Ethics and Human Sciences (Politics)
A Precautionary tale for cautious times
‘...action without evidence is justified...’
Towards the end of the third part (itself subtitled, 'The Shadows in the Cave') of a fascinating documentary entitled, “The Power of Nightmares”, the narrator explains how, in the climate of fear subsequent to the 9/11 episode, politicians have turned to a scientific principle to justify their actions: the precautionary principle.
This principle emerged in the early 1990s out of discussions between scientists on the topic of global warming. These experts argued that in the absence of scientific evidence as to whether the polar icecaps were indeed melting and the earth’s surface heating up, governments should nevertheless gear their policies to preventing or minimising the possible effects of global warming. In short, it was justified to plough money into research into the phenomenon as a precautionary measure and wait for the evidence to emerge at a later date. Fairly unscientific approach, it seems.
Now, it appears that governments have taken this principle out of the scientific realm and into the ethical which begs the question: is it justified to act (eg. Incarcerate people for supposed terrorism or invade Iraq) without having good grounds or evidence to do so?
According to the ‘evidentialist’ view, the answer is a firm NO. First, we need to test any claims which propose how we should or should not act, which usually means that we need evidence in advance of committing the act. So, as far as the invasion of Iraq is concerned, it shouldn’t have gone ahead because there was no prior evidence of the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
However, the evidentialist position is not as solid as it first appears. If our belief in the fact that Iraq is a threat is justified by referring to the belief that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, then presumably the belief that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction must be itself justified by reference to a further belief that Iraq has obtained such weapons. This further belief must itself be justified by reference to another belief in how the weapons were obtained and this chain of reference appears to go on ad infinitum. The only counter to this potential infinite regress is to point to a belief which is somehow self-evident, which is pretty precarious for an evidentialist who holds that all our beliefs must be grounded on observable evidence.
According to the precautionary principle, the answer is a resounding YES. It doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence, we are simply acting to prevent the Iraqis from using any weapons of mass destruction because we distrust them. And if someone asks why we distrust the Iraqis, it is enough to say that this doesn’t matter; we have to set a preventative strategy into action as it’s only a matter of time before they start to take over. The evidence of weapons of mass destruction, we are assured, will arrive in time.
The precautionary principle seems to rest on a version of a theory of knowledge known as ‘reliabilism’ which states roughly: it is justified to believe in a state of affairs P
1/ if P is true
2/ if my belief that P is brought about by a reliable mechanism
A ‘reliable mechanism’ might be many things: my senses, my gut feeling, my instinct.
At this point, I hand you over to the discussion of reliabilism by Stephen Law at his blog ‘But I just know’ who provides a lucid explanation of the use and abuse of this idea.
Whatever you do, take the time to watch the three part documentary as a perspective on the word in which we now live.