Health Supreme by Sepp Hasslberger

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October 25, 2006

'Proactionary' Principle Shows Limits of Precaution

A proactive approach to the health dangers inherent in technological progress is preferable to an excess of precaution, according to the Extropy Institute. The principles of Extropy show an optimistic outlook towards the future: Extropians see positive changes for humanity through technology, rational thinking and an open, transformative society that prefers freedom of individual action, rather than authoritative control.

On the opposing end of the scale, we find the precautionary principle, which favors inaction and restriction over action and innovation. Precaution has made large inroads into our legislative systems, setting ever more impossible-to-satisfy criteria for "proof of innocence" of new technologies, for even such basic things as nutritional supplementation. Under the precautionary principle, vital nutrients without which our bodies cease to function, must now prove that they are innocent, which means they must prove that they are completely harmless even if we eat them every day of our lives. What happened to sanity and balance, we might ask.

As a counter-weight to the stifling influence of such exaggerated precaution on progress, the Extropy Institute is proposing that we should enact what it calls the proactionary principle. This proposed new way of evaluating technological progress advocates looking at all the evidence and weighing the consequences of both action and inaction, before deciding which way to go.


The proactionary principle is credited to Max More, Ph.D., and is largely based on discussions at the Extropy Institute's 2004 Vital Progress Summit.

- - -

The Proactionary Principle

"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."

Going just a bit more in depth, we find the proactionary principle to break down into these points:

1. People's freedom to innovate technologically is valuable to humanity. The burden of proof therefore belongs to those who propose restrictive measures. All proposed measures should be closely scrutinized.

2. Evaluate risk according to available science, not popular perception, and allow for common reasoning biases.

3. Give precedence to ameliorating known and proven threats to human health and environmental quality over acting against hypothetical risks.

4. Treat technological risks on the same basis as natural risks; avoid underweighting natural risks and overweighting human-technological risks. Fully account for the benefits of technological advances.

5. Estimate the lost opportunities of abandoning a technology, and take into account the costs and risks of substituting other credible options, carefully considering widely distributed effects and follow-on effects.

6. Consider restrictive measures only if the potential impact of an activity has both significant probability and severity. In such cases, if the activity also generates benefits, discount the impacts according to the feasibility of adapting to the adverse effects. If measures to limit technological advance do appear justified, ensure that the extent of those measures is proportionate to the extent of the probable effects.

7. When choosing among measures to restrict technological innovation, prioritize decision criteria as follows: Give priority to risks to human and other intelligent life over risks to other species; give non-lethal threats to human health priority over threats limited to the environment (within reasonable limits); give priority to immediate threats over distant threats; prefer the measure with the highest expectation value by giving priority to more certain over less certain threats, and to irreversible or persistent impacts over transient impacts.

For a more full description, including a discussion of why this principle was developed to provide a counter-weight to the now ubiquitous precautionary principle, see this page on the Extropy Institute's site.

What about GM?

All well and good for nutrients and health options, you might say, but what about the dangers of such things as genetic modification or nanotechnology. We know that those are dangerous and a precautionary approach will keep us safe.

Well, not exactly. All the precautionary approach does is make us lazy in arguing our case. If we believe there are dangers in the application of a certain technology, we must argue the case ... and we better confront the proponents of that technology on a level of rational argument. What would be wrong about approaching the matter with an open mind, about looking at all the pros and cons and only then deciding?

Yes, there can be abuse on both sides - notably a refusal to see the other side's arguments. Perhaps we need to overcome the highly divisive force of the precautionary principle, which skews things in a one-sided way actually preventing rational argument and decision-making.

How did we get into this mess?

It is the old blame game. When something goes wrong, we seek to assign blame for what happened, instead of working to find out where we made a mistake and fixing it. The press has a large part in this.

A prime example in my book is BSE or mad cow disease. When BSE appeared in Europe, there was a huge outcry of blame - without anyone really finding the cause of the problem. The result: Legislators and administrators scrambled to "cover their backsides" and the precautionary principle was a great candidate to achieve that security. It gives administrators the power to intervene early and heavy to make double sure no such scandal could ever erupt again. Risk can be all but eliminated.

