The Proactionary Principle

Between No Caution and Precaution

What is the most prominent science-based principle that influences international law today? The answer is undoubtedly the precautionary principle, which aims to promote only those policies whose likelihood of harm to both target and collateral populations is relatively small.

The principle is "scientific" insofar as it invites skepticism towards ambitious claims, typically about proposed innovations, which are sufficiently uncertain that their worst outcomes would be catastrophic and possibly irreversible. Thus, applications of the precautionary principle tend to be accompanied by "risk assessment" studies that try to distinguish what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the "known unknowns" from the "unknown unknowns." This sounds very hard-headed. But is it really?

When dealing with complex systems, the science is such that there is a strong chance that any currently supported model of, say, climate change will be superseded by the time it would predict a major catastrophe. Put flippantly, you can be sure that if a model says the world will end in 50 years, the model itself will be gone in 25. From that standpoint, the precautionary principle can look quite shortsighted, as it places too much trust in today's science, overlooking science's long-term tendency to shift its ground, often as a result of a massive reinterpretation of data, which in turn leads to new projections.

Nevertheless, the precautionary principle remains ensconced in legislation, especially at the level of the European Union, because it caters to a certain self-understanding that welfare state policy makers have about their own jobs. They see government as mainly in the business of protecting people. The government may also promote people but, in the first instance, people must be protected.

Protection and promotion are, of course, not incompatible, but they pull in opposite directions. If you believe that you are in the business of protecting people, then minimising risk can become an end in itself. Thus, the welfare state is often said to provide a "safety net" for the most vulnerable members of society, who in principle could be anyone, given the world's fundamental uncertainty.

In recent years, despite the welfare state's various fiscal crises, its safety net model has been extended quite widely, perhaps most notably in the UK by the green movement. In 2012 the Green House think tank called for the establishment of a third chamber of parliament with the power to veto proposed legislation that might jeopardize the life chances of future generations (pdf). One might reasonably wonder how we managed to get where we are now without this chamber and whether its provision would enable us to go any further.

Nevertheless, the proposal is true to the original spirit of the precautionary principle, which as the early 19th century German vorsorgeprinzip, called for forests to be conserved so that each successive generation had a comparable resource of wood on which to draw. Even today the precautionary principle arguably remains anchored in the static worldview implied by this injunction.

But some critics would reverse the priority of protection over promotion of humanity as the goal of government. In one of the seminal meetings of the transhumanist movement, the philosopher Max More (now CEO of Alcor, the leading US cryonics company) advanced the "proactionary principle" as a foil to the precautionary principle. The proactionary principle valorizes calculated risk-taking as essential to human progress, where the capacity for progress is taken to define us as a species.

Moreover, "proactionaries" believe that by restricting risk-taking the "precautionaries" place humanity at still greater risk, as we are prevented from making the sort of radical experiments that in the past had resulted in major leaps in knowledge that enabled us to overcome our natural limits. Perhaps the proactionaries overstate their case. Nevertheless, were any of the path-breaking lab-based research that was done on humans and other mammals before, say, 1980 to be proposed to the precautionary institutional review boards that authorise academic research today, they would probably face serious objections, if not be outright prohibited.

To be sure, proactionaries are under no illusions that the precautionary principle will be reversed soon, though the question of whether risk should be avoided or embraced may come to be a defining feature of future ideological struggles.

In the meanwhile, one concrete proactionary proposal has been put on the table: seasteading. The idea is that ships fully equipped with research and living facilities would float just outside the territorial waters of advanced nations that still operate within a precautionary framework – in the first instance, the United States. Vetted individuals would privately contract to conduct and participate in experiments on these boats that would normally be regarded as too risky to receive mainstream institutional approval.

Seasteading is beginning to attract serious venture capital investment. But the project will live up to its scientific aspirations only if all of the outcomes generated in this setting – however good or bad – are placed in the public domain.

Steve Fuller is the Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is the author (with Veronika Lipinska) of The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism (Palgrave Macmillan). This article is reprinted with permission from the author, and first appeared on the Guardian Political Science blog.

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