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Precautionary Principle (Version 2)

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Abstract

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.
This is an updatedpreprint, the author’s final manuscript to a revised chapter in the 2020 update to the scientific
volume International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. By Hugh LaFollette (Chichester: Wiley), available online here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee550.pub2
Precautionary Principle (version 2)
By: Christian Munthe, Deparrtment of philosophy, linguistics and theory of science, University
of Gothenburg, Sweden. Email: christian.munthe@gu.se
ABSTRACT
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.
Keywords: artificial intelligence; bioetechnology; climate change policy; cost–benefit analysis;
decision theory; environmental policy; nanotechnology; precaution; risk; risk analysis; risk
management; technology; uncertainty
Following the statement in the United Nations’ Rio Declaration of 1992 that countries should
apply a “precautionary approach” in policymaking on environmental and technological issues,
the notion of a precautionary principle (PP) gained ground in worldwide policymaking, thus
catching the interest of ethics scholars. Although seldom explained in much detail, and resulting
in quite different policy results in different countries and areas (O’Riordan et al. 2001; Sandin
1999; Trouwborst 2009; Zander 2010), PP is generally understood as a norm urging or
permitting policymakers to take preventive action in the face of unknown, uncertain, or probable
dangers, motivated by the experience of how seemingly valuable and promising practices may
lead to seriously adverse consequences in spite of lack of solid evidence to this effect (Sandin
1999). In ethics debate, this idea has been applied not only to matters regarding the large-scale
introduction and use of technology (e.g., regarding artificial intelligence, energy production,
transport and communication, nano- or biotechnology, and so on) (see ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
[WBIEE870]; BIOETHICS [WBIEE782]; BIOTECHNOLOGY [WBIEE291]; NANOTECHNOLOGY, ETHICS OF
[WBIEE132]) with possible ensuing impact on the natural environment connecting to the notion of
sustainability (see SUSTAINABILITY [WBIEE033), but also, for example, to abortion (see ABORTION
[WBIEE226]), medical genetics, embryo experimentation (see EMBRYO RESEARCH [WBIEE691]),
This is an updatedpreprint, the author’s final manuscript to a revised chapter in the 2020 update to the scientific
volume International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. By Hugh LaFollette (Chichester: Wiley), available online here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee550.pub2
the treatment of animals (see ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION [WBIEE778]), terrorism (see TERRORISM
[WBIEE040]), and general research ethics (see RESEARCH ETHICS [WBIEE001]) (Munthe 2011,
2016). Many of these applications advocate strong conclusions in spite of the fact that PP or its
normative justification have not been made very clear. At the same time, PP has been the subject
of criticism, much of which boils down to three points: lack of clarity, lack of practicality, and/or
ethical implausibility. Curiously, these critical points have often been made in conjunction, in
spite of the fact that a clear sense of what PP means seems necessary for backing up the other
two objections.
In opposition to claims that the unclarity of PP makes it a hopeless idea (Bodansky 1991;
Morris 2000), closer analysis indicates that PP may be interpreted in a multitude of different,
more precise ways, some of which convey ethical ideas that may accommodate much of the
common criticism (Sandin et al. 2001; Sandin 2006). Building on a seminal analysis by Per
Sandin (1999), further developed in Sandin (2004) and followed by several similar suggestions
(Gardiner 2006; Manson 2002), PP offers a wide variety of possible interpretations of interest to
many fields of study.
From the particular point of view of ethics, the interesting idea behind PP is best explained as
the suggestion 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. This prescriptive (Sandin 2004) or strong (Gardiner 2006) idea needs to be
distinguished from what has been called the weak (Gardiner 2006) or argumentative (Sandin
2004) idea behind PP, which merely says that acting on weak evidence may be acceptable when
much seems to be at stake. This latter idea has been used as a basis by Steel (2014) in a seminal
attempt to clarify a rational epistemic framework for PP, where all specifications of PP fit into
the conception of a “tripod” of a knowledge condition, a harm condition, and a recommended
precaution, thereby separating two types of issues to be answered by any specific PP:
a. Epistemic precaution: How much do we need to know about risks and chances for our
decisions to be justifiable?
b. Ethics of risk: What mixes of risks and chances may be justified given a certain epistemic
state?
