The Proactionary Principle

The Proactionary Principle is an answer to abuse of the precautionary principle at the hands of anti-biotech, luddite groups, and opponents of advances such stem cell therapies, regenerative medicine, and extended healthy longevity. It came together as an idea during the Extropy Institute's Vital Progress Summit back in February, and is expressed by Max More as follows:

People's freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value. Protect people's freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.

It is very clear - at least to those of who support advancing medicine and scientific work towards healthier, longer lives - that the precautionary principle is used as a weapon by special interest groups attempting to halt scientific research for their own ideological reasons. To quote Max More again:

The precautionary principle has been used as a means of deciding whether to allow an activity (typically involving corporate activity and technological innovation) that might have undesirable side-effects on human health or the environment. In practice, that principle is strongly biased against the technological progress so vital to the continued survival and well-being of humanity.

Understanding that we need to develop and deploy new technologies to feed billions more people over the coming decades, to counter natural threats from pathogens to environmental changes, and to alleviate human suffering from disease, damage, and the ravages of aging, those involved in the VP Summit recognized two things: The importance of critically analyzing the precautionary principle, and the formation of an alternative, more sophisticated principle that incorporates more extensive and accurate assessment of options while protecting our fundamental responsibility and liberty to experiment and innovate.

The precautionary principle, while well-intended by many of its proponents, inherently biases decision making institutions toward the status quo, and reflects a reactive, excessively pessimistic view of technological progress. By contrast, the Proactionary Principle urges all parties to actively take into account all the consequences of an activity - good as well as bad - while apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face, in the context of an appreciation of the crucial role played by technological innovation and humanity's evolving ability to adapt to and remedy any undesirable side-effects.

Furthermore, the precautionary principle is inherently flawed. 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.

The Proactionary Principle is an important step forward: it is a concise, rational, to-the-point answer to the failures of the precautionary principle ... and it has a snappy name. It should go far. As people who recognize we are responsible for our own future - and supporting the bright future of medical science - we should make sure that the Proactionary Principle is heard by everyone!


I thought I'd comment on the last flaw of the "Precautionary Principle" that Max listed:

"if conflicts with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm."

The common law approach to risk and harm was best articulated in the 1947 case of United States vs. Carroll Towing Company. For that case Judge Learned Hand (great name for a judge, huh?) created a formula that has gone on to become one of the defining tests of negligence in law and a landmark of risk analysis in general.

Is the Burden of prevention of the harm (expressed in dollars) more or less than the Probability that the harm could occur (expressed as a percentage) * the foreseeable Loss if the harm were to occur (expressed in dollars) ?


B > or P * L

If the burden of prevention costs more than the risk it seeks to offset, it is reasonable to accept the risk.

Some activities have a known cost. In embryonic stem cell research a days-old embryo will be destroyed in order to extract stem cells. The probability of such harm is 100%. Therefore, the question becomes, is the good that can be done worth the sacrifice?

Hand's formula only provides a framework for argument. There are always disagreement about the various values that are plugged into the formula. What is the real burden to society of restricting embryonic stem cell research and treatment? What is the cost of destroying a days-old embryo for research or treatment?

Dr. Michael West spoke of this cost comparison in his book, The Immortal Cell.

In a 2002 debate Dr. West asked his opponent, who was representing the Catholic position, as between a child who needs stem cells to live or a days-old embryo that could provide them, "which death do you hate more?" The answer:

"Ultimately I think because we are here for an eternity and our life is a small thing, I would actually choose the option of death for the child, however tragic that may be as an individual or as a parent. Because ultimately we are what we do."

Michael West:

"I don't think I could have been more horrified if I had witnessed a murder... This doctor was willing to vacate his natural affection for the child in exchange for... [theological] doctrine."

Individuals like West and this doctor are miles apart on issues such as this, but society will be forced to choose on this and many other thorny biotech issues in the coming years. I believe that society will rely less on doctrine, religious or otherwise, than on some weighing of the practical benefits and the practical costs of embryonic stem cell use.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 16th, 2004 8:26 PM

Correction on the formula:

B >, =, or < P * L

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 20th, 2004 4:04 AM

Before I share my opinion, let me share this:

Try as though I might, I do not as yet have the
continuous and vibrant personal relationship with Jesus Christ that other people have told me He demands.

I converted from Judaism to Methodism some years ago. I was suffering from inherited clinical depression my entire life, I was raised by an abusive family, and I had locked myself in a fortress of intellect for many long years uncounted simply to survive.

Five years ago I finally looked to Him for help during a time when my mind finally failed and my heart was the only thing left that could see. I therefore embraced Him as Lord and Savior during that moment, a time when I had nothing left but Him to hold onto for my sanity.

Since recovering my sanity, I have not been able to recover that moment since. I have since able to look to Him as my General, yet I have been able to recover that moment where I am able to look to Him, in the same manner as my one year old baby girl looks to me.

I therefore fear that I am not destined for Heaven, and am most likely destined for Hell. Steeling myself against that eventuality I therefore have resolved to do as many good things as I can on the way down.

The first of those things is to live an ethical life as best as I am able, and therefore the study of ethics is very important to me.

The second of those things is to be as loving and reliable a husband and father as I am able.

The third of those things is to point to others the road to Heaven even though I myself am unable to travel further.

It is a cold and lonely outpost I have taken in His Kingdom, yet it is the only place where I am fit to dwell.

While not Catholic myself, I have attended a Catholic university in my youth, and I do look to theologians of that faith as the preeminent experts on ethics.

In contemporary society, we have coined the phrase: "follow the money", as the means by which we detect the cause of a social problem. Roman Catholic ethics, by contrast, would demand the phrase "follow the motivation".

What possible motivation would a person have to indefinitely postpone the onset of death; either by diet regimen, medical treatment, genetic engineering, time dilation, or even by (ultimately) a stasis field?

In the view of Catholic ethics, the motivation can only be to avoid having to finally pay the accumulated wages of a life lived in sin.

Such a motivation betrays the basic character of the person as being essentially a libertine with a lust for more money, more power, and more of those temporal pleasures that life on Earth can bring.

I grew up as an alien, but I allowed Christ to adopt me as a human and I have learned some human ways under His care, and one of the things I have learned is that all things have limits. From this I know enough to know that anyone desiring eternal life on Earth rather than in Heaven has to be worse than an alien, that person indeed has to be a monster.

Please, don't become a monster. If you possibly can, live a human life like I try to do, and if you meet Jesus in your travels, say hello to Him for me. The soul you save might be your own.

The Eternal Squire

Posted by: The Eternal Squire at October 28th, 2004 11:14 PM
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