Monday, August 24, 2015

Eric Schliesser — Bad News for some Libertarians and Conservatives on Precautionary Principles

The precautionary principle can be understood as follows: "if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action." Prior to reading De Goede's book I had two general reflections on the nature of precautionary principles (PP); first, the application of a PP is a means of pausing action, that is, as a moral tool that (a) could be used by Libertarians and Conservatives to slow down the machinery of government decision-making and (b) could be used by Progressives and Environmentalists to call attention to harmful, social consequences of policies on folk (or non-folk) that lack lobbying power. For, the precautionary principle is a natural accompaniment of uncertainty: if you don't know the wide consequences of an action on bystanders, you should be careful about advocating/pursuing it. It is a way to shift the burden of proof.…
This is not just speculative moral philosophy. In today's climate it affects everyone.
But rather than debating the merits of the precautionary principle, here I call attention to the key point in De Goede's book: in (urgent) contexts that focus on precaution (e.g., security), "the appeal to uncertainty replaces the demonstration of evidence as grounds for taking action" (174; see also p. 199). If this merely upends familiar habits of thought (and threatens cherished conservative principles), this would not be very disconcerting. But as De Goede notes, once such ideas get widespread bureaucratic uptake (not just in context of terrorism), a state of emergency is normalized and legally recognized. That's not just bad news for Libertarians and Conservatives.
It's short, easily understood and worth thinking about.

Bad News for some Libertarians and Conservatives on Precautionary Principles
Eric Schliesser | Professor of Political Science, University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

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