What more exact decisions and policy arrangements with regard to these two questions that may
be justified remains to be worked out and requires substantial ethical argument. Such arguments
start off from the mentioned prescriptive understanding of PP.
Besides general issues about what is to qualify as harm (see HARM [WBIEE186]) (actualizing
basic issues, for example, in environmental and population ethics; see ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
[WBIEE116]), further understanding of PP requires a basis for assessing:
1. what determines whether an activity may produce great harm (actualizing both (a)$and$(b)$
above;
2. what determines whether or not some risk is too serious (actualizing (b)); and
3. what is required to show that too serious risks are not imposed (actualizing (a)).
It is far from clear that these issues can be satisfactorily attended to using ready-made standard
models in decision theory, ethics, and/or political philosophy. In particular, the recurring idea of
modeling PP as a formal decision rule, such as the maximin strategy of decision theory (Bognar
This is an updatedpreprint, the author’s final manuscript to a revised chapter in the 2020 update to the scientific
volume International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. By Hugh LaFollette (Chichester: Wiley), available online here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee550.pub2
2011; Gardiner 2006; Hansson 1997), is beset with problems (John 2007; Munthe 2011; Peterson
2006; Sandin 2004; Steel 2014).
The claim that PP is impractical comes in a strong and a weak version. The strong version
claims that prescriptions supported by PP are impossible to satisfy because these are necessarily
paradoxical, issuing inconsistent prescriptions and/or systematically issuing recommendations
that are impossible to act on (Harris and Holm 2002; McKinney and Hammer Hill 2000;
Sunstein 2005, 2008). This argument connects to the suggestion that PP is impossible to square
with standard risk–cost–benefit approaches to decision-making (RCBA) that take into account
variations in probability, outcome value, and so-called opportunity costs of options (see below).
However, one could just as well view the argument as ruling out only such specific
interpretations of PP. While the argument shows that avoiding paradox is a desideratum for a
sound version of PP, it does not disprove that PP may be designed to avoid paradox (John 2007;
Munthe 2011; Sandin 2004; Steel 2014). The weaker practicality-based criticism rather concerns
whether the idea of PP as a single, directly applicable decision rule is a viable suggestion in light
of the fact that different areas of practice operate under widely variable conditions. While
philosophy of science-based analysis has tended to assume that PP must take such form
(Hansson 1999; McKinney and Hammer Hill 2000; Steel 2014), ethicists have been more
skeptical in this respect, viewing PP as a more general ethical principle that may recommend
very different policy measures depending on circumstances (Hartzell-Nichols 2013; Munthe
2011; Sandin 2004). In relation to Steel’s “tripod,” this may be understood as allowing
“recommended precautions” to be general policy measures of different kinds, going well beyond
the sort of simple bans against technology that has often been assumed by critics. Such a general
principle need not be a comprehensive ethical theoretical stance, however, but can be seen as a
“mid-level” principle to be traded off against other considerations (Sandin & Peterson 2019).
The question then arises how such a PP is to be grounded in more basic ethical theory for its
justification.
Criticism claiming that PP is ethically implausible can regard either PP in general or some
specific interpretation. Attempts to wield general knock-down arguments against PP link to the
mentioned accusation of necessary paradox, and have taken three forms. The first assumes that,
to avoid paradox, PP arbitrarily has to exempt the option of preserving the status quo from
scrutiny, thereby faulting its own rationale (since the status quo may be very risky and
dangerous) (McKinney and Hammer Hill 2000). The second assumes that, to avoid paradox, PP
cannot take into account the fact that precautionary action will itself bring certain costs, risks,
and uncertainties, but must take a rigid form where nuanced scientific information about the
comparative riskiness of options is disregarded (Harris and Holm 2002; McKinney and Hammer
Hill 2000; Sunstein 2005, 2008). The third conjectures that political implementation of PP would
have to constitute a break with important political values, such as scientifically informed and
outcome-sensitive policymaking or individual liberty – for example, by being incompatible with
RCBA (McKinney and Hammer Hill 2000; Sunstein 2005, 2008). Sunstein (2005) has insisted
that the only alternative to such flawed versions of PP is the standard RCBA approach,
essentially expressing the decision-theoretical orthodoxy of maximizing expected utility, thus
necessarily making PP into a child of irrational sides of human nature.
