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From this dictionary the precautionary principle is defined as:

"In environmental matters, the theory that if the effects of a product or actions are unknown, then the product should not be used or the action should not be taken."

Is this a rational principle to consider?

asked Oct 24 '11 at 09:45

Fareed's gravatar image


edited Oct 24 '11 at 11:21

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

The precautionary principle is bad because it reverses the onus of proof, and thus sanctions the arbitrary* as a guide to action--including (quite dangerously) government action.

To assert that a particular action is a possible cause of harm is to make a claim of knowledge, and therefore to face the demands of providing some evidence beyond one's imagination. As Leonard Peikoff writes in OPAR,

"Possible" (and its synonyms), like any legitimate term, denotes an objective concept; it does not offer emotionalists an epistemological blank check. To say "maybe" in a cognitive context is to make a definite claim--it is to assert an idea's positive relationship to the evidential continuum--and, like any other cognitive claim, this requires demonstration.

The precautionary principle is notoriously vague regarding what counts as evidence sufficient to restrain one's actions. In practice, it is often a polemical weapon akin to Pascal's Wager (and with similar epistemological flights of fancy), used by environmentalists to rationalize government force against businesses and citizens.

This last point must be emphasized. The proper role of a government is to use force only in retaliation against those who initiate force. Some types of pollution may, to the extent that they harm people or their property, constitute indirect force that justifies a response by the government. However, the government must have specific evidence of this harm before acting. We do not put people in prison for robbery or murder on a "precautionary" basis, and we must not use lesser forms of government force against anyone for the same erroneous justification.

*The arbitrary is an important topic in Objectivist epistemology, but a detailed discussion goes far beyond the subject of this question. Leonard Peikoff gives a brief summary as follows:

“Arbitrary” means a claim put forth in the absence of evidence of any sort, perceptual or conceptual; its basis is neither direct observation nor any kind of theoretical argument. [An arbitrary idea is] a sheer assertion with no attempt to validate it or connect it to reality.

answered Oct 24 '11 at 19:57

Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

Andrew Dalton ♦

edited Oct 25 '11 at 23:11

I like this answer, but I also have an issue with it. I love the analogy to Pascal's wager, and the identification that the precautionary principle is an example of the arbitrary. But this answer doesn't fully explain how the precautionary principle is an arbitrary claim. What is is about the precautionary principle which warrants placing it in the category of the arbitrary? I think the answer should talk more about the precautionary principle rather than only about the arbitrary as such.

(Oct 25 '11 at 11:12) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Good point. I'll update my answer this evening.

(Oct 25 '11 at 11:14) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

"In environmental matters, the theory that if the effects of a product or actions are unknown, then the product should not be used or the action should not be taken."

I guess it comes down to how you define "unknown." Unknown to whom? And to what degree? Measured how?

If one were to adopt this principle literally, then how would any experimentation ever be possible? The effects of most actions are unknown at the time of their original creation, and for some time thereafter.

Look at things like roads, cars, the cotton gin, the steam engine, etc. Can one truly say that the effects of those products were known when they were invented? Or even many decades afterwards?

No, this is just a thinly veiled attempt by the Green Left at the regression of civilization.

I'm not saying that there aren't cases where excessive caution isn't warranted -- such as with genetic crop modifications -- but caution within quantifiable bounds is a different thing entirely from the quoted principle.

answered Oct 30 '11 at 03:03

Rick's gravatar image

Rick ♦

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Asked: Oct 24 '11 at 09:45

Seen: 1,957 times

Last updated: Oct 30 '11 at 03:03