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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lesson Eight

Keith Douglass Warner OFM and David DeCosse

The awesome power of modern science and technology, applied in the context of a global capitalist economy, has given rise to planetary scale environmental problems. These threaten the integrity of ecosystems upon which human society depends, and scientific experts are now documenting numerous aspects of nature which human society is irreversibly changing. Some of these changes are relatively innocuous, but many appear to have ominous implications for the diversity of life and the future of human society.

Some scientists and philosophers now argue that humanity is in a new ethical moment, that the scientific, technological and economic revolutions of the past two centuries have raised new challenges for human society and its ability to grapple with the consequences of these revolutions. As German environmental policymakers grappled with the effects of air pollution on aquatic and forest ecosystems, commonly known as acid rain, in the 1970s, they articulated a new principle in their planning for environmental protection. The term is vorsogeprinzip, which can be translated as foresight principle, or responsibility principle. It was originally used as a principle to guide deliberate planning. For the purposes of this lesson, it is translated as responsibility principle.

Origins of an ethic of precaution

During the 1980s, the German philosopher Hans Jonas further developed the ethical implications of vorsogeprinzip, and it subsequently entered the English language as the precautionary principle. Jonas argued that, formerly, humans were a part of nature. They understood themselves as integral to nature, and could not act so as to seriously disrupt their environment. The Enlightenment revolutions in science, technology and economics changed that way of thinking and our capacity to destroy the environment upon which society depends. We humans are now able to intervene in nature in ways not previously possible. A number of these technological interventions can cause irreversible harm to human health and the environment, and that this demands more sustained ethical reflection from every stakeholder, those who benefit and those who are harmed by these technologies. Jonas proposed that humans now suffer from an ethical gap, and that traditional understandings of ethics do not provide sufficient guidance. In his mind, the gap exists between our technological capabilities and our capacity for exercising moral responsibility, to other forms of life and future generations. Jonas argued that decision-making in relation to potentially catastrophic environmental risks carries with it a special moral responsibility which only an ethical principle, not a pragmatic balancing, is appropriate.

The responsibility principle is an alternative to utilitarianism, which is an ethical view which evaluates an action only on the basis of how well it maximizes the well-being or pleasure as summed among all persons. It is thus a form of consequentialist ethics, meaning that the morality of an action is determined by its outcome. Utilitarianism is often described by the phrase: "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." This ethical view may be incompatible with principles environmental ethics, such as endangered species conservation. Even if "the greatest number of people" is expanded to "the greatest number of creatures," a utilitarian view may result in a small number of people or organisms being forced to suffer a great deal so that the majority experiences some benefit. For example, there are very few polar bears in the arctic, and they are threatened by the fossil fuel burning to provide goods to billions of humans. A utilitarian could reasonable argue that the needs of a few polar bears must be sacrificed for the greater numbers of human beings. This would, of course, be incompatible with the responsibility principle.

Jonas and the precautionary principle offer a major contribution from the field of applied environmental ethics, and address a fundamental challenge of environmental ethics: most ethical principles were created to arbitrate problems within the human community. Yet from a historical perspective, we can trace the essence of precaution back to Aquinas' concept of prudence and Aristotle's treatment of the Greek term phronesis, which can be translated as prudence, practical wisdom. This could be understood as intelligence as a precursor to precaution. In Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics," phronesis is "the science of what is just, fine and good for a human being." It requires skill in gathering knowledge and making judgments about it. Prudent actions have to be calibrated intelligently to the circumstances, avoiding both cringing fear and brash heroics.

Connecting the responsibility principle with policy

Around the world the responsibility (or precautionary) principle is now incorporated into environmental decision making, regulations, and treaties. It is a frequently discussed principle among European governments and within their regulatory agencies. It first found its way into a European treaty managing the North Sea in 1987, and subsequently the Treaty on the European Union (also known as the Maastricht Treaty), the 1993 charter for the European Union. The 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development provides a commonly used definition: "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, the lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for the postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." Over the past three decades, the United States government has generally favored cost-benefit analysis over precautionary thinking in regulation. Note the Rio Declaration does not reject the more common and utilitarian cost-benefit analysis, but rather provides an ethical context in which to conduct and interpret such an analysis. U.S. and European approaches to environmental governance and regulation have diverged about the philosophical basis of precaution versus rational risk management, guided by cost-benefit analyses. This divergence underlies many of the trans-Atlantic tensions over trade, global climate disruption and transgenic organism regulations.

The ethic of precaution provides a moral principle that can inform our efforts to make good public policy decisions about the environment. Jonas wrote: "never must the existence or the essence of man as a whole be made a stake in the hazards of an action…this is an unqualified command." If something has irreversible potential, then we must give that possibility greater weight in our reasoning. The wholesale collapse of ecosystems, the long term disruption of global climate, and the irreversibility of a species loss should give us pause, and challenge us to consider our responsibilities: to neighbors, the future, and the Earth. It should also challenge us to consider what principles by which we want to live.


1. Few people would openly disagree with the Jonas statement above, but many might not, in fact, uphold this principle in environmental decision making. Do you agree? Why might this be?
2. Can you think of an example when the responsibility principle was used in environmental decision making?

For more reading

Kerry Whiteside, 2006. Precautionary Politics: Principle and Practice in Confronting Environmental Risk. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education, Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2009