Such general attacks become less convincing when more nuanced treatments of PP are
considered. As mentioned, the general ethical idea behind PP can be interpreted in a multitude of
different ways, depending on what more precise answers are given to the questions (1)–(3)
above, and the general arguments against PP seem to target only a subset of the possible
This is an updatedpreprint, the author’s final manuscript to a revised chapter in the 2020 update to the scientific
volume International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. By Hugh LaFollette (Chichester: Wiley), available online here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee550.pub2
interpretations that can be thus generated (Sandin 2006). For instance, PP may be as applicable
to the option of preserving the status quo as to other options and the answer to question (1) may
include a threshold of some sort that restricts the choices or options to which PP is applicable,
although the form and basis of such a threshold has been debated (Alhoff 2009; Gardiner 2006;
Holm 2018; Manson 2002; Munthe 2011; Peterson 2002; Sandin 2004; Sunstein 2009). One idea
is to apply some variation on the classic de minimis risk theme from decision theory; another is
to restrict the applicability of PP to options where some of the possible outcomes are especially
sinister – often described in terms of catastrophe or irreversible damage – or when the evidential
basis of decision-making is particularly weak. From an ethics point of view, what solution to
prefer depends on what more exact idea can gain support from a plausible, underlying ethical
theory.
The answers to questions (2) and (3) may furthermore allow comparative assessments on the
basis of scientific information in such a way that it is compatible with the aspects of RCBA
mentioned earlier, without necessarily making PP identical to RCBA in its standard form (John
2007; Munthe 2011; Sandin et al. 2001; Steel 2014), but possible to incorporate into standard
approaches to risk analysis and management (Randall 2011). The conjecture that PP has to be the
child of human irrationality would thereby seem to beg the question, since it assumes without
argument that all possible versions of PP that are not identical to standard RCBA lack
justification.
The general criticism against PP therefore primarily seems to support the idea of certain
desiderata that a sound PP needs to meet. Besides the avoidance of precautionary paradox, PP
also needs to be, in Steel’s words, proportional and effective (Steel 2014). Within such a frame,
there is room for arguments concerning which more precise idea satisfying these requirements is
ethically justified. If such arguments can be given, the claim that a political implementation of
PP must imply undue restrictions of individual liberty becomes less obvious. Just as harm to
others (see HARM PRINCIPLE [WBIEE285]) is a generally recognized reason for justifying liberty
restrictions, ethically unjustified impositions of risks to others may be a similar reason (Hansson
2013). This idea squares well with accepted policies and common-sense opinions in the area of
policymaking (e.g., traffic rules, safety assurance of pharmaceuticals, and communicable disease
management) and private life (inconsiderate, reckless, or negligent behavior imposing significant
risks to the well-being or liberty of others). Although ethics or moral philosophy have not until
recently focused their attention on this class of moral opinions (Hansson 2013), they are an
obvious part of human moral thinking, dealt with, for example, in legal theory and practice, and
linking to underlying general questions about morally responsible decision-making (Björnsson &
Brülde 2017).
The task of clarifying the ethical idea behind PP actualizes three distinct challenges (Munthe
2011):
A. supporting the idea that lack of precaution has a moral price (i.e., that we have some
reason not to impose or allow impositions of risks not shown to be sufficiently
unserious);
B. acknowledging that also precaution has such a price (since any measure to prevent or
reduce a risk will bring costs and risks of its own); and
C. that a plausible version of the ethical idea behind PP needs to be formulated by balancing
(a) and (b) in a way that provides reason for believing this version to prescribe an
ethically acceptable price of precaution.
This is an updatedpreprint, the author’s final manuscript to a revised chapter in the 2020 update to the scientific
volume International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. By Hugh LaFollette (Chichester: Wiley), available online here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee550.pub2
This balancing includes both the epistemic and the risk ethical aspect of PP, and is thus not
only about weighting predetermined risks and chances of predefined alternative options (i.e.,
standard RCBA thinking). It also includes the question of how to assess the ever-present option
of delaying the decision and instead improving the basis of information or knowledge that
underlies any risk assessment, as well as what options there are. Actual policy suggestions based
on PP are often about delaying the possible introduction of some activity until the available set of
options has been reasonably settled and the risk–benefit profiles of these options have been made
sufficiently clear and shown to be acceptable (Trouwborst 2009; Zander 2010). This issue
becomes especially complex in cases where the activity is pondered for precautionary reasons –
for instance, the case of using biotechnology with uncertain long-term effects on the ecosystem
for overcoming current environmental problems (e.g., in farming or energy production), or using
nuclear power to ensure access to energy without contributing further to climate change (see
CLIMATE CHANGE [WBIEE355]) (Hartzell-Nichols 2017; McKinnon 2011; Munthe 2011).
