Is Precautionary the New Reactionary?

In recent months, both sides of the Atlantic have witnessed renewed calls to apply the so-called Precautionary Principle to limit, if not outright, stop a variety of publicly and privately funded research and development projects around the topic of ‘synthetic biology’, an umbrella term for all attempts to redesign life, either by altering existing organisms or introducing new ones. The UK’s Green Party, currently enjoying its first Member of Parliament, has even proposed a permanent precautionary branch of government with the power to refer any legislation back to committee if it fails to be properly cognizant of its potential effects on future generations. You can find out more about it here. However, the most ambitious attempt to enforce the Precautionary Principle will be unveiled in one week’s time (18th April) at Washington’s Wilson Center. 113 NGOs from across the world have signed a statement that would effectively impose enough regulations on the pursuit of synthetic biology to make it unfeasible. If you’re interested in finding out more or attending the event, go here.

Generally speaking, the Precautionary Principle proposes a version of the Hippocratic Oath for the entire planet: i.e. above all else, do no harm. At first hearing, who could disagree? However, in practice, it turns out to be a radically risk-averse strategy that mistakenly sees the wholesale arresting of scientific and technological innovation as the solution to genuine problems of social injustice, poverty, inequality, insecurity, etc. I say ‘wholesale’ quite deliberately because, while Precautionaries have been traditionally preoccupied with stopping the spread of ‘genetically modified organisms’, their arguments are typically pitched at such a level of generality and abstraction that they could be easily extended to any genuine innovation in the Schumpeterian sense – that is, a market game-changer. In short, Precautionaries are completely blind to the positive character of risk-taking, even when the risks fail. Indeed, the failures may teach us more, if the data they provide are collected and made publicly available so that others may learn and take more informed risks in the future. A truly progressive society insures against the inevitable negative outcomes of risk-taking without discouraging the taking of risk altogether.

Behind this last sentence is an alternative to the Precautionary Principle, namely, the Proactionary Principle, which has been so far promoted only in transhumanist circles. You can read its latest version here. The Proactionary Principle ties our distinctiveness as creatures to our proven capacity for taking calculated risks from which we emerge not dead but stronger as a species. The trick is to provide a normative framework that makes the Proactionary Principle attractive not only to self-styled heroic entrepreneurs and libertarians but also to ordinary, often vulnerable people who are not normally inclined to risk so much of themselves and the world for some unknown future. At the moment, Veronika Lipinska and I are writing a book that will sketch out the basis for a new sort of welfare state that is not so much focussed on preventing worst outcomes but rather encourages the taking of risks from which all of society may benefit.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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