This essay argues that principles should play a limited role in policy making. It first illustrates the dilemma of timely action in the face of uncertain unintended consequences. It then introduces the precautionary and proactionary principles as different alignments of knowledge and action within the policymaking process. The essay next considers a cynical and a hopeful reading of the role of these principles in public policy debates. We argue that the two principles, despite initial appearances, are not all that different when it comes to formulating public policy. We also suggest that allowing principles to determine our actions undermines the sense of autonomy necessary for true action.
SPRU Professor Andy Stirling is beginning a series in The Guardian on the precautionary principle. Stirling’s first article paints an optimistic picture:
Far from the pessimistic caricature, precaution actually celebrates the full depth and potential for human agency in knowledge and innovation. Blinkered risk assessment ignores both positive and negative implications of uncertainty. Though politically inconvenient for some, precaution simply acknowledges this scope and choice. So, while mistaken rhetorical rejections of precaution add further poison to current political tensions around technology, precaution itself offers an antidote – one that is in the best traditions of rationality. By upholding both scientific rigour and democratic accountability under uncertainty, precaution offers a means to help reconcile these increasingly sundered Enlightenment cultures.
Stirling’s work on the precautionary principle is some of the best out there, and Adam Briggle and I cite him in our working paper on the topic. I look forward to reading the rest of Stirling’s series. Although I’m a critic of the Enlightenment, I don’t reject it wholesale. In fact, I think rational engagement with the thinkers of the Enlightenment — and some of its most interesting heirs, including Stirling and Steve Fuller, who’s a proponent of proaction over precaution — is important. So, stay tuned for more!
Comments now open on proposed policy to allow more fracking on public lands.