Providing arguments to these effects requires a theoretical basis that allows for ethical
assessment of risks in their own right (see RISK [WBIEE465]) and several independent arguments
support the conjecture that this need cannot be met by standard solutions in either decision
theory or ethics (Hansson 2013; Munthe 2011, 2019; Steel 2014). Attempts to provide ethical
criteria for judging risks within the framework of standard ethical theories face the challenge that
such theories usually assume the actions undertaken or the outcomes produced to be given at the
outset of analysis, while what is needed for an ethics of risk and uncertainty is the very opposite
of this. From the standpoint of any of the familiar classic ideals in ethics, an ethics of risk needs
to provide criteria for when and why actions that perhaps and perhaps not meet the standards of
ethical defensibility set by these ideals are ethically defensible. The question of to what extent
classic approaches in ethical theory could be modified to apply to risky decisions is complicated,
but has been assessed with skeptical results by Munthe (2011). Rights- and justice-based ethical
theories (see RIGHTS [WBIEE228]; JUSTICE [WBIEE385]) have to assume rather than provide reason
for the claim that being exposed to risk is equivalent to harm or loss. Consequentialist (see
CONSEQUENTIALISM [WBIEE428]) theories encounter problems in justifying a credible notion of
how the imposition of risks and chances is to be balanced against the occurrence of actual harms
and benefits. Natural law (see NATURAL LAW [WBIEE346]) theories have problems of grounding
an even elementary coherent notion of how risk impositions may be morally wrong in their own
right. The clarification and justification of PP may thus require some ethical theoretical
innovation with regard to risks and risk impositions, a task fitting the novel field of the ethics of
risk (Hansson 2013).
Such a theory needs to observe the above-mentioned desiderata implied by the criticism against
PP. Therefore, attempting to recreate absolutist natural law ethical ideas in the form of an ethics
of risk, such as the pioneer attempt of German theologian Hans Jonas (1979), seem to fail at the
outset. The idea of an absolute or very strong moral ban on the risking of certain upshots (Jonas’s
proposal is the extermination of humanity) regardless of the likelihood of their actual occurrence
blocks rather than provides room for scientifically informed and ethically sensitive comparisons
of the risks and chances of alternative options. The need for having a version of PP that is
practically useful in a policy context provides further reason to the same effect (since whatever
type of upshot is assumed to be absolutely forbidden to risk, all options will impose a slight such
risk) (Sunstein 2008). Practical considerations also put into question the idea of modeling PP as
expressing a virtue ethical ideal (Sandin 2005, 2009; see VIRTUE ETHICS [WBIEE616]). While a
This is an updatedpreprint, the author’s final manuscript to a revised chapter in the 2020 update to the scientific
volume International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. By Hugh LaFollette (Chichester: Wiley), available online here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee550.pub2
virtue of precaution may have a place in a general ethics of risk and uncertainty, personal
qualities of decision-makers do not seem to be what should primarily be in focus when assessing
overarching policy, but rather the qualities of options, upshots, evidence, and decision-making.
An adequate theory thus needs to be gradualist rather than absolutist in its basic construction and
to provide reasons connecting to decisions and risk impositions rather than decision-makers.
Such a theory, then, should imply what it takes for a decision or risk imposition to pay an
ethically appropriate price of precaution.
Building such a theory, elements from standard decision- and ethical theory can be used to
some extent, but the endeavor also provides room for addressing problems that these areas have
had difficulty tackling. This regards, not least, the problem regarding on what basis to decide
when, and how much, to delay a decision in order to improve the quality of the basis of
information underlying the risk assessment. This query links the ethics of PP to the ethics of
belief (see ETHICS OF BELIEF [WBIEE044]) and is important for clarifying the relationship between
the ethics of epistemic precaution (that, in the words of Peterson, “guides belief”) and that of
risk–chance balancing (“guiding action”) (Peterson 2007). It is especially pressing in extreme
risk and uncertainty scenarios, such as those involving so-called existential risk (Munthe 2019).
