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1 The use of ethical principles in action has the virtue of orienting or guiding plans for action that, caught up in the flux of events, are inevitably subject to revision. The precautionary principle, in particular, is a guideline used by actors in the face of a series of circumstances that unfold in an unpredictable manner. As a practical principle, it must be linked to the structure of action and deliberation.

2 The precautionary principle has been formulated from the outset as an ethical principle, [2] in order to help us take responsibility for the future of humanity and its environment, particularly with a view to future generations. But the way to implement such a general principle and carry it out using factual evidence is subject to fluctuation (see Godard 2005 and Martin 2005). This variability is understandable, because in the presence of potential or actual risk, the use of empirical data cannot benefit from a clearly identifiable threshold of reliability that would ensure the validity of the strategies adopted (Henry and Henry 2004). Argumentation and discernment are necessary when we consider whether the actions undertaken are reasonable or appropriate with regard to the risks involved.

3 The hopes vested in the precautionary principle suggest that invoking this principle may help us to avoid deceiving ourselves in our argumentation and judgment when we are faced with complex situations. Nevertheless, can we say that the precautionary principle is sufficiently anchored in the structure of action and deliberation as such, so that the principle adequately translates what rationality requires of us into deliberation and into the resulting action? This question is unavoidable because of the generality of this principle, the relevance of which is not limited to a particular realm of action. To address the problem, we see that we should pay particularly close attention to the roles played by expertise and dialogue.

I – The Constitutive Difficulties of Prescription for the Future

1 - Major Collective Challenges and Moments of Decision-Making

4 The precautionary principle deeply concerns collective action, not only because it affects society, but also because it encompasses the cooperation of various decision-making bodies that may be poorly interconnected, even though they share concerns (Plaud and Zielinska 2010). These bodies may be reluctant for various reasons or act with different goals in view (for example, on the one hand, the objective of industrial development for a company and, on the other hand, for a local community, the primary concern to respond to the concerns of the people most directly affected). But this misalignment is not without consequences regarding how to introduce a concern for precaution into deliberation. Thus, when considering the organization of expertise and dialogue, we cannot avoid the problem of taking competing concerns into account: this problem inevitably emerges within collective deliberation from the very fact of the existence of these differences.

5 However, the precautionary principle is often presented in decisional terms in a manner barely distinguished from individual decision-making. Conventionally, it is presented as if humanity in general, or a nation as a whole, faced the task of decision-making under conditions of risk or uncertainty. This type of formulation appears strongly linked to a rhetoric of “major problems” of humanity in general, such as the problem of the future of energy or respect for the environment, or even respect for the biological integrity of the human species. We argue, then, as if the community in question were a single agent. [3]

6 As we see in the discourse of political ecology, this is a matter of spreading awareness of global issues. In some cases, such rhetoric may serve to draw attention to real problems that actually call for efforts to achieve solutions. That is the case for problems that call for intensive interactions between different groups of people, but with regard to which an active search for solutions may be neglected, because it is easy for each of the groups concerned (a region, a nation, etc.) to allow others to act or to leave it to future generations. We may cite as examples the problems of pollution or contribution to global warming, linked to industrial activity or vehicular traffic and transcending the local or regional level, or problems of resource depletion associated with intensive usage. The interdependencies surrounding these issues are very strong, but the specific responsibility of any one human group or generation is difficult to establish.

7 In fact, it is never humanity as such, nor even just the nation as such, that makes concrete decisions. These decisions are also rooted in the choices effected by the persons and issues in which particular groups or political parties are involved. The interaction between groups is thus crucial, whether it takes the form of dialogue, argumentation, or negotiation (or a combination of these forms of interaction), as demonstrated, for example, in the precautionary policies implemented in response to the worst influenza epidemics. We see here the decisive nature of the interaction between the scientific communities, the World Health Organization, and national governments. Such a variety of important preoccupations enter into the interactions between groups regarding precautionary policies that it would be simplistic to fall back on the abstract concern for the preservation of humanity. For example, one factor might be scientists’ cognitive anxiety to correct a previous underestimation of certain risks, whereas another might be the political concern—or the administrative concern—to show that action is being taken cautiously. Thus, in regard to the comparison between the risks associated with the approval of certain drugs and the risks posed by the diseases they treat, the psychologist Jonathan Baron noted that during the 1990s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tended to weigh positive effects on disease progression (in the case of serious illness) more heavily in proportion to the weight given to noxious side effects. [4] This trend may be taken as a demonstration of prudence with regard to the ravages of certain diseases. However, this approach may be challenged by scientists who, like Baron, advocate a quantitative comparison of harms and benefits without any special regard for the fight against disease or the fight against side effects.