But we are now seeing that good cover for a bureaucrat's backside is not everything. We must go on living, but we find our spaces for individual decisions and our prospects for progress to be greatly reduced. Risk is an integral part of life. If we were to avoid all risk, we would also never get to progress beyond our current state. So why not abolish this current emphasis on precaution in favor of a more balanced approach such as the one we find in the proactionary principle.


Extropy Institute

The Principles of Extropy

Wikipedia on the Precautionary principle

The Proactionary Principle


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Wednesday October 25 2006

URL of this article:


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Readers' Comments

A comment by Elizabeth, received as an email:

Dear Sepp:

I am allergic to arguments based on "optimism" and "pessimism." They remind me too much of Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984.

I've also heard enough about "rational thinking" to make me believe that this is another broad abstraction that cannot be advanced as a solution to save our society any more than education can. As readers of Eichmann in Jerusalem know, Eichmann, an ordinary bureaucrat, used "rational" justifications for performing his duty to his country to the best of his abilities. Unhappily "rational thinking" can be detached from moral reasoning. William Greider has written about social policy based on economic arguments and devoid of values. You could call this "rational" but what does it mean the value of human life, a healthy environment, a just society are calculated in cost-benefit ratios and assigned dollar values? Furthermore, concerning the social salvation value of education (often linked to progress through rational thinking arguments), Germany was the most educated country in the world when Hitler came to power.

The Proactionaries sound like the successors to the Technocrats. Many Democrats today sounds like successors to the Technocrats, an early 20th century movement that advocated progress through technology. It was a scary movement but it seems to have just gone underground. Unhappily, leading Democrats resurrect the movement's cheerier sounding promises. Also, unhappily, the Technocrat legacy is one of the places that Democrats and corporation-supporting Republicans converge to the detriment of our democracy.

What about Robert Schumacher's Small is Beautiful? What about William Greider's warnings about the strange alliance of far-right (corporate) big government solutions and the Democrats' big government solutions (The Soul of Capitalism).

Remember Nehru and other reformers considered Ghandi's vision of India as benighted because he advocated appropriate technology rather than industrialism because he said an industrial model would extend colonialism in India, replacing colonialism practiced by the British against Indians with colonialism of Indians against Indians. The Cambridge-educated smirked. Who was right? Ghandi advocated appropriate technology that would employ millions of Indians and be organized in a way that the working Indian could participate in the control of the workplace and politics.

And also, as we have seen, government-funded science, agriculture, nutrition and food safety, technology, the military, etc., become official institutions that control debates on science and society. As we see, they stifle debate by attacking, marginalizing and refusing to fund alternatives and new thinking. There is official science and that's that. Eisenhower's farewell message included warning against these new government-supported sectors -- it wasn't just about the military-industrial complex). Read it.

I hope that instead of more layers of abstraction and slogans, we will all begin to investigate and understand the facts about our health, our society, our environment, etc., and what we can do individually and with others to alter our course -- democratically and with social justice, rather than hierarchically and dictatorially. I think this will enable us to talk to one another better and to find real solutions (many of which are within ordinary people's means) rather than continue to be fooled by false problems, false choices, big and bad solutions with all their attendant "unintended consequences."


Posted by: Elizabeth on October 27, 2006 09:29 AM


Dear Elizabeth,

thank you for your thoughtful comment on this one. I agree with much of what you say, especially the remark that in the end, we must set abstractions and slogans aside to look at things in a rational way and make our decisions.

I have posted your message as a comment, to let other readers know as well.

Posted by: Sepp on October 27, 2006 09:34 AM


A comment (by email) from Ivor Hughes:

The Proactionary Principle stands for the proactive pursuit of progress. Being proactive involves not only anticipating before acting, but learning by acting. When technological progress is halted, people lose an essential freedom and the accompanying opportunities to learn through diverse experiments. We already suffer from an undeveloped capacity for rational decision making. Prohibiting technological change will only stunt that capacity further. Continuing needