The Precautionary Principle Breeds Threat Exaggeration     Print Email

French Intellectual Calls it “Excessive” and Ineffective

The swine-flu epidemic was the latest high-profile example of the precautionary principle as applied in France. Health officials in France (as in the United States and in other European countries) opted for a massive vaccination program. All the attendant problems (cost, statistical risks of deaths from vaccines, government credibility on health dangers) were accepted by the authorities, who said that they were compelled to take this initiative in the name of the precautionary principle. In the case of some previous threats (such as mad cow disease), Paris took a more cautious approach. In the instance of the swine flu scare, the policy provoked public debate and criticism, especially once it became clear that the imminent threat was small – and as a result, French people ignored the vaccination program. As a case study, this latest episode illustrates some of the contradictions and problems can arise with a systematic adherence to the precautionary principle. Exploring the issue, François Ewald, a French philosopher of risk management, does not criticize the authorities’ handling of the flu threat but he does conclude the precautionary principle may be incompatible with the real-life practices of contemporary Western societies.

An interview from Le Monde issue dated January 9, 2010

A philosopher of risk-analysis, François Ewald is professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Trades and Director of the National School of Insurance. A former assistant to Michel Foucault at the College of France, Ewald founded and directs the Observatory of Precautionary Principle in Paris. He recently edited a book, Aux risques d’innover (The Risks of Innovating), retracing the origins of the precautionary principle as a theory of risk management and examining its possible misuses.

The precautionary principle has imposed itself as the cardinal rule of crisis management in France. How do you explain this revolution?

It was originally defined as a principle of environmental management, not of crisis management. It appeared in Germany at the end of the 1960s (“Vorsorgeprinzip”). The Germans developed it for three purposes: to avoid imminent dangers, anticipate medium-term risks and provide a theory of optimal long-term management for natural resources. The principle then caught on internationally as an element in environmental treaty treaties, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992.

Was it a new conception of the powers of government?

Not at all. The idea that regulatory authorities have these responsibilities dates back to rules about the police in the 17th century…[as] environmental policing (on the management of water, air and waste etc.) and then as the duties of mayors. Back then it was not spelled out as “the precautionary principle.” It is an example of an old value that has been brought up to date in a contemporary context. The idea did not originate with us: it dates back to Aristotle and then to Hegel by way of Jansenism. It is a concept based on the question of morality and decision-making in situations of uncertainty.

When did precautionary principle appear in France?

In 1995 with the Barnier law, which went almost unnoticed until 2005, when the precautionary principle was incorporated as a “fundamental value of the Republic” by the national Environment Charter. Since then, France has been at the forefront of this issue.

But in France, the principle of precaution is mainly associated with health crises…

Indeed, but that is specific to France, where the precautionary principle was originally understood as a matter of the responsibility of the state – notably during the 1999 contaminated blood scandal. Its applications were developed in the context of thinking about governmental responsibilities. It has become a buzzword of fear-mongering and a device for bureaucratic self-protection. Making [a big deal out] of it helps protect officials from the risk of being criticized later on. There are two ways to think of the precautionary principle: it can be a process of deliberation that does not pre-empt the final outcome – i.e., in a situation of uncertainty, where we analyze every parameter and then opt for the best-adapted solution. Or the principle can be interpreted as a rule that prevents any action once there is any uncertainty in a situation. In that case, we adopt a “logic of moratorium.” Each of these approaches carries the label of “precautionary principle.”

How do you explain this discrepancy in application of the principle?

The precautionary principle is invariably tied to the defense of a specific system of values. If one feels that health is not a value that must be highly protected, then there is no particular precaution to apply it to health issues. For example, the choices made by Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot facing the risks of H1N1 virus were based on the view that society wants maximum protection – that we should be able to avoid the death of even a single person. But if you are a leading medical authority, a doctor used to seeing lots of people die, you probably have a quite different perspective on these situations and therefore a very different interpretation of the precautionary principle. An environmental group fighting against a corporation that produces organically modified organisms is going to prioritize environmental protection [in the name of the precautionary principle] over the potential benefits of an advance in technology. So it comes down to a clash of values.

Do you think the government’s response to the threat of swine flu was excessive?

The precautionary principle is excessive in and of itself! It dictates that we give great weight to even a very small risk. In other words, it pushes people to an exaggeration of threats. We should not criticize Ms. Bachelot for taking precautionary measures at the outset of the crisis: the information from the World Health Organization was very alarmist. Logically, what followed was what psychologists would call a “stage of disappointment” as we discover that things are not as we had imagined them. So we have to adapt to the situation. That is what Ms. Bachelot is attempting to do, amid often unfair criticism.

How do explain that the French people did not respond massively to the anti-virus vaccination campaign?

In this crisis, we see two rationales: a classical state-centered logic in favor of prevention and vaccines that assumes that everyone will obey the tenets of public hygiene. The other could be described as “post-modern” logic – meaning that the government cannot get the public to respond out of a sense of duty. Instead, individuals will act in accordance with their values and the information they get. It is an ironic implication of the precautionary principle that [if carried to its logical conclusion] it does not necessarily reinforce the legitimacy of the state, but instead transfers decision-making to the individual. The crisis-management in this situation has very contemporary characteristics. The state has to manage a dual obligation: on the one hand, to be able to offer the widest available access to vaccination but also, on the other hand, to leave citizens free to take it or not. In this sense, if the state made the vaccinations a legal imperative, it would cost people their liberty! And if you want to get vaccinated and the dose for you is not available [from the state], then you would have to pay quite a bit for it.

What lessons should we learn from this, for the next health crisis?

The application of the precautionary principle has every chance of going through the same phases: excess in the evaluation of threats, then anti-climactic disappointment.

What does this say about society today?

With the precautionary principle, we seem to want to return to the asceticism dear to 18th-century philosophers in which a fair judgment should be a dispassionate one. But in our situation, we are leaving new room for emotions – in particular fear – and that of course implies the possibility of error. Far from reinforcing the authority of the State, the precautionary principle actually weakens it and deprives official decision-making of its legitimacy. Finally, because of the exaggeration of emotions that constitutes it, the precautionary principle tends to place society in a situation of permanent crisis and urgency, as we can see for example with the climate issue.

This suggests a change in political paradigm [toward] a sort of hyper-democracy of individuals. It is deeply worrying because this creates a world of dispersed values and passions in which we no longer see [principles] that could bring directionless individuals back together.


Translated by William C. Fleeson