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Precautionary Principle (2020 update)

Chapter in book
Authors Christian Munthe
Published in International Encyclopedia of Ethics
ISBN 9781444367072
Publisher Wiley
Place of publication Chichester
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science
Language en
Keywords Risk, Ignorance, Uncertainty, Epistemic precaution, Decision making, Decision theory, Applied ethics
Subject categories Technology and social change, Bioethics, Medical Ethics, Ethics, Practical philosophy


Ethical debate linking to the precautionary principle (PP) addresses underlying issues regarding the ethics of risk, uncertainty, and public policy. It has evolved quickly from an initial stage of skepticism and scorn, based on critique regarding unclarity, impracticality, and ethical unjustifiability. Nowadays, these points are incorporated into systematic debates on how to best understand and justify a precautionary approach to decision‐ and policy‐making. The general ethical idea behind PP says that in the face of an activity that may produce great harm, we (or society) have reason to ensure that the activity is not undertaken, unless it has been shown not to impose too serious risks. Recent debate has highlighted an epistemic perspective, dividing the debate into two main areas: (a) epistemic precaution, and (b) ethics of risk, which may be related to each other in different ways. With regard to these dimensions, an ethical theory of precaution needs to clarify what determines whether an activity may produce great harm (actualizing both (a) and (b)), what determines whether or not some risk is too serious (actualizing (b)), and what is required to show that too serious risks are not imposed (actualizing (a)). Several competing basic suggestions are in play regarding these issues, actualizing questions about the relationship between traditional ethical theory and the ethics of risk. All suggestions have wide applicability to contested moral and policy areas regarding the use of technology and environmental action, but much work remains to clarify what difference a sound PP makes for these.

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