Reading Johnathan’s piece on ‘the precautionary principle’ below, I was struck by the way both it and the comments fail to come to grip with the fact that people who support precaution simply do not share the attitudes and values that those arguments take for granted. Both sides are unintelligible to the other. All sides, in fact, because there are more than two.
I am thoroughly persuaded by the distinction made by cultural theorists between two sorts of precaution promoters, the heirarchists and the egalitarians. The interaction between those two types in a media democracy very well explains how we get to the regulation of virtual risk. Egalitarians expect difference and change to be threatening; heirarchists value order and system, and hate absence of rules. Regulation promises egalitarians safety, that is – the minimisation and control of change and choice – in return for granting heirarchists power and order. Collective nightmares and regulatory bedtime stories are both the stuff of news.
The people advocating the precautionary principle adopt it because it is a neat encapsualtion of the preconception that all change is danger, or because it is a procedural pretext for change to be subject to approval so that it not be permitted to disrupt social order. That is how it is a principle so completely incapable of application. It is not intended as an axiom of rational construction for policy but to legitimate an approach.
The commentator who compared it to Pascal’s Wager had it precisely wrong. It is an inversion of Pascal’s Wager, an anti-rational argument for refusing to make any bets.