Ethics & International Affairs


Reconstructing Precaution, Deconstructing Misconceptions

Alessandra Arcuri*


The precautionary principle, widely endorsed at the national and international level, continues to be at the center of a heated debate. Some authors claim that the principle is unscientific; others argue that the principle is paralyzing and gives decision-makers no direction. Confusion and misconceptions are generated by the multiplicity of definitions and interpretations of the precautionary principle. This essay contributes to the debate on the precautionary principle in two ways: (1) it clarifies what a mild formulation of the principle entails, and (2) it identifies a number of misconceptions underlying some of the main criticisms of the principle.

A reasonable formulation of the precautionary principle requires both substantive and procedural elements: the substantive element suggests that in circumstances where uncertainties and risks of irreversible harms are present, decisions should err on the side of environmental preservation; the procedural element suggests that the principle should favour decision-making processes that are iterative and informative over time and that integrate experts' assessments of the risks to be governed and people's preferences and values.

Against this background, five misconceptions underlying the main criticisms of the precautionary principle are identified and deconstructed. The analysis of the misconceptions sheds further light on the fact that following the principle, processes of learning are stimulated, and accordingly, technology is not halted; to the contrary, the application of the principle leads to a better understanding of technological developments and their effects.

(Accepted September 03 2007)

(Received June 26 2007)


* I am indebted to two anonymous referees, the editorial staff of Ethics & International Affairs, Ellen Hey, Giuseppe Dari Mattiacci, and Suja Suryanarayanan for helpful comments. Parts of this essay draw on: Alessandra Arcuri, “The Case for a Procedural Version of the Precautionary Principle Erring on the Side of Environmental Preservation,” in Marcel Boyer, Yolanda Hiriart, and David Martimort, eds., Frontiers in the Economics of Environmental Regulation and Liability (Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 19–63; available as Global Law Working Paper 09 (2004) at http:\\; and Alessandra Arcuri, “The Law of Catastrophic Risks: When the Impossible May Erupt into the Possible,” Ars Aequi 55 (2006), pp. 2–10.