Institute of Philosophy


Why be Cautious? On the Justification of Precautionary Principles

Thursday, 2017/05/04 - Friday, 2017/05/05

"Caution" by Michele M. Ferrario (
licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0

Precautionary principles (PPs) suggest advice for difficult choices. They require that we take action against possible harms even if we are not sure whether they will materialize. The basic idea seems intuitively plausible and has been applied in a wide range of contexts such as climate policies, medicine and environmental regulations. But more specific formulations of PPs have been criticized for various reasons, e.g. as being vacuous, incoherent, or based on irrational fears instead of sound science. So can PPs be justified at all? And if so, how?

Event organizer: Tanja Rechnitzer, Georg Brun, Claus Beisbart
Speaker: Thomas Boyer-Kassem (Tilburg), Lauren Hartzell-Nichols (Seattle), Tanja Rechnitzer (Bern), Dominic Roser (Fribourg), Daniel Steel (Vancouver), Johanna Thoma (London)
Date: 2017/05/04 - 2017/05/05
Time: 10:00 Time
Locality: Room 205
Area Hallerstrasse
Hallerstr. 6
3012 Bern
Registration: Registration is free, but please register by emailing to
Characteristics: open to the public
free of charge

The conference addresses two fundamental philosophical issues for the justification of a PP: What kind of reasons can we appeal to in arguing for a PP? Which method of justification can be used to justify a PP?

We will analyse, compare and assess philosophical approaches to the justification of PPs. The approaches draw on a broad range of theoretical backgrounds such as frameworks of decision-making, accounts of practical rationality, philosophy of science, and ethics of, e.g., rights, risk and justice. Research questions include:

  • On what basis can we argue for PPs? For instance, can they be grounded in rights, rules of rational decision-making, epistemic considerations or principles of science-based policy-making?
  • What do the various justifications of PPs imply about legitimate roles of PPs in e.g. decision-making?
  • Which methods of justification are suited best to the task of justifying PPs?
  • How do methods of justification and specific justifications help us with the challenge of formulating PPs more exactly? 


The conference is generously supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research (OCCR), and the German Society for Analytical Philosophy (Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie, GAP).

  Swiss National Science Foundation  Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research  German Society for Analytical Philosophy