The moral foundation of the precautionary principle

Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 15 (1):39-55 (2002)
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The Commission's recentinterpretation of the Precautionary Principleis used as starting point for an analysis ofthe moral foundation of this principle. ThePrecautionary Principle is shown to have theethical status of an amendment to a liberalprinciple to the effect that a state only mayrestrict a person's actions in order to preventunacceptable harm to others. The amendmentallows for restrictions being justified even incases where there is no conclusive scientificevidence for the risk of harmful effects.However, the liberal tradition has seriousproblems in determining when a risk of harm isunacceptable. Nevertheless, reasonable liberalarguments in favor of precaution can be basedon considerations of irreversible harm andgeneral fear of harm. But it is unclear whenthere considerations can be overridden.Within the liberal framework, the Commissionadvocates a so-called proportional version ofthe Precautionary Principle. This should beclearly distinguished from a welfare-basedapproach to precaution based on risk-aversiveweighing up of expected costs and benefits.However, in the last resort, the Commissiondoes seem to make a covert appeal to suchconsiderations.



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