Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Instrumental Rationality, Economics and "Playing it Safe": An Ethical Analysis of the Precautionary Principle

Mary Richardson.

Critics of the precautionary principle argue that it will bring innovation and cost-effective, sustainable solutions to satisfying ever-increasing human needs to a standstill. Proponents of the principle argue that in circumstances of scientific uncertainty, it will force authorities to act with the intention of preventing harm before it occurs. This paper shows that neither of these interpretations is correct. Where states and have been pressured to incorporate it into their decision-making procedures, the principle is is typically framed in risk analysis discourse, which requires balancing prevention of harm with cost-effectiveness and considerations of economic gain, and considers precaution to be a matter of risk management. Risk analysis thus privileges discourses of instrumental rationality and economic gain equally with discourses of prevention of harm. Using a value analysis of regulation and legislation pertaining to genetic modification of plants in Canada and the EU, the paper concludes that in both jurisdictions the value commitments of the framers of the precautionary principle have failed to find their way into science-based decision-making for the protection of health and safety and of the environment.


Mary Richardson  (Canada)

Athabasca University

  • Precautionary principle
  • Genetic modification
  • Environmental ethics
  • Environmental legislation and Regulation

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)