2 - Plans of Action and Contextual Conditions

8 The example of the doctor or trainer in Plato’s Statesman (295–296), who gives instructions to his patients or pupils to regulate their lives in his absence (based on an initial estimate of which way the wind is blowing), can be used to illustrate several crucial points for the thinking of precaution in deliberation and action. This character, departing for a trip, leaves his instructions in writing to prevent their being forgotten. The first point to be analyzed is the connection established between the changing circumstances and mistrust concerning the choice that will determine the future in a rigid manner:


Well now, suppose our doctor did not stay abroad as long as he had expected and so came back the sooner to his patients. Would he hesitate to substitute different prescriptions for the original ones if his patients’ condition happened to be better than anticipated because of a climatic improvement or some other unusual and unexpected development of that kind? Would the doctor feel it his duty to maintain stubbornly that there must be no transgression of the strict letter of those original prescriptions of his? Would he refuse to issue new prescriptions or conditions, or condemn a patient who was venturing to act contrary to the prescriptions he had written out for him? Would the doctor declare all such action must be wrong because those former prescriptions were the true canons of medicine and of health [...]? [5]

10 This Platonic thought experiment poses the problem of how, in the case of plans of action that were formulated at a given date and that seemed optimal at the time of their formulation, to adapt them to changed circumstances. In view of this problem, it is the very rationality of these plans of action that is compromised: what is their value if they must be abandoned as soon as the circumstances change? Intuitively, this value seems even greater insofar as plans of action, while giving us an initial direction, are capable of being gradually adapted to emergent circumstances. In contemporary studies, this is the meaning of the theme of “flexibility”—or the limitation of “irreversibility”—in intertemporal decisions.

11 In decisions involving several periods, so that their future contextual conditions are partially unknown (Lancry 1982, Jaffray 2002), we indeed cannot fail to pay special attention to flexibility. By this term, we mean the continued capacity to respond by choosing meaningful options, given additional information acquired over time, concerning contextual conditions, the structure of the world, or the nature and properties (of efficiency, reliability, safety, etc.) of the available means.

12 As it was formulated at the Earth Summit in Rio, the precautionary principle expresses the ambition of a rationality that concerns the acquisition and processing of information through research. This association between the acquisition of information and irreversibility has been particularly studied in contributions from the discipline of economics, sometimes using dynamic programming tools (see Massé 1964). We might mention the “irreversibility effect,” independently established by C. Henry and by K. J. Arrow and A. C. Fisher in 1974 (see also Laffont 1989). As Jean-Jacques Laffont summarizes it:


The optimal decision of the first stage, using the finer structure of information, must constrain the future less than the optimal decision, using the grosser structure of information […]
One must be more “conservative” if one expects to learn more in the future; one must keep open future options. [6]

14 In fact, the concern for precaution is strongly associated with the desire not to jeopardize the future prospects of humanity, in terms of survival and quality of living conditions, in the face of risks (particularly technological risks) which, if they materialize, give rise to irreversible developments. [7]

15 The “information” in question in characterizations of precaution is not only envisaged as a general variable that increases or decreases—what is referred to in such phrases as “acquiring information,” “using science to gain better information,” etc. Qualitatively, it takes different forms and is the object of activities of social construction. These are social processes (classification, description, communication, etc.) that make it possible to base collective action on the available information with some degree of accuracy. Thus, it is necessary to focus on the nature of openness to emerging additional information (Guibet Lafaye and Picavet 2009, 2011) by considering the underlying social processes that play a role in this openness. Such is the case with mechanisms for scientific and technological monitoring, the modalities by which information is disseminated online (e.g., whether it is easy or difficult to access, provided freely or for a fee, personalized or impersonal) and scientific “alerts” for professionals involved in a field of study, or even institutionalized mechanisms for the ranking and structuring of information—for example, evidence-based medicine (i.e., medicine based on the comparative credibility of factual data), the epistemological principles of which are analyzed by Philippe Bizouarn (2003).