While Steel (2014) primarily views this query as an epistemic problem, for the ethicist it is a
more demanding issue to resolve, as any decision will affect the price of precaution in morally
relevant ways. Therefore, the ethical analysis should view epistemic precaution as a special case
of justifying a balance between risks and chances based on some ideal of responsible decision-
making. The obvious proposal of counting as relevant the combination of the benefits and harms
of possible outcomes and the likelihood of these outcomes given a certain decision (thus making
PP sensitive to probability and outcome variation and attention to opportunity costs – thereby
creating compatibility with RCBA) may be complemented by ideas to the effect there is a moral
downside to basing such a decision on information that could have been improved. This
downside could be seen as instrumental (Steel 2014), as a basic moral consideration in its own
right (Munthe 2011), or as an outcome of acting out of virtue (Knutsson & Munthe 2017). At the
same time, such a moral assessment may pay attention to the basic elements of risks, chances,
likelihoods, and the quality of information in many different and potentially conflicting ways.
A basic issue regards to what extent such an assessment – as in standard RCBA – should
observe risk neutrality (Hansson 1999). That is, should risks and outcomes be evaluated on the
assumption that harms and benefits of equal magnitude balance each other out perfectly from an
ethical point of view? The alternative would be an idea of an increased moral weight of evil:
harms and benefits of equal magnitude are assessed differently in terms of moral importance or
seriousness, so that risks involving the possible occurrence of worse consequences become more
difficult to justify in terms of compensating benefits in a way disproportionate to their
comparative magnitudes. This idea has been defended on the ground that the choices between
lotteries with equal probabilities for winning or losing, but with radically different stakes (say,
losing a modest amount of money or winning the same sum, as opposed to losing all your
material possessions or doubling them) is not ethically indifferent, although this would be
implied by the idea of risk neutrality (Munthe 2011). The idea of an increased moral weight of
evil can be worked out further in different ways, however, and the analysis of what particular
version has the most merit gives rise to a number of complex issues in the ethics of risk.
Another important question is if the underlying justifying basis of PP should take the form of
an ethics of individual rights (Hansson 2013). This may be problematic, since a plausible version
of PP would need to allow for trade-offs between competing interests (in terms of risks and
This is an updatedpreprint, the author’s final manuscript to a revised chapter in the 2020 update to the scientific
volume International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. By Hugh LaFollette (Chichester: Wiley), available online here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee550.pub2
chances) not fitting inside the framework of rights–ethical thinking. Many of the risks that are
relevant from the perspective of PP are the results of many individual actions taken together –
thus making the responsibility for securing a plausible price of precaution a collective matter (see
COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY [WBIEE435]). PP may still uphold the view that exposing someone
to a risk is a moral reason against an action. However, to secure defensible precaution, it may
often be necessary to expose single individuals to loss, harm, or risk that cannot be balanced by
the prevention of any such downside for any particular individual (since the contribution of each
individual to the overall risk-picture if precaution is not applied is so insignificant). For this
reason, precaution, in the context of policymaking, should be viewed and analyzed as a common
or public good (see PUBLIC GOODS [WBIEE752]; COMMON GOOD [WBIEE608]).
The underlying ethical issues actualized by PP have so far been subjected to limited
constructive analysis, although the situation has improved in recent years. Initial contributions to
the issue of what a social implementation of PP may mean in general terms (Ahteensuu 2008;
Cranor 2003; Gardiner 2006; Goklany 2001; Munthe 2011; Sunstein 2005; Whiteside 2006) have
recently been complemented by analyses of what a plausible PP would imply regarding societal
organization, technology, and environmental policy in particular contested areas such as digital-,
nano-, and biotechnology, climate change, and artificial intelligence and robotics (Hartzell-
Nichols 2017; McKinnon 2011; Munthe 2016, 2017; Resnik 2013; Steel 2014). One underlying
basic issue, where one seminal theoretical attempt has been presented by Martin Peterson (2017),
is about how precautionary moral reasons should be related to other types of seemingly valid
ethical concerns when these pull in different directions with regard to practical guidance.
The overly polarized and rather simplistic situation of the early ethical debate on PP in terms of
“for or against” has quickly progressed, thanks to growing recognition that PP is not one preset,
clear-cut principle and that many underlying issues, perspectives and solutions are on the table.
