GMOs: the Precautionary Principle

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The precautionary principle is enshrined in French law to protect the environment against risks that are not yet well evaluated. It is therefore necessary to be able to prove the absence and not the presence of potential risks, an arduous work with regard to GMOs . Dominique Lecourt (professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VII and general delegate of the Biovision Foundation of the Academy of Sciences) returns to the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle in France and Europe

It was in Germany in the late 1960s under the name of  Vorsorgeprinzip , about environmental problems that the precautionary principle was formulated for the first time. Its accession to the international notoriety coincides with the Rio Declaration at the Earth Summit in June 1992. It enters the law of the European Community with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 (Article BOR) then that of Amsterdam as a principle that governs the Union’s environmental policies.

On February 2, 1995, the Barnier law enshrines it in French law on the protection of the environment. It presents it as the principle ”  that the lack of certainty, taking into account the scientific and technical knowledge of the moment, must not delay the adoption of effective and proportionate measures aimed at preventing a risk of serious and irreversible damage to the environment”. environment at an economically acceptable cost .

A proof of the absence of risk

In 1998, the Conseil d’État gave this precise definition: ”  This new concept is defined by the obligation on the public or private decision-maker to impose or refuse to act on the basis of the possible risk. In this sense, it is not enough for him to conform his conduct to the taking into account of known risks. It must also provide evidence, given the current state of science, of the absence of risk .

The first formulations of the principle thus appear strictly related to environmental issues. They emphasize the lack of certainty about the risks that must be avoided. It is a public policy principle that authorizes the public authorities to take the necessary measures to deal with these risks – which are not proven but possible  (2) .

But step by step – and very quickly – the precautionary principle has spread to areas further and further away from the environment. The case of GMOs made it possible to move from the environment to health. The excellent report submitted to the Prime Minister on 15 October 1999 by Philippe Kourilsky and Geneviève Viney  (3) states: ”  The precautionary principle must be binding on all decision-makers “. This would be a new principle of liability applying to ”  anyone who has the power to initiate or stop an activity that may pose a risk to others “.

Taken literally, does not this universal definition carry the risk of trivializing the principle? Bruno Latour sarcastically writes an article in  Le Monde dated January 4, 2000 that begins with these words: ”  Invention as useful as fragile, the precautionary principle goes, if we are not careful, become commonplace to the point of becoming confused with the simple caution . And it ends this input field with the words ”  No it was decidedly a synonym for caution, it was not worthwhile to invent a term as pedantic -” be careful “would have sufficed“. With the invention of the precautionary principle, it is in fact, he says, something more serious, newer, than the updating of a thousand-year-old wisdom.

Latour replies here implicitly to Jean-Jacques Salomon  (4) who defended the idea that “precaution” would be only the modern version of Aristotelian “prudence”.

A little history…

In the Nicomachean Ethics , Aristotle (384-322 BC) developed a conception of  phronesis – translated by Cicero (106-43 BC) into Latin by  prudentia – with reference to  providentia – as a capacity to deliberate on contingent things.

It corresponds to the virtue of the calculative or opining part of the soul and differs in that from science. A practical provision in so far as it concerns action rather than production, it concerns the rule of choice and not the choice itself: it distinguishes itself as intellectual virtue from moral virtue. Thus ”  prudence is a disposition, accompanied by the true rule, capable of acting in the sphere of what is good or bad for a human being” (VI, 1140b). It envelops a kind of “existential intellectualism“. Conception quickly supplanted by that of the Stoics: ”  science of things to do or not to do “, taken up and transformed by the definition of Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) of the Klugheit: ” the ability to choose the means that lead us to our greatest well-being “.

This reminder of the classic definitions of prudence shows that the notion of precaution can only be diluted when it is desired to reduce it. The philosophical notion of prudence does not allow us to grasp an essential aspect of the notion of precaution. Which is constituted by the notion of uncertainty of knowledge on a risk not proven. How precautionary is not prevention that deals with an insured – and therefore insurable – risk.

The need for a sudden use of the word precaution is because the notion of “certainty” was linked to the classical conception of science and its relation to its ” applications “. The use of the precautionary concept recognizes that the very basis of the modern conception of the relationship between science and action is endangered by the so-called situation of “uncertainty” in which reality and the seriousness of the risks involved.

