in which wide public debate occurs about whether or not the precautionary principle is relevant for the decision, and in which costs and benefits of the anticipated preventive measures are considered by the group which makes the decision.

The weak application avoids drastic application of the precautionary principle, to allow technological innovation development to proceed under minimal constraints. It searches to avoid limiting citizens' and consumers' liberty, as well as avoid economical restrictions, but at the risk of damaging citizens' and consumers' health or the health of the ecosystem of the Earth.

Invocations of the principle vary greatly, depending on the interests of each group, each one giving its own definition of risk and measures to take.

The precautionary principle was born of growing environmental concerns as early as 1980, and is reflected in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (signed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development).

On 2 February 2000, the European Commission adopted a communication on the precautionary principle, in which it defined this concept and explained how it intended to apply it. It is also defined in Article III-129(2) of the draft Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe [1] (

Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.
In this context, harmonisation measures answering environmental protection requirements shall include, where appropriate, a safeguard clause allowing Member States to take provisional steps, for non economic environmental reasons, subject to a procedure of inspection by the Union.

It is in particular discussed by non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and sometimes by presidents like Jacques Chirac. It is also discussed by proponents of the Proactionary_Principle, particularly transhumanists and extropians as a major impediment to the technological progress these groups deem necessary for the human race to survive the Turning Point projected by many as leading to either a Technological Singularity (as transhumanists like Max More, Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, and others posit) or a Malthusian Catastrophe (as luddites like Jeremy Rifkin, Jerry Mander, Kirkpatrick Sale, Fritjof Kapra, and others predict).

Application of the precautionary principle

The principle is not a juridical principle, as it can hardly provide regulations sanctioned by laws. It doesn't describe what actions to take, but seeks to trigger reactions in advance, before any irreversible damage occurs.

Fields typically concerned by the precautionary principle are the possibility of:

The precautionary principle is often applied to biological fields because changes cannot be easily contained; they affect everyone. The principle has less relevance to contained fields such as aeronautics, where the few people (eg. test pilots) undergoing risk have given informed consent.

Application of the principle modifies the status of innovation and risk assessment: it is not the risk that must be avoided or amended, but a potential risk that must be prevented. The temptation towards scientific authoritarianism and interdiction of democratic debate is high, if the only parties concerned are the scientist (who recognises the danger) and the politician (who faces the danger). Besides, consumer reactions and fears that do not rely on scientific facts are often considered irrational or emotional, and so are not considered in final decisions.

However, many countries choose to consider consumer points of view, and media reporting, to create a new space for debate, where politicians, experts and journalists are answerable to other actors (e.g. consumer associations, juridical authorities).

The principle appears as a new mode of collective action. Some see in it new standards, others a political tool for decision-making.

Clarification of the content of the precautionary principle is much needed -- in and out of the WTO system -- in particular on the subject of multilateral agreements on environmental issues.

See also: safe trade, biosafety, biosecurity, diffusion of innovations, informed consent, opportunity cost.

External links

fr:Principe de précaution pl:Zasada ostrożności


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