SOPhiA 2015

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

What kind of principle is the Precautionary Principle?
(Ethics, English)

Climate change confronts us with the question of how we should deal with the risk of uncertain, yet possibly catastrophic, harms. One principle that is often proposed to answer this question is the Precautionary Principle (PP). In this paper, I present an integrative understanding of the PP as part of a framework for risk-regulation.

The basic idea underlying the PP can be summarized as "better safe than sorry". In this vague formulation, the PP is broadly accepted. How it must be understood, however, is highly controversial. Three interpretations dominate the discussion. First, the PP has been discussed as an action-guiding rule, telling us which course of action to choose given certain circumstances. Second, it has been interpreted as an epistemic principle, telling us what we should reasonably belief under conditions of uncertainty. Third, it has been argued that the PP is best understood as expressing procedural requirements for decision-making.

I propose that we should not regard these interpretations as principles which are mutually exclusive or incompatible, but as expressing complementary aspects: Each interpretation addresses an important element of precautionary risk regulation, but on its own, none of them is sufficient to provide a convincing understanding of the PP.

I argue that the PP is a normative principle for practical decision-making in public policies, and consequently action-guiding. However, it requires that risks are assessed in a suitable way and it needs to be embedded in a broader procedural framework which helps to identify when the PP applies and what it demands in a specific context. The "epistemic" and the "procedural" interpretation are thus not principles of their own, but necessary supplements to the correct interpretation of the PP as an action-guiding principle. I will show how these aspects can be combined in a systematic way, thereby enabling the PP to structure our decision-making processes when facing uncertain harms.

Chair: Frauke Albersmeier
Time: 09:00-09:30, 4 September 2015 (Friday)
Location: HS 103

Tanja Rechnitzer 
(Universität Bern, Switzerland)

Tanja Rechnitzer is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Berne, working on a dissertation with the title "Justifying a Precautionary Principle for Climate Policies -- A Case Study for Reflective Equilibrium". Her dissertation is part of the project "Reflective Equilibrium -- Reconception and Application", funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. She holds a Master's Degree in European Studies (Europäische Kultur- und Ideengeschichte) from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

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