This conception was formulated – better than any other – by  Auguste Comte (1798-1857).

Our philosopher polytechnician, one of the first to have reflected on the status of modern engineers in his famous  Course of Positive Philosophy (1830 – 1842), had the art of formulas. He believed in the practical value of philosophy. He did not hesitate to strike at maxims and currencies. One of his most famous figures in the second lesson of his Course. ”  Science of foresight; foresight, whence action: such is the very simple formula, he writes , which expresses, in an exact manner, the general relation of science and art, by taking these two expressions in their total acceptation. ” Formula inspired by Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum  (5) (1561-1626), of which we find the “Know to predict, to provide “.


This maxim introduces a term strangely absent from all current discussions on the precautionary principle: foresight. Now this foresight comes, under the pen of Comte, to double the term of forecast. He thus intends to regulate, but without really asking the question, the question of the relation of science and action. For from foresight to foresight, there is more than one step. From one to the other, there is a real change of attitude: the forecast – which according to Comte stems from science assumes a passive attitude: events are expected to occur. Forethought, on the contrary, consists in actively taking the initiative, occasionally making provisions.

The secret of the modern conception of science is thus brought up to date: it was pretended that foresight implied foresight. As if to foresee to provide was maintained the continuity of the same seeing.

Issues of environmenthave now shown that this logic could be faulted. That the prevailing positivist conception of science should itself be re-examined. Does the character of the scientific process lie in the rational forecasting of events? And not rather in the rectification of implementation? Does not certainty refer to the illusion that certain results obtained could play the role of absolute guarantee of validity for all the presuppositions whose acquisition is always dependent on them? Can we say that science aims to provide for the happiness of human beings? What sense is there even to speak of destination in this matter, if not by an illusion of absolute mastery? What can turn, occasionally in simple fatalism.

However, it is not enough to speak of “precaution” as a modern substitute for prudence, it is the subject of a principle. But in what sense do we say that the precautionary principle is a principle? The majority of philosophers keep a silence visibly embarrassed on this point  (6).

Besides a scientific sense, here out of the field, the notion of principle has a moral sense attested by great works  (7). It then designates a fundamental statement that appears as the source of the system of accepted norms. It is first towards this moral sense that the “precautionary principle” seems to be signaling. This is a direct echo of the famous “principle of responsibility” put forward by the German theologian and philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-1993) in 1979  (8). The target of Jonah was the optimistic progressive theses of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) theoretician of “concrete utopia” in his monumental “hope principle”,  Das prinzip hoffnung  (9). What did Jonah say? That ” no previous ethic had to take into consideration the overall condition of human life as well as the distant future and the existence of the species itself “.

Improvement of techniques

The unprecedented power of  today’s techno and the extension of the now universal diffusion of techniques were revealed such that humanity would have acquired an exorbitant power: that of making the Earth uninhabitable. ”  The action takes place in a context where any large-scale use of capacity creates, in spite of the righteous intention of the agents, a series of effects closely related to immediate and desired” beneficial “effects, a series that ends at the end of a cumulative process with harmful consequences sometimes far exceeding the desired goal “.

The question asked would therefore be that of the mastery (ethics) of mastery (technique). Thus appears, says Jonas, a new dimension of responsibility. It must no longer be conceived as the attribution of a sinister to a past act, but as a commitment to the future. This responsibility to “future generations” demands that action be taken without delay. “So that the effects of the action are compatible with the permanence of a truly human life on Earth”. From there, this ” heuristic of fear” which strives to ward off the imminent threat of a human and planetary catastrophe that would surround the so-called “all power of technology”.

We can see what brings the precautionary principle closer to the principle of responsibility: concernfor the future and irreversible unintentional damage that would affect humanity as such because of its technical mastery. But we also see what distinguishes it. The principle of Jonah is an ethical principle based on a certain idea of ​​”authentically human life” – an idea that Jonas supports from his own theological position. For its part, except to trivialize it as a precautionary principle, the precautionary principle can not be regarded as an ethical principle addressed to everyone.

