Understanding the Precautionary Principle and its Threat to Human Welfare

Over the past three decades, the Precautionary Principle (PP) has become popular in discussions of public policy, especially in relation to health and environmental policy. Though there are a number of different versions of the principle, the genesis of the idea is that it is better to be safe than sorry. In terms of public policy, proponents of the PP argue that being safe means that, if there is a possibility of harm from a new activity or novel technology, even if the scientific evidence concerning the harm is absent or uncertain, precautionary actions should be taken. In one version or another, the PP has been incorporated into a number of laws and treaties. Yet arguments for the PP are unconvincing, the PP itself is vague and when enacted in law, results in arbitrary regulations that pose a threat to human welfare. As a result, the PP should be rejected as a basis for public policy.

H. Sterling Burnett is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 2001. His work primarily focuses on the intersection of ethics, economics, and politics in relation to environmental issues. He has had numerous publications in academic journals, magazines, and daily newspapers, including Environmental Ethics, the Texas Review of Law and Politics, the Washington Post, USA Today, and Forbes. He has provided invited testimony before the United States Congress and to various state legislatures.


Sterling Burnett, H
Published in: Social Philosophy and Policy
2009 26 (2 Pages 378-410