Thursday, July 11, 2013

Beyond the precautionary principle

Steve Fuller in the "political science" blog at the Guardian (UK):... [T]he precautionary principle remains ensconced in legislation, especially at the level of the European Union, because it caters to a certain self-understanding that welfare state policymakers have about their own jobs. They see government as mainly in the business of protecting people. The government may also promote people but, in the first instance, people must be protected.

Protection and promotion are, of course, not incompatible, but they pull in opposite directions. If you believe that you are in the business of protecting people, then minimising risk can become an end in itself. Thus, the welfare state is often said to provide a "safety net" for the most vulnerable members of society, who in principle could be anyone, given the world's fundamental uncertainty.

...But some critics would reverse the priority of protection over promotion of humanity as the goal of government. In one of the seminal meetings of the transhumanist movement, the philosopher Max More (now CEO of Alcor, the leading US cryonics company) advanced the "proactionary principle" as a foil to the precautionary principle. The proactionary principle valorises calculated risk-taking as essential to human progress, where the capacity for progress is taken to define us as a species.

Moreover, "proactionaries" believe that by restricting risk-taking the "precautionaries" place humanity at still greater risk, as we are prevented from making the sort of radical experiments that in the past had resulted in major leaps in knowledge that enabled us to overcome our natural limits. Perhaps the proactionaries overstate their case. Nevertheless, were any of the path-breaking lab-based research that was done on humans and other mammals before, say, 1980 to be proposed to the precautionary institutional review boards that authorise academic research today, they would probably face serious objections, if not be outright prohibited.

To be sure, proactionaries are under no illusions that the precautionary principle will be reversed soon, though the question of whether risk should be avoided or embraced may come to be a defining feature of future ideological struggles....

A Royal Air Force bomb disposal expert carefully attaches a Rocket Wrench to the tail of a 1000lb bomb during a training exercise at RAF Wittering, Cambridgeshire. A CVR(T) Spartan Armoured Vehicle waits in the background. Under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

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