In Defence of Bad Science and Irrational Policies: an Alternative Account of the Precautionary Principle


In the first part of the paper, three objections to the precautionary principle are outlined: the principle requires some account of how to balance risks of significant harms; the principle focuses on action and ignores the costs of inaction; and the principle threatens epistemic anarchy. I argue that these objections may overlook two distinctive features of precautionary thought: a suspicion of the value of “full scientific certainty”; and a desire to distinguish environmental doings from allowings. In Section 2, I argue that any simple distinction between environmental doings and allowings is untenable. However, I argue that the appeal of such a distinction can be captured within a relational account of environmental equity. In Section 3 I show how the proposed account of environmental justice can generate a justification for distinctively “precautionary” policy-making.

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  1. 1.

    Most notably by Cass Sunstein (2002, 2005). See also Manson 2002. For further discussion, see Sandin et al. 2002.

  2. 2.

    For a clear statement of philosophical issues in CBA see Copp 1985.

  3. 3.

    See Sandin 2007 for discussion of how these charges are related.

  4. 4.

    See Hansson (1998, 2006, 2007); Shrader-Frechette 1995; and Cranor 1993 for discussion. Although the claim that “scientific purity” may be problematic is common, there is disagreement over how such worries relate to the precautionary principle.

  5. 5.

    See Jasanoff 1990 for further discussion of the development of “regulatory science”.

  6. 6.

    For further discussion along similar lines, see Hughes 2006 and John 2007. Strangely, Sunstein suggests that the precautionary principle might incorporate an acts/omissions distinction, but simply assumes that this distinction is irrelevant to policy (Sunstein 2007).

  7. 7.

    Note that appeal to a doing/allowing distinction is not the same as status quo bias. For example, for Hourdequin, if (on-going) global warming is anthropogenic, our reasons to prevent warming are stronger than if it is not.

  8. 8.

    Such worries suggest difficulties for Hubin’s claim that the use of CBA can be accepted independently of our over-arching ethical theory (Hubin 1994).

  9. 9.

    Hourdequin suggests two other reasons to adopt a doing/allowing distinction, and thus to deny CBA: first, CBA overlooks concerns about unequal distributions of risks; second, the structure of moral agency requires us to distinguish doings from allowings. However, the first of these complaints could be incorporated within CBA. The second claim only shows that we need to distinguish doings from allowings in some, not in every, context.

  10. 10.

    For further discussion of the doing/allowing distinction in environmental ethics see Thompson 2006.

  11. 11.

    See Cranor 2007 p.38 for related concerns.

  12. 12.

    On corporate agency in general, see French 1984. For this concept in the context of CBA, see Copp (1985, esp. 138–145).

  13. 13.

    For a useful outline of such approaches, see Dasgupta 2001.

  14. 14.

    For versions of each of these claims, see O’Neill 1996; Dercon 2004; Korsgaard 1996.

  15. 15.

    This account of the demands of equity derives, of course, from Scanlon’s work, and is related to strands in contemporary Kantianism (see Scanlon 1998; O’Neill 1996). The precise relationship between my arguments and such theories is, however, beyond the scope of this paper.

  16. 16.

    The distinction between “epistemic transparency” and “epistemic murkiness” does not imply any view about the existence of objective risks. Rather, even if all risk claims should be understood in epistemic terms, most theories allow for a “gap” between what we do believe and what we ought to believe. My claims could be rephrased as distinguishing between circumstances where our beliefs about the risks of action are as they ought to be and cases where we must establish what the correct beliefs are. For a guide to these issues see Mellor 2005.

  17. 17.

    See Lenman 2008 for a related suggestion.

  18. 18.

    Cranor 2007 and Lenman 2008 both discuss how Scanlon’s account of equity might apply in the context of imposing risks of harm (including environmental harm). My arguments differ from Cranor’s in that they do not start from claims about how those who suffer from imposed risks perceive those risks. My focus differs from Lenman’s, because I am concerned specifically with institutional actors whom I assume have special responsibilities to promote welfare.

  19. 19.

    These claims can be seen as fleshing out Lenman’s principle that “in imposing risks on a population of people, I should act in a manner consistent with my being guided by the aim of being able to satisfy each member of that population that I acted in ways supported by reasons consistent in principle with the exercise of reasonable precaution against their coming to harm” (Lenman 2008, 111).

  20. 20.

    On my reading, then, such questions as whether the precautionary principle is itself justiciable (as discussed, for example, in Fisher 2001), would be misguided. What matters is that regulatory agencies act equitably; this might occur without explicit appeal to the precautionary principle; and appeal to the precautionary principle might not be sufficient for equitable treatment in some cases.

  21. 21.

    See, for exqueryample, Wiener and Stern 2006, for this way of understanding the principle in a discussion of the threat of terrorism.

  22. 22.

    In Hansson’s terminology, we are faced not just with endodoxastic uncertainty—uncertainty over the outcomes of actions—but metadoxastic uncertainty—uncertainty over the correctness of our endodoxastic assessments (Hansson 2006, 233–234).

  23. 23.

    Although, of course, actual consultation may be necessary in many cases for all sorts of reasons not discussed in this paper.

  24. 24.

    Compare Sunstein, “a large goal of cost-benefit analysis is to increase the role of science in risk regulation” (Sunstein 2002 108).

  25. 25.

    For practical suggestions along these lines, see the essays in Harremoes et al. 2002.

  26. 26.

    Furthermore, Gardiner claims that identifying “realistic” threats under uncertainty will employ “thick concepts”. However, this implies that reliance on scientific testing assumes only thin concepts. The problem raised above is that we treat the norms of standard scientific testing as if they were thin, when they reflect a value judgment.


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I am extremely grateful to Katherine Angel, Jo Burch-Brown, Karsten Klint-Jensen, Tim Lewens, Serena Olsaretti, Onora O'Neill, Martin Peterson, Per Sandin and Jo Wolff for extremely useful comments on some of the arguments in this paper. I also owe a particular debt of gratitude for many discussions on this topic to Charlotte Goodburn.

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John, S. In Defence of Bad Science and Irrational Policies: an Alternative Account of the Precautionary Principle. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 13, 3–18 (2010).

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  • Precautionary principle
  • Environmental ethics
  • Relational conceptions of justice
  • Risk
  • Equity