Defending the precautionary principle against three criticisms; 366-381

(Full text in pdf format)


Marko Ahteensuu


University of Turku, Finland


Abstract. The precautionary principle that calls for early measures to avoid and mitigate uncertain environmental damages (and health hazards) in the future has come to the fore in risk debates. This paper evaluates three criticisms which have been presented in academic discourses, in political arenas, and also in public discussions in order to reject the principle altogether. In particular, the criticisms are labelled as the argument from vagueness, the argument from incoherence, and the argument from adverse effects. It is argued that these objections do not result in the abandonment of the precautionary principle on the whole, but only of its particular implausible interpretations. The con­clusion drawn is that the burden of proof remains with the ones who reject the principle.


Keywords: environmental law and policy, risk governance, environmental risks, pre­cautionary principle, vagueness, incoherence, adverse effects, health hazards, uncertainty, ambiguity, burden of proof





Adams, M. D. (2002) “The precautionary principle and the rhetoric behind it”. Journal of Risk Research 5, 301–316.

Ahteensuu, M. (2004) “The precautionary principle in the risk management of modern bio­technology”. Science Studies 17, 1, 57–65.

Ahteensuu, M. (2007) “Rationale for taking precautions: normative choices and commitments in the implementation of the precautionary principle”. Risk & Rationalities (Conference Proceedings), Queens’ College, Cambridge, UK. In < ahteensuu.pdf>.

Ahteensuu, M. (forthcoming) “The precautionary principle and the risks of modern agri-bio­technology”. In Genetic democracy: philosophical perspectives. V. Launis and J. Räikkä, eds. Dordrecht: Springer.

Beauchamp, T. L. and J. F. Childress (1983) Principles of biomedical ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bodansky, D. (1991) “Scientific uncertainty and the precautionary principle”, Environment 33, 7,
4–5, 43–44.

CEC=Commission of European Communities (2000) Communication on the precautionary principle.

Comstock, G. (2000) “Are the policy implications of the precautionary principle coherent?”. In <>.

Conco, G. (2003) “Safety, risk and the precautionary principle: rethinking precautionary approaches to the regulation of transgenic plants”. Transgenic Research 12, 639–647.

CPB=Cartagena protocol on biosafety to the convention on biological diversity (2000).

Dworkin, R. (1978) Taking rights seriously. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

EEA=European Environment Agency (2001) Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000. In < en/Issue_Report_No_22.pdf>.

Foster, K., P. Vecchia, and M. H. Repacholi (2000) “Science and the precautionary principle”. Science (May 12th), 979-981.

Gardiner, S. M. (2006) “A core precautionary principle”. The Journal of Political Philosophy 14, 1, 33–60.

Goklany, I. M. (2000) “Applying the precautionary principle in a broader context”. In Rethinking risk and the precautionary principle, 189–228. J. Morris, ed. Oxford: Butterworth-Heine­mann.

Goklany, I. M. (2001) The precautionary principle: a critical appraisal of environment risk assess­ment. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.

Gray, J. S. and M. Bewers (1996) “Towards a scientific definition of the precautionary principle”. Marine Pollution Bulletin 32, 11, 768–771.

GTA=Finnish gene technology act (Geenitekniikkalaki) (2004/847 [1995/377]).

Harris, J. and S. Holm (2002) “Extending human lifespan and the precautionary paradox”. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 27, 3, 355–368.

Hohmann, H. (1994) Precautionary legal duties and principles of modern international environ­mental law: the precautionary principle: international environmental law between exploita­tion and protection. (International Environmental Law and Policy Series.) London: Graham & Trotman; The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Holm, S. & J. Harris (1999) “Precautionary principle stifles discovery”. Nature 400 (July 29th), 398.

Jordan, A. and T. O’Riordan (1999) “The precautionary principle in contemporary environmental policy and politics”. In Protecting public health and the environment: implementing the precautionary principle, 15–35. C. Raffensberger and J. Tickner, eds. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Löfstedt, R. E. & B. Fischhoff & I. R. Fischhoff (2002) “Precautionary principles: general definitions and specific applications to genetically modified organisms”. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 21, 3, 381–407.

Manson, N. A. (1999) “The precautionary principle, the catastrophe argument, and Pascal’s Wager”. Journal of Ends and Means 4, 12–16.

Manson, N.A. (2002) “Formulating the precautionary principle”. Environmental Ethics 24, 263–274.

Miller, H. I. and G. Conco (2000) “Genetically modified fear and the international regulation of biotechnology”. In Rethinking risk and the precautionary principle, 84-104. J. Morris, ed. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Morris, J. (2000) “Defining the precautionary principle”. In Rethinking risk and the precautionary principle, 1–21. J. Morris, ed. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Nollkaemper, A. (1996), “‘What you risk reveals what you value’ and other dilemmas encountered in the legal assaults on risks”. In The precautionary principle and international law: the challenge of implementation, 73–94. D. Freestone and E. Hey, eds. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.

Parker, J. (1998) “Precautionary principle”. In Encyclopedia of applied ethics. Vol. 3, 633–641. R. Chadwick, ed. San Diego: Academic Press.

Resnik, D. B. (2003) “Is the precautionary principle unscientific?”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 34, 329–344.

Rogers, M. D. (2001) “Scientific and technological uncertainty, the precautionary principle, scenarios and risk management” Journal of Risk Research 4, 1, 1–15.

Sandin, P. (1999) “Dimensions of the precautionary principle”. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 5, 889–907.

Sandin, P. (2004) “The precautionary principle and the concept of precaution”. Environmental Values 13, 461–475.

Sandin, P., M. Peterson, S. O. Hansson, C. Rudén, and A. Juthe (2002) “Five charges against the precautionary principle”. Journal of Risk Research 5, 287–299.

Saner, M. (2002) “An ethical analysis of the precautionary principle”. International Journal of Biotechnology 4, 1, 81–95.

Starr, C. (2003) “The precautionary principle versus risk analysis”. Risk Analysis 23, 1, 1–3.

Stirling, A., ed. (2001) On science and precaution in the management of technological risk. (An ESTO Project Report.) In <>.

Sunstein, C. (2005) Laws of fear: beyond the precautionary principle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tickner, J. (2003) “Precautionary assessment: a framework for integrating science, uncertainty, and preventative policy”. In Precaution, environmental science, and preventive public policy, 265–304. J. Tickner, ed. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Torgersen, H. and F. Seifert (2000) “Austria: precautionary blockage of agricultural biotechnology”. Journal of Risk Research 3, 209–217.

Trouwborst, A. (2002) Evolution and status of the precautionary principle in international law. London: Kluwer Law International.

Turner, D. and L. Hartzell (2004) “The lack of clarity in the precautionary principle”. Environ­mental Values 13, 449–460.

UNCED=Rio declaration on environment and development (United Nations Conference on Environ­ment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3rd–14th June 1992).

VanderZwaag, D. (2002) “The precautionary principle and marine environmental protection: slippery shores, rough seas, and rising normative tides”. Ocean Development & Inter­national Law 33, 165–188.

Wiener, J. and M. Rogers (2002) “Comparing precaution in the united states and Europe”, Journal of Risk Research 5, 317–349.

Wildavsky, A. (1996) But is it true? A citizen’s guide to environmental health and safety issues. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wingspread statement on the precautionary principle (1998).