16 The crucial role of information selection in organizations has led some authors to highlight, beyond the treatment of the data, the capta produced by agents’ selection of a sub-set of information from the mass of data available, a process governed by their goals in the intended action. [8] The gradual acquisition of information is inherent in the social construction of plans of action, but provokes a difficulty for rational action staged in time and consistency (Jaffray 2002). Often, there must be a plan of action that, in order to be meaningful and lead to profitable results, must extend over several periods that are respectively associated with successive stages of a single process. Therein lies an opportunity to demonstrate our rationality. However, there is another opportunity to demonstrate our rationality, or rather, there are a number of other occasions, in the decisions that are taken at each stage in the process.

17 This duality affects the strategies by which one intends to demonstrate a concern for precaution. An adequate response to information gained is an integral part of the concern for precaution. However, also in a spirit of “precaution,” the rigidity of plans of action should not be total since the acquisition of information is likely to affect the way we seek out particularly important goals—such as the avoidance of serious risks—and take a collective position with regard to the irreversibility of certain choices. Nevertheless, the response to the progressive acquisition of information is an opportunity to demonstrate rationality (i.e., to act in a consistent manner in accordance with the best reasons available), without having any certainty that this will coincide with the directions that initially seemed to be the best. When we expect to gain new information from one period to the next, there is no assurance of consistency between these two levels of practical rationality; this constitutes the “problem of temporal consistency” (or dynamic coherence). [9]

3 – Rules and Expertise

18 The problem posed by the passage from Plato’s Statesman also marks a limit of expertise. Faced with largely unpredictable or unanticipated flows of information, expertise should not lead to overly confident prescriptions. It must leave a margin for incompleteness, remaining open to self-questioning. The question posed by Plato is that of rigidity: to mechanically apply the rule would be indefensible conduct in view of the facts, when these (for example, the direction of the wind) are considered in conjunction with the accepted criteria of action (for example, having a healthy way of life).

19 In a precautionary approach, when action can be guided by expertise—possibly by disturbing it or giving it a specific orientation—we must ponder the decision-making authority’s ability to call into question, through self-criticism and organized dialogue, the guidelines and criteria that it uses in conjunction with the decisions it takes. [10] To demonstrate this ability is to somehow demonstrate a real concern for precaution at the procedural level. Arguably, within this configuration, precaution is expressed by maintaining openness to criticism, coupled with the continued possibility of a change in course. In this regard, nevertheless, one problem must be confronted.

20 For reflection and participation to play a concrete role and “make a difference” in deliberation, the planning of collective action must at least be sufficiently flexible and open to revision, by the very nature of the choices resulting made. This is why openness to criticism does not push in the same direction as the concern for a resolute choice that would be immunized against opportunism. Indeed, making decisions that are not easily reversible is a way to “tie one’s hands,” i.e., to commit oneself to paths from which it will be difficult to depart, even in response to new information or evaluations. If one wants to draw the collective benefits of greater predictability of action, it is necessary to guard against opportunism and to make oneself deaf—methodologically deaf, in a sense—to appeals based on changes of context; certitude of conduct then means committing to a course marked by a high degree of irreversibility. However, such a policy undermines one’s ability to make advantageous adjustments in response to new circumstances, even when dialogue and criticism abound. From this line of thought, we can see quite clearly that an essentially procedural interpretation of the precautionary principle is insufficient. The argument we have just made is opposed to a substantial approach to precaution, which enjoins us to be wary of irreversibility, i.e., of choices that commit us too much in the future. The opposition is in itself significant because it shows the limits of the threefold concern for flexibility in implementing plans of action, responsiveness to new information, and openness to criticism. Demonstrating precaution can only mean encouraging research, open debate, and criticism of the action being taken, even if these elements are accompanied by the resolution to take account of them in the progressive adjustment (or revision) of the action plans. Indeed, the process of adjustment may be too limited, too insignificant, if the first choices made entail serious future commitments.

II - Dialogue and Precaution in Public Deliberation

1 – Variability in the Implementation of Principles

21 An interpersonal dimension can be discerned in the Platonic thought experiment previously mentioned. In principle, the beneficiaries of counsel are capable of challenging the counsel they have been given with the aid of their own information. However, the difference produced by knowledge of the technique in question (which is not shared) as well as comparison with the art of statesmanship developed later in Plato’s dialogue suggests that it does not belong to the pupils or patients to change the rules prescribed for them, even if beneficiaries of counsel are normally capable of recognizing that contextual conditions change, that the prescribed rules are subject to criticism. If we think of examples of the contemporary world, it is clear that the prescribed rules remain subject to criticism, even when their political legitimacy is widely recognized. This criticism also depends on the particular point of view that each person forms on the basis of his or her own information and reasoning.

