by Judith Curry
Between no action and precaution.
The Proactionary Principle was conceptualized by Max More, and is outlined in this document. The proactionary principle is presented as an alternative to the precautionary principle. So what is wrong with the precautionary principle?
The precautionary principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:
- assuming worst-case scenarios
- distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
- assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
- ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature over humanity
- illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the proponent of the activity
- conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.
More describes the essence of the proactionary principle as:
Most activities involving technology will have undesired effects as well as desirable ones. Whereas the precautionary principle is often used to take an absolutist stand against an activity, the Proactionary Principle allows for handling mixed effects through compensation and remediation instead of prohibition. The Proactionary Principle recognizes that nature is not always kind, that improving our world is both natural and essential for humanity, and that stagnation is not a realistic or worthy option.
The Proactionary Principle stands for the proactive pursuit of progress. Being proactive involves not only anticipating before acting, but learning by acting. When technological progress is halted, people lose an essential freedom and the accompanying opportunities to learn through diverse experiments. We already suffer from an undeveloped capacity for rational decision making. Prohibiting technological change will only stunt that capacity further. Continuing needs to alleviate global human suffering and desires to achieve human flourishing should make obvious the folly of stifling our freedom to learn.
More outlines 9 component principles to the proactionary principle:
- Freedom to innovate: Our freedom to innovate technologically is valuable to humanity. The burden of proof therefore belongs to those who propose restrictive measures. All proposed measures should be closely scrutinized.
- Objectivity: Use a decision process that is objective, structured, and explicit. Evaluate risks and generate forecasts according to available science, not emotionally shaped perceptions; use explicit forecasting processes; fully disclose the forecasting procedure; ensure that the information and decision procedures are objective; rigorously structure the inputs to the forecasting procedure; reduce biases by selecting disinterested experts, by using the devil’s advocate procedure with judgmental methods, and by using auditing procedures such as review panels.
- Comprehensiveness: Consider all reasonable alternative actions, including no action. Estimate the opportunities lost by abandoning a technology, and take into account the costs and risks of substituting other credible options. When making these estimates, carefully consider not only concentrated and immediate effects, but also widely distributed and follow-on effects.
- Openness/Transparency: Take into account the interests of all potentially affected parties, and keep the process open to input from those parties.
- Simplicity: Use methods that are no more complex than necessary
- Triage: Give precedence to ameliorating known and proven threats to human health and environmental quality over acting against hypothetical risks.
- Symmetrical treatment: Treat technological risks on the same basis as natural risks; avoid underweighting natural risks and overweighting human-technological risks. Fully account for the benefits of technological advances.
- Proportionality: Consider restrictive measures only if the potential impact of an activity has both significant probability and severity. In such cases, if the activity also generates benefits, discount the impacts according to the feasibility of adapting to the adverse effects. If measures to limit technological advance do appear justified, ensure that the extent of those measures is proportionate to the extent of the probable effects.
- Prioritize (Prioritization): When choosing among measures to ameliorate unwanted side effects, prioritize decision criteria as follows: (a) Give priority to risks to human and other intelligent life over risks to other species; (b) give non-lethal threats to human health priority over threats limited to the environment (within reasonable limits); (c) give priority to immediate threats over distant threats; (d) prefer the measure with the highest expectation value by giving priority to more certain over less certain threats, and to irreversible or persistent impacts over transient impacts.
- Renew and Refresh: Create a trigger to prompt decision makers to revisit the decision, far enough in the future that conditions may have changed significantly.
The Breakthrough Institute
Steve Fuller has a recent essay on the proactionary principle at Breakthrough. Excerpts:
When dealing with complex systems, the science is such that there is a strong chance that any currently supported model of, say, climate change will be superseded by the time it would predict a major catastrophe. Put flippantly, you can be sure that if a model says the world will end in 50 years, the model itself will be gone in 25. From that standpoint, the precautionary principle can look quite shortsighted, as it places too much trust in today’s science, overlooking science’s long-term tendency to shift its ground, often as a result of a massive reinterpretation of data, which in turn leads to new projections.
Protection and promotion are, of course, not incompatible, but they pull in opposite directions. If you believe that you are in the business of protecting people, then minimising risk can become an end in itself. Thus, the welfare state is often said to provide a “safety net” for the most vulnerable members of society, who in principle could be anyone, given the world’s fundamental uncertainty.
But some critics would reverse the priority of protection over promotion of humanity as the goal of government. The proactionary principle valorizes calculated risk-taking as essential to human progress, where the capacity for progress is taken to define us as a species.
Moreover, “proactionaries” believe that by restricting risk-taking the “precautionaries” place humanity at still greater risk, as we are prevented from making the sort of radical experiments that in the past had resulted in major leaps in knowledge that enabled us to overcome our natural limits. Perhaps the proactionaries overstate their case. Nevertheless, were any of the path-breaking lab-based research that was done on humans and other mammals before, say, 1980 to be proposed to the precautionary institutional review boards that authorise academic research today, they would probably face serious objections, if not be outright prohibited.
JC comments: I am not a fan of the precautionary principle when applied to complex environmental problems such as climate change, for the reasons outlined by More. I have been a proponent of alternative frameworks for decision making under deep uncertainty, including increase resilience, adaptive management, and broadening the perspectives for decision making. The proactive principle seems consistent with the thrivability approach (previously discussed on the bouncing forward thread), whereas the precautionary principle seems more consistent with the sustainability approach.
The proactionary principle (like the precautionary principle) is both a decision making principle as well as an ethical principle. The climate policy debate at its most basic level is posed as a clash of values between those who want to protect the environment and future generations versus those who want to spur economic development in the near term: a dichotomy of values between the political left and right.
The protection vs promotion dichotomy is an illuminating one. Steve Fuller sums it up this way:
[the] question of whether risk should be avoided or embraced may come to be a defining feature of future ideological struggles.
. . . one division that looms on the horizon could reinvent the right-left distinction for the twenty-first century: precautionary versus “proactionary” attitudes toward risk as principles of policymaking.