The ethical discussion has moved into a more constructive mode, probing both the philosophical
underpinnings of ethically justifying specific variants of PP, and what practical guidance and
recommendations can be supported in specific areas from PP. An area in need of more
concentrated address is how this work, and the related work on the ethics of risk and uncertainty,
is to be better integrated with other areas of ethical research, both basic ethical theory and
applied ethics and political philosophy in different areas.
See also: ABORTION [WBIEE226]; ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION [WBIEE778]; ARTIFICIAL
INTELLIGENCE [WBIEE870]; BIOETHICS [WBIEE782]; BIOTECHNOLOGY [WBIEE291]; CLIMATE
CHANGE [WBIEE355]; COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY [WBIEE435]; COMMON GOOD [WBIEE608];
CONSEQUENTIALISM [WBIEE428]; EMBRYO RESEARCH [WBIEE691]; ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
[WBIEE116]; ETHICS OF BELIEF [WBIEE044]; HARM [WBIEE186]; HARM PRINCIPLE [WBIEE285];
JUSTICE [WBIEE385]; NANOTECHNOLOGY, ETHICS OF [WBIEE132]; NATURAL LAW [WBIEE346];
PUBLIC GOODS [WBIEE752]; RESEARCH ETHICS [WBIEE001; RIGHTS [WBIEE228]; RISK [WBIEE465];
SUSTAINABILITY [WBIEE033]; TERRORISM [WBIEE040]; VIRTUE ETHICS [WBIEE616]
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volume International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. By Hugh LaFollette (Chichester: Wiley), available online here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee550.pub2
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FURTHER READINGS
Roeser, Sabine, Rafaela Hillerbrand, Per Sandin, and Martin Peterson (eds.) 2012. Handbook of
Risk Theory. Dordrecht: Springer.
... I have analysed the links between the ethics or risk, epistemic precaution, decision theoretical models and bioethical issues in other places (Munthe 2011(Munthe , 2017(Munthe , 2019b(Munthe , 2020. ...
... At the same time, the theory sets a boundary to such rash action in the face of high stakes under serious uncertainty, pointing to the importance of considering what may be a "good enough" option, where the proper price of precaution goes down drastically. However, these general outlining features leave difficult issues to resolve, not least regarding the characterization of the acceptable or "good enough" option, relative to which the value of information fluctuates depending on the stakes of the situation (Munthe 2011(Munthe , 2019b(Munthe , 2020. In the past, my preferred approach to handling these issues has been to turn to the pragmatics of institutionalization (Munthe 2011(Munthe , 2017, but as we have seen this pathway is largely blocked in clinical ethics. ...
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This article analyses how clinical medical ethics needs to develop in order to provide guidance in the very common case of uncertainty and ignorance in "empirical treatment". Such situation actualises an issue of epistemic precaution by delaying crucial treatment decisions while seeking to improve available information. What value should be ascribed to such additional information, given that its usefulness cannot be foreseen, and what price in terms of possible deterioration of the patient's state while searching that information can be justified in light of that? The paper compares this challenge to similar ones in business, law, public policy and science, noting how solutions from such areas suit clinical medicine badly. At the same time, clinical medical ethical principles and guidelines provide scant help. The paper outlines a strategy to improve this situation.
... [I]n 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. (Munthe, 2020) Clearly these differ in several ways: on whether postpone prevention measures versus whether to prevent potentially harmfully activities; on the level of risk; on the level of certainty; and how these components fit together. On Steel's (2014) account, he refers to the `Tripod' of precautionary principles under which they have three components: (1) epistemic elements of uncertainty about consequences of decisions, action, or inaction (2) the ethics of risk and harm that may result, and (3) a recommendation precaution (Steel, 2014, p. 9). ...
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Extinction is a concept of rapidly growing importance, with the world currently in the sixth mass extinction event and a biodiversity crisis. However, the concept of extinction has itself received surprisingly little attention from philosophers. I will first argue that in practice there is no single unified concept of extinction, but instead that its usage divides between descriptive, epistemic, and declarative concepts. I will then consider the epistemic challenges that arise in ascertaining whether a species has gone extinct, and how these lead to serious limitations on responsibility and accountability for preventing extinctions. I will propose two conceptual engineering changes to our understanding of extinction. Firstly, to use twin epistemic concepts of extinction, corresponding to high and low epistemic demands. Secondly, to explicitly recognize that in many contexts extinction is a thick concept that contains an evaluative component, which therefore motivates explicit ethical considerations such as the use of precautionary principles.
