What is the Precautionary Principle?

Smoke detectors are an example of weak precaution - taking action without proof of risk.

Otherwise known as the precautionary approach, the precautionary principle provides guidelines on the course of action in matters that have uncertainties involved, such as those that need risk management. Policymakers in situations or undertakings that may cause morally unacceptable damage, especially in matters where scientific data or proof is lacking, apply this principle. Unacceptable damage involves situations such as those that threaten human life and a few others. Essentially, this approach is a reminder to everyone that there is a social responsibility for everyone to ensure that human beings are safe from harm, should a plausible risk exist. The safety measures stay in place until there is adequate scientific proof that the public will be safe. The importance of this approach has seen to it that some legal systems, such as the EU’s laws, have made it a statutory requirement in some matters.

Origins of the Precautionary Principle

The concept as it is known today is believed to have originated in the 1980s from the German word Vorsorgeprinzip. However, the core concepts of the precautionary principle date much older than that. The core of the principle exists in ancient sayings such as “look before you leap,” “better safe than sorry,” and other aphorisms. An argument also exists that the precautionary principle attributes its essence to the medical principle of doing no harm to the patients, which would be the general public in the case of the approach.

Applications of the Precautionary Principle

The main challenge when it comes to the application of the principle is the loose definition it has. One study established more than ten different interpretations and definitions of the principle. However, the precautionary principle has been reduced to four basic versions.

1. Non-Preclusion

No scientific doubt should impede the regulation of undertakings that have the potential of causing substantial harm.

2. Margin of Safety

Regulatory controls should limit activities below levels where significant harm has been observed or foretold.

3. Prohibitory

Activities that present uncertainties in determining the levels of harm should be prohibited unless the activity’s supporter proves that there will be no substantial harm.

4. Best Available Technology

Activities that present uncertainties in determining the levels of harm should use the best available technology in order to limit harm unless the activity’s advocate shows that the current technology is safe.

Strong Versus Weak Precaution

Strong precaution holds that regulation is needed if there is a possibility of risk to the environment, safety, or health. This approach disregards the costs of the regulations or if the evidence of potential risk presented is theoretical. This approach has also been known as the “no-regrets” approach since the preventative action in this approach disregards the costs.

On the other hand, weak precaution holds that the absence of scientific proof should not prevent action if the damage would be otherwise grievous and permanent. This precaution is more common among most people without them knowing. People would rather incur extra costs and trouble to prevent things that have not been scientifically foretold. For example, most human beings buy smoke detectors to install at home even though there is no proof of a fire occurring.


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