RISK BITES: Precautionary Principle – is it good or bad?

by Ishani Hewage on September 24, 2013

We’ve explored the concept of the precautionary principle before on Risk Sense, but in the latest Risk Bites video Andrew Maynard, director of the U-M Risk Science Center, takes a step back to explain what the precautionary principle is, and the role it plays in innovation.

Ask some people, and they’ll tell you the precautionary principle is a way of avoiding actions that may lead to bad things happening. To others it’s a cynical and ignorant ploy to prevent good things happening. So who’s right – or are they all wrong?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, precaution is:

“something that is done to prevent possible harm or trouble from happening in the future”.

So every time we ask ourselves what the consequences of our actions might be, and what we can do to reduce the likelihood of consequences we don’t like, we are exercising precaution.

It seems sensible. But what elevates this seemingly smart idea into a principle?

Turning to Merriam-Webster again, the definition of principle that fits best here is:

“a moral rule or belief that helps you know what is right and wrong and that influences your actions”

In other words, from definitions alone, the precautionary principle is a guide to taking actions now that help prevent future events that are considered societally undesireable or unacceptable.

It’s the ethical equivalent of saying “look before you leap”

Risk Bites - Sept 24

But for this to be useful in policy and business decisions, it needs a little more work. In the year 2000 the european commission published a 29 page document on the interpretation and implementation of the precautionary principle. It’s a sophisticated and comprehensive document, but a little too long for risk bites. Fortunately, a 2005 UNESCO report synthesizes many of the main points in a slightly shorter working definition.

Summarizing the UNESCO  definition of the precautionary principle, we have:

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm. The judgement of plausibility should be grounded in scientific analysis. Actions are interventions that are taken before harm occurs that seek to avoid or diminish harm. Actions should be chosen that are proportional to the seriousness of the potential harm, with consideration of their positive and negative consequences, and with an assessment of the moral implications of both action and inaction.

In other words, the precautionary principle is about using scientific understanding to take action to avoid harm that might otherwise occur; thinking about the pros and cons of this action in a broader context; and making sure that the effort behind the action is reasonable given the potential harm it is intended to address.

So the precautionary principle is not about stopping innovation, or even putting the breaks on technological progess. Instead, it’s a “go slow and ask smart questions” principle, to be applied where there are indications of potentially serious consequences if we don’t get things right.

Is this good or is it bad? Well, that’s probably for you to decide – but it’s also probably worth making sure you know what the precautionary principle actually is before you do.

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