... Related to both challenges, a precautionary approach, sometimes called the precautionary principle, is often highlighted (Munthe 2016(Munthe , 2020Steel 2014). Precaution is meant to signify, first, the idea that policy should focus on preventing major harm and, second, that such policy may be justified even if there is a lack of evidence regarding the certainty of the harm. ...
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Pandemic public policy-making requires far-reaching decisions in the context of severe and dynamic lack of information. This policy brief breaks down the ethical challenge of pandemic public policy-making under conditions of uncertainty into understandable parts, and elaborates how these may be approached in practice. A pandemic usually implies uncertainty about the spread of the infection, about its impacts for people and society, and the effects of policy measures undertaken in response to the pandemic. A precautionary approach is required, but precautionary reasoning must consider practicality, non-arbitrariness, proportionality and justification. Pandemic public policy making under uncertainty should avoid paralysis by limiting the space for precautionary reasoning; balance both uncertain harms and uncertain benefits;  avoid false certainty bias; decrease uncertainty, while minding the price of precaution; take into consideration legitimacy but also public opinion and feelings; set, disclose and communicate underlying ethical values and principles; monitor and re-evaluate decisions and consequences.
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This paper proposes a coherent account of the entitlements secured in the right to science as codified in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These entitlements form a cluster of rights containing three distinct but interrelated clusters of rights (first-level rights): right to scientific progress, right to participate in scientific progress, and right to benefit from scientific progress. In turn, each of these first-level clusters of rights can be further disaggregated into discrete second-level rights. The paper follows this logic. First, the assumptions and methods at the foundation of the analysis are discussed. Then, it turns to the various rights under the broad right to science umbrella, cluster by cluster. Finally, it concludes with a general reflection on the normative content of the right and directions for further conceptual work.
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This volume outlines and analyses ethical issues actualized by applying a precautionary approach to the regulation of new biotechnologies. It presents a novel way of categorizing and comparing biotechnologies from a precautionary standpoint. Based on this, it addresses underlying philosophical problems regarding the ethical assessment of decision-making under uncertainty and ignorance, and discusses how risks and possible benefits of such technologies should be balanced from an ethical standpoint. It argues on conceptual and ethical grounds for a technology neutral regulation as well as for a regulation that not only checks new technologies but also requires old, inferior ones to be phased out. It demonstrates how difficult ethical issues regarding the extent and ambition of precautionary policies need to be handled by such a regulation, and presents an overarching framwork for doing so.
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The common approach to the multiplicity problem calls for controlling the familywise error rate (FWER). This approach, though, has faults, and we point out a few. A different approach to problems of multiple significance testing is presented. It calls for controlling the expected proportion of falsely rejected hypotheses — the false discovery rate. This error rate is equivalent to the FWER when all hypotheses are true but is smaller otherwise. Therefore, in problems where the control of the false discovery rate rather than that of the FWER is desired, there is potential for a gain in power. A simple sequential Bonferronitype procedure is proved to control the false discovery rate for independent test statistics, and a simulation study shows that the gain in power is substantial. The use of the new procedure and the appropriateness of the criterion are illustrated with examples.
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When is it morally acceptable to expose others to risk? Most moral philosophers have had very little to say in answer to that question, but here is a moral philosopher who puts it at the centre of his investigations.
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Scholars in philosophy, law, economics and other fields have widely debated how science, environmental precaution, and economic interests should be balanced in urgent contemporary problems, such as climate change. One controversial focus of these discussions is the precautionary principle, according to which scientific uncertainty should not be a reason for delay in the face of serious threats to the environment or health. While the precautionary principle has been very influential, no generally accepted definition of it exists and critics charge that it is incoherent or hopelessly vague. This book presents and defends an interpretation of the precautionary principle from the perspective of philosophy of science, looking particularly at how it connects to decisions, scientific procedures, and evidence. Through careful analysis of numerous case studies, it shows how this interpretation leads to important insights on scientific uncertainty, intergenerational justice, and the relationship between values and policy-relevant science.