François Ewald  (10) has repeatedly insisted on the necessary restriction of use in the field of public action. ”  The precautionary principle ,” he writes, ”  extends what public law is called the” police powers “of the administration. Under the precautionary principle, the state can suspend a great deal of freedom even though it can not support its decision on scientific certainty. This increases the power of decision making in the opportunity of the administration, not without entailing great risks of arbitrariness “… From this point of view, the Maastricht Treaty contains an internal contradiction since it introduces the precautionary principle into European law at the same time as it reaffirms the principle of the great freedoms of movement linked to the single market.

A principle of public policy

It is therefore neither an ethical principle nor even a principle that could be addressed to “all decision makers”, but only to those who engage in their decisions the community of citizens in the broadest sense of the term. This is a public policy principle. It is aimed at policy makers who have to make decisions in a state of uncertainty about the risks: their existence, their nature and their gravity. The “cases” of tainted blood, such as the mad cow crisis, have drawn attention to this type of risk and the discernment they demand from public authorities.

If so, we can understand better the reasons for the success of this principle. At a time when states (as well as super-state public organizations) seem to be losing control of the decisions shaping our world that are increasingly taking place in the economic sphere and especially in financial markets – is this not the case? the pathetic or, at any rate, desperate reaffirmation of a demand for power, if not states, at least political authorities? Does the famous principle not assert itself against the ultra-liberal idea that politics would be a disruption, a parasitic one, on the free play of economic laws that are ultimately beneficial?

But it is undoubtedly another sense of precautionary principle, much less noble, which also explains the incredible craze of which it is currently the object. A meaning that Claude Allègre did not miss in his virulent ephemeris of  L’Express , of November 16, 2000, titled “Precaution, trap to …”. At a time when the judiciarization of public life is gaining every day, the precautionary principle would express the fear of politicians and administrators of science to assume their responsibilities. In this sense, it would threaten in the long term to paralyze public life as well as scientific research.

One proof of this is the very regrettable use of the said principle, not to throw light on the situations in which it is said to apply it, but to throw a veil over the real questions that arise. In the case of the ” mad cow “, there were certainly decisions to be made “in a state of uncertainty”, as we say. The prion was an enigma for basic research; it was believed the impassable barrier between species. But there have also been very prosaic and vulgar frauds on the part of a number of agribusiness companies, particularly British ones, whose reality should not be dodged or blurred by the pompous and retroactive invocation of principle and difficulties in its application.

What is ultimately expressed through the invocation and fortune of the precautionary principle is the delicate question of collective intellectual control of the risks to be taken (or refused). This question visibly challenges the existing forms of democracy. In June 1998, the Parliamentary Office seized the key issues for the future of our societies. By entrusting these types of questions to committees of wise men, the idea tended to impose itself that parliamentarians are only useful for relaying local interests or demands of lobbies. The Agency’s initiative was therefore excellent, but there is some concern that the procedure used may not turn against the original intent, that there may be a new encroachment on themedia and advertising in the political field. Why would the representatives of the people be less representative of the people than a sample of “panelist” citizens (11) ? French parliamentarians have shown in the past that they are capable of doing remarkable work on very difficult issues on their own. The process of drafting and adopting the Veil Act or the laws on bioethics gave a convincing example.

To what extent can the new power conquered by biologists over nature contribute to the common good? What interest does it present for the community of citizens? Theoretically, it is the elected representatives of the nation who are best placed to ask such questions. Precisely because in good republican doctrine, they are the elected representatives, not of this or that group, or of this or that constituency, but of the whole people who know from experience how particular interests find themselves posing as the general interest.

For their part, voters do not know anything about these matters? And why would not they be able to get as much information as the sample summoned? Especially hot in an electoral process where many of them still have the feeling of being able to influence their individual and collective destiny. But let us admit that there is an undeniable difficulty. The solution must undoubtedly be sought in education and culture. How can we not want programs to provide students with the basic knowledge necessary to access such debates? If we feel terribly deprived today, it is largely due to the teaching of biology in our youth. But a well-designed science education is not enough. We have the chance, in France, to have inherited a philosophical education which, in the final class, affects the greatest number of pupils. It could be the role of philosophy teachers associated with their colleagues to introduce students to the different conceptions of the city and the human community, science and technology that illuminate the logic of the arguments put forward by each other..

Dr. Kimberly Seltzer

Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley Research Assistant, MIT

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