Modeling the precautionary principle with lexical utilities

Synthese 199 (3-4):8701-8740 (2021)
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Confronted with the possibility of severe environmental harms, such as catastrophic climate change, some researchers have suggested that we should abandon the principle at the heart of standard decision theory—the injunction to maximize expected utility—and embrace a different one: the Precautionary Principle. Arguably, the most sophisticated philosophical treatment of the Precautionary Principle is due to Steel. Steel interprets PP as a qualitative decision rule and appears to conclude that a quantitative decision-theoretic statement of PP is both impossible and unnecessary. In this article, we propose a decision-theoretic formulation of PP in terms of lexical utilities. We show that this lexical model is largely faithful to Steel’s approach, but also that it corrects three problems with Steel’s account and clarifies the relationship between PP and standard decision theory. Using a range of examples, we illustrate how the lexical model can be used to explore a variety of issues related to precautionary reasoning.



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Author Profiles

Paul Bartha
University of British Columbia
C. Tyler DesRoches
Arizona State University

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What we owe to each other.Thomas Scanlon - 1998 - Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
On What Matters: Two-Volume Set.Derek Parfit - 2011 - New York: Oxford University Press.
What We Owe to Each Other.Thomas Scanlon - 2002 - Mind 111 (442):323-354.
Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.John Von Neumann & Oskar Morgenstern - 1944 - Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

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