Environmental Philosophy, Lecture twelve

Environmental Philosophy, Lecture twelve


We cannot with certainty predict the outcomes of certain actions. This is called empirical uncertainty. When we do not know whether an action is good or bad, we encounter moral uncertainty. When our moral judgments are uncertain we speak of evaluative uncertainty. Depending on our view on uncertainty and risk, we build a principle that guides our decision-making. One such principle is Steven Gardner’s precautionary principle.

A precautionary principle the decides over acts which raise threats of harm to human health or the environment. In such a situation, precautionary measures should be taken. Exactly which precautionary methods are to be taken and when is a question for the specific formulations of the principles.

Ultra-conservative precautionary principle
Ban any activity that has any chance of causing harm whatsoever.
Ultra-minimal precautionary principle
Ban only those things that surely cause harm.
Neither one of these principles is intuitively appealing. However, both of these extreme principals are very clear in guiding action. A more vague formulation may avoid extremism, but nevertheless be useless for it will not guide action.

Simply political precautionary principle
Politicians must decide on precautionary measures.
Purely procedural precautionary principle
Decision-makers have to go through a deliberative procedure.
Both of these principles are simply too vague, they will neither guide nor determine action.

Strong precautionary principle
Only environmental concerns matter to our principal. Environmental concerns can then override any other interests.
This principle is once again to extreme for some because it’s both exclusive and decisive. Gardner claims that principles that are both exclusive and decisive lead to irrationality.

Maxim precautionary principle For every possible action, we formulate the worst possible outcome. The action chosen is that with the least-worst outcome.
According to Gardner, this principle avoids both extremes while also being action guiding (not too vague).