22 In France, it is customary to present the “nuclear option” (associating the civil nuclear program with strategic deterrence) in the manner of a choice made in the past that must govern the future: this would be France’s “historic choice,” de Gaulle’s “legacy,” the Nation’s collective commitment, etc. This must be seen as a kind of prescription, expressed as a rule of action for choices made over time, each generation then having to “play its part” or, in another common phrase, assuming its responsibility in the history of the Nation. However, citizens possess an abundance of information and can fully develop—and express—a critical perspective on this form of collective commitment over time.

23 We cannot fail to notice the importance of interpreting tasks in the formulation and implementation (in relation to specific cases) of general principles guiding collective action. This applies to the principles of equity, efficiency, respect for rights, and the common interest, but also to the precautionary principle. When we emphasize the significance of the precautionary principle for collective action, for political initiative, or for legislation, our ambition is to make it the key to a certain form of “principled” action, in which we do not simply take precaution on a case-by-case basis but follow a general principle.

24 In this way, a connection is established between decisions taken within different contexts, which would not be the case if conduct were opportunistic. Implementation of the precautionary principle within each situation, however, calls for an effort to describe the situation in terms of the categories used to formulate this principle. What then takes place simultaneously is its interpretation. Indeed, applying the principle in such-and-such a manner in a particular case—when it could conceivably have been applied in some other manner—comes down to making choices about its interpretation. For this reason, the interpretation of the principle of reference may fluctuate depending on the circumstances, in relation to motifs derived from adaptation to the particular context. [11]

25 The threat of uncontrolled fluctuation might prompt discussions of “ethical risk” and the corresponding need for “ethical precaution,” to use Christine Noiville’s term, [12] when the concrete manner in which to apply a principle seems too uncertain or ill-defined. It is then a matter of guarding against the risk that, in the heat of political action, we will adopt solutions or approaches that are clearly problematic from an ethical perspective.

26 Taken together, this plurality and its importance for collective deliberation justify an effort to neutralize the impact of interpretive biases that may be tied to ambitions, interests, and familiarity with certain practical issues that arise routinely. The problem also arises for the precautionary principle itself, the interpretation of which may be uncertain or evolving, to the point of raising concerns that it may be emptied of all substance, fluctuating with the social transactions in which the principle is supposed to play a role.

2 – Dialogue and Prescriptions for the Future

27 In a collective approach to dealing with risk and uncertainty on the basis of incomplete knowledge, expertise and counsel play a major role. However, they entail problems. We are thinking in particular of those which are related to differences in information and those which are related to the effort to arrive at relatively general rules, even though these rules must be applied in circumstances that cannot be entirely predicted and, consequently, in a manner that does not always yield the best results. At first glance, one might take it for granted that the opinion of the most knowledgeable people (experts, specialists, scientists, etc.) should always be consulted first, or even exclusively, when it comes to making informed decisions in a spirit of precaution. However, we must note that today this simple schema is deeply questionable. To put it bluntly, entrusting the fate of society as a whole to experts would be seen as reckless.

28 Today, the presence and involvement of non-specialists are widely perceived as precautionary measures in the face of uncertainty, especially in the face of the type of uncertainty introduced (or accentuated) by technological development. It is typically felt that it would be unwise to rely too exclusively on specialists, in particular for the following reasons, which were clearly articulated, for example, in France on the occasion of the “États généraux de la bioéthique” in 2009. [13]

29 First, it is felt that specialists and non-specialists have shared interests because of their shared exposure to the hazards that may arise from specialists’ activities. Non-specialists are concerned, like any other person, by the risks on which they are required to give an opinion, even when the subject is scientifically or technically complex. For example, in the “États généraux de la bioéthique,” it was repeatedly stressed that the evolution of French law in the domain of bioethics is everyone’s business and that it concerns everyone. From this point of view, we can say that the development of strategies in keeping with the precautionary principle must build on the totality of the judgments expressed in society—and that, in fact, it is called upon to do so. Moreover, the manner in which people are affected varies from one individual to another, and these differences may be relevant to the public discussion: there is no reason to stick only to the testimony or opinion of those possessing the most qualifications.

