The Precautionary Principle and Expert Disagreement

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Abstract

The Precautionary Principle is typically construed as a conservative decision rule aimed at preventing harm. But Martin Peterson (JME 33: 5–10, 2007; The ethics of technology: A geometric analysis of five moral principles, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017) has argued that the principle is better understood as an epistemic rule, guiding decision-makers in forming beliefs rather than choosing among possible acts. On the epistemic view, he claims there is a principle concerning expert disagreement underlying precautionary-based reasoning called the ecumenical principle: all expert views should be considered in a precautionary appraisal, not just those that are the most prominent or influential. In articulating the doxastic commitments of decision-makers under this constraint, Peterson precludes any probabilistic rule that might result in combining expert opinions. For combined or consensus probabilities are likely to provide decision-makers with information that is more precise than warranted. Contra Peterson, I argue that upon adopting a broader conception of probability, there is a probabilistic rule, under which expert opinions are combined, that is immune to his criticism and better represents the ecumenical principle.
Original languageEnglish
JournalErkenntnis
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 20 Sep 2021

Bibliographical note

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Alfred Archer, Tanja Rechnitzer, and Tomasz Żuradzki for
their feedback on earlier drafts and two anonymous referees for their comments that helped improve this
paper. The research for this article was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the
European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant No. 805498) and the Dutch
Research Council (NWO) under the Visitor’s Travel Grant scheme (Grant No. 040.11.739).

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