Constraints on the Precautionary Principle and the Problem of Uncertainty
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionAmerican Journal of Bioethics. 2017, 17 (3), 56-57. 10.1080/15265161.2016.1274798
Kramer and colleagues (2017) propose three constraints on the precautionary principle (PP)—consistency, avoidance of counterproductivity, and proportionality—which should be observed in any application of PP (Kramer et al. 2017 ). I do not examine these here in detail. Instead, I take them for granted as reasonable constraints, while drawing out what I see as a potentially devastating implication of Kramer and colleagues’ proposal to let “opportunity costs,” that is, costs in the form of foregone opportunities to spend resources differently, count as harms threatening the consistency of PP. My argument is that under a standard definition of uncertainty, the consequence of this proposal is that one must either (1) reject PP as a sound principle of policymaking and decision making, or (2) reject the constraint of consistency. Since the second solution would be contrary to reason, while the first might be ethically undesirable, I propose instead to redefine uncertainty so as to better capture what is at stake in situations calling for some sort of precautionary approach.