30 Secondly, some technological and societal risks appear to be linked to the initiatives of individuals or groups that may be prone to committing excesses because of their scientific interests, technical specialties, or career interests. This is why we are led to call for a kind of neutralization of the predominant weight usually given to the advice of experts. Thus, in the “États généraux de la bioéthique,” the “specialist” perspective was regularly described as a particular point of view, that of a special interest group, so to speak, in a clear departure from the Enlightenment model according to which it was the scholar’s vocation to enlighten the public from a detached point of view.

31 As this “special interest group” is at the same time the one that generates information (or acquires it rapidly) and harbors the initiatives that are considered potentially dangerous to humanity, neutralizing the preponderance of specialist perspectives appeared as a precautionary measure. Conversely, giving everyone a say means letting potentially valuable information find its way into the argument and finally into the public debate, without being suppressed in favor of specialists’ priorities and jargon. In the background, a desire to see society truly benefit from research efforts and strategies of precaution gives an important place to acquiring information in the process of modifying plans of action. This desire dictates that we avoid allowing information and research findings to be “confiscated” by the desire of a handful of specialists to control the course of events.

32 This perspective is marked by a degree of suspicion toward the scientific community. This suspicion seems to tacitly rest on the hypothesis that the moral judgment of people who are at the origin of suspicious initiatives is likely to be distorted by external considerations—i.e., other than the purely scientific—or by the predominance of passion for knowledge or innovation over any other motive. In this regard, we note the parallel between the myth of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the widespread assumption according to which, in the absence of socially organized repression, scientists will do whatever it is possible to do, even the worst that is possible. Even when their research is directed towards protection, safety, and security, they call for special supervision (by virtue of some sort of correlation, like that discussed by Socrates in Book I of Plato’s Republic, between skillfulness in guarding against harm and skill in the art of inflicting this harm).

33 Fears regarding science are nourished by views on the topic of the shift from a responsible science (capable of synthesis) to a specialized and less reflexive science. In the eyes of non-specialists, then, precautionary safeguards are needed, going beyond the simple trust in research, because scientists do not necessarily have an adequate understanding of the consequences of their undertakings. It must be recognized that science and technology are fundamentally founded on the division of labor, which makes it impossible for anyone to understand everything by himself or herself, and dictates specialists’ need to rely on specialists in other areas—as Bertrand Saint-Sernin has emphasized in the context of epistemology (1995, 2007). Under this system of rationality, important initiatives can be taken without the necessary sense of perspective.

34 In the transition from “Enlightenment” rationality to this kind of limited collective rationality, then, it is easy to show the interest of institutional constraints, to be imposed on everyone, that would forcefully express a precautionary logic beneficial for humanity. Indeed, in the absence of sufficient perspective at the individual level, we cannot rely solely, for this purpose, on the prudence of each individual researcher. For example, genetic research or experimentation on humans must be regulated by legislation, to be complemented by ethical charters and the establishment of ethics committees. This logic is intended to offset naive enthusiasm for discovery and novelty, even if the concern for precaution as such is obviously not to be confused with hostility to progress in knowledge or the development of technologies.

3 – New Challenges for Participation and Interpretation

35 The evolution of prevailing ideas concerning science, marked by the transition that we have described in broad strokes, plays a role in the projection of a concern for precaution on the relations between groups in society. Everything happens as if, from now on, the concern for precaution must lead to improvements in consultation procedures, in public debate or in advisory bodies. This can be seen positively in the “États généraux de la bioéthique” and negatively in the French debate on nanotechnology, the relative failure of which was attributed to an unbalanced representation of the different currents of opinion, giving too much place to the most influential experts working for government authorities. Thus, an evolution is sketched in the institutionalized logic of precaution, with potential consequences for the organization of public deliberation.

