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A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology by Vincent F. Hendricks, Stig Andur Pedersen, Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis

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Critical Debate

Given the nature of the issues and the powerful interests at stake, it is not surprising that the precautionary principle has been subject to a wide array of criticisms.51 One frequent concern is that it is ill-defined.52 In the formulation given above, for instance, how “serious” is “serious”?53 What exactly does “irreversible” mean? Does “full scientific certainty” ever exist? Such concerns seem well founded if the precautionary principle is presented as a sufficient, comprehensive or definitive procedural rule.54 Yet legal scholars point out that, as with any general legal principle (like “proportionality” or “cost-effectiveness”), precaution is not a decision rule in its own right.55 Just as these other principles rely on methods like risk assessment and cost–benefit analysis in order to make them operational, so, too, can precaution simply be seen as a general guide to the development and application of more detailed complementary methods and processes. This point is returned to in the next section.

A further criticism is that the inherently normative character of the precautionary principle renders it intrinsically irrational.56 In one form, this concern rests on the (usually implicit) assumption that conventional “science-based” procedures manage to transcend normative content.57 However, this neglects the ways in which practical applications of methods like risk assessment and cost–benefit analysis also require the exercise of evaluative judgments. For instance, ...

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