36 Acting in the spirit of precaution, indeed, means not only (as in the traditional perspective) being prepared to receive and process information and new knowledge while executing plans of action, when they can benefit from these contributions. The various groups and representatives of the affected population must also be allowed to speak, with mechanisms provided to ensure that this expression of opinion has an adequate impact on deliberation, allowing for an appropriate use of knowledge and arguments associated with different points of view, even when these diverge. [14] In this way, we can ultimately hope to neutralize biases or ambitions, as well as the narrowness of vision or loss of contact with certain important realities that threaten to push us in directions that are both questionable and insufficiently flexible. We can hope to capitalize on the information gained in order to benefit the greatest number, even though neither the empirical sciences nor philosophy can pronounce on the good of humanity from a superior perspective. [15]

37 This injection of precaution into the structure of relations among social actors is facilitated by the increased importance given to the social aspects of researchers’ behavior or the perceived danger of certain technologies, especially in conjunction with their foreseeable or possible uses. We might also cite the growing awareness of the fundamentally questionable character of expertise in many fields of knowledge and action, especially on the occasion of health scandals. [16]

38 We should not overlook the influence of certain developments in moral and political philosophy related to pluralism and the constraints that must result from it for the organization of public deliberation. Indeed, in contemporary reflections on the status of ethical expertise, we readily emphasize the need to complement formal expertise—that of philosophers, for example—with the “moral authority” of the non-ethicist, or with the common sense of a person attuned to moral strictures. This kind of concern helps renew an interest in broad participation in ethical debate and a collective assessment of the risks affecting society as a whole.

III – Conclusion

39 The implementation of the precautionary principle in the contemporary world is deeply affected by the evolution of ideas concerning expertise and its relation to collective powers of decision-making. The use of a general principle such as the precautionary principle is intended to guard against the risk of opportunism. However, its implementation cannot be understood only in relation to the reality of institutional processes and public debate.

40 Apart from the difficulties intrinsic to practical reasoning for planning action when information varies, we might worry that the precautionary principle could be interpreted and translated into practice in a less than rigorous manner. The new emphasis on public participation is specifically intended to prevent the exclusive dominance of the perspectives of certain groups in society as to how to interpret basic principles of collective action such as the precautionary principle.

41 Today, we can detect a concern for precaution in the careful avoidance of any “drift” in the implementation of principles of collective action, such as the principle that scientific and technological progress must be made in a manner consistent with respect for human dignity and the environment. General principles of this kind are subject to variability in their implementation—a variability that might be maintained in particular by transactions between institutions, opportunist strategies within organizations, individual ambitions, or even the biases belonging to particular social formations such as the scientific community. The result of this is an excessive laxity that ends up emptying the principles of their substance.

42 One of the factors producing this variability in the implementation of principles lies in arbitrariness in the choice of interpretations, which depends on circumstances. The challenge, then, is how to take collective precautions against the misuse of the principles that we claim to endorse. From this point of view, the precautionary principle complements other values, standards, and principles that are implemented in collective strategies, policies, or legislation. It serves to remind us that very substantial dangers can be overlooked when we focus on some of these normative aspects while forgetting others, or when we weight or prioritize these in a questionable manner. We understand, then, that the regulatory use of the precautionary principle requires broad participation and a collective effort to rethink traditional hierarchies of knowledge, assigning important roles to local observation or to the particular values of subgroups within society. Today, the precautionary principle must be understood in relation to risk and variability in implementing principles of action, and in relation to the voices of different groups or individuals in society, insofar as these may carry messages or warnings valid for the whole of society. From this perspective, its destiny is to be increasingly translated into the collective organization of deliberation.


  • [1]
    This text has benefited from comments from participants at Yves Charles Zarka’s seminar at the Sorbonne (Université Paris Descartes), “Controverses environnementales sur le principe de précaution,” on the occasion of the presentation of a first draft. It has also benefited from comments written by Arnaud Mace, whom we thank. Our research in this area has been supported by SITEXPERT (PRES Paris-Centre Universités René Descartes and Panthéon-Sorbonne) and CEEI (PRES Bourgogne/Franche-Comté and Université de Franche-Comté).
  • [2]
    It is for this reason that the principle originated in deontological ethics. See Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. Hans Jonas and David Herr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
  • [3]
    In Hans Jonas’ work, the reference to humanity as a whole is linked to the priority, among the sources of responsibility, of the preservation of responsibility itself: “[...] the existence of mankind comes first [...] the possibility of there being responsibility in the world, which is bound to the existence of men, is of all objects of responsibility the first” (Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, 99).
  • [4]
    Jonathan Baron, Judgment Misguided: Intuition and Error in Public Decision Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • [5]
    Plato, Statesman, in Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, trans. J. B. Skemp (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unversity Press, 1961), 1065.
  • [6]
    Laffont 1989, 52; see also Freixas and Laffont 1984.
  • [7]
    Jonas established this association in particular with the effects of nuclear energy on our environment, adding to it the necessity of taking complex interdependencies into account: “So long as we have not attained certainty of prediction here, and especially in view of the likely irreversibility of some of the initiated processes beyond a still undetermined point, caution is the better part of valor and surely an imperative of responsibility” (The Imperative of Responsibility, 191).
  • [8]
    See Peter Checkland, “Soft Systems Methodology in Action: Participative Creation of an Information Strategy for an Acute Hospital,” in Rational Analysis for a Problematic World Revisited, eds. John Mingers and Jonathan Rosenhead (Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2001), 91–113.
  • [9]
    Contemporary philosophy, particularly following the contributions of Michael Bratman (1987), David Gauthier (1988), and Edward McClennen (1990), develops this problem in great detail and has made it possible to better understand the practical and political issues involved. Special attention has been paid to the element of rationality that may exist in forms of “resolute choice” immunized against revisions to changing circumstances. In addition, plans of action or intentions that make future commitments play a role in social coordination (Roy 2008). However, the succession of profitable opportunities for decision-making poses a continual challenge for the theory of rational choice.
  • [10]
    In contemporary philosophy, such substantive issues are taken into account particularly by theories of reflexive governance (Lenoble and Maesschalck 2010) and studies on the appropriate way for policy makers to involve or generate expertise (Feltz et al. 2007).
  • [11]
    Lawyers have highlighted this problem: “One senses [...] that by becoming fixed on scientific progress, the law runs the risk of being engraved in sand rather than stone, and conceived in such a way as to satisfy only the random interests of a scientific community that is still divided. The regulation of ethics by law, whenever there are advances in therapeutics, thus seems deficient [...]” (Bellivier et al 2006, 288). On opportunism and its relation to new developments, see Guibet Lafaye and Picavet 2009, 2011.
  • [12]
    Noiville 2000, 139; see also Picavet 2003.
  • [13]
    The “Estates-General of Bioethics,” its title echoing that of the Estates-General (an advisory body convening the three “Estates” of the clergy, nobility, and commoners), was a public forum convened by the French government to discuss bioethical issues such as cloning, organ donation, and genetics research. (Trans.)
  • [14]
    See, in this connection, Simon French, Jesus Rios, and Theo Stewart, “Decision Analysis and Scenario Thinking for Nuclear Sustainability” (2011), available online at
  • [15]
    As Emmanuel Malolo Dissakè writes in his investigation of philosophy’s new responsibilities in relation to knowledge: “It is a matter of picturing humanity, or rather the survival of the human in our time, with the knowledge that we do not have the privilege of a superior perspective, that ours is not a view from nowhere, that we do not see with the objective eyes of an outsider [...],” even as knowledge that poses enormous challenges is described as “a set of games with their explicit and especially their implicit rules,” which we might obviously find potentially threatening (Malolo Dissakè, “Identification, spécialisation ou désunion: Plaidoyer pour la modestie,” in Philosophie et savoirs, ed. Moufida Goucha (Paris: Unesco, 2004), 51).
  • [16]
    This growing awareness indeed stimulates interest in a profound form of pluralism that is positively interested in the diversity of views associated with different groups (rather than merely seeing them as sidelights preceding the development of a single collective point of view). In this perspective, it is not only politically informed, but also useful for the purposes of collective care, to cultivate institutional articulation of different points of view, offering them adequate opportunities to express themselves and to influence decisions. See, in this sense, Gilbert Hottois’ analysis of the Belgian experiment in bioethics, supported by the contention that “the diversity and persistence of dissent should be considered more as a stroke of good fortune than as a handicap, provided that the debate into which they enter is more fully informed, transparent and open” (Hottois, Essais de philosophie bioéthique et biopolitique (Paris: Vrin, 1999), 167).

With the precautionary principle, knowledge, risk assessment and action come together. Considered from an ethical and political point of view, this encompassing principle is a challenge for institutions and the general public, both in debates and when it comes to acting upon it in concrete settings. In this contribution, we attempt to describe the specific problems which arise from the choice of interpretations. With a view to the ethical problems at stake, this leads us to a positive appreciation of the renewed attention paid to participatory endeavors for the purpose of discussing the critical ethical issues and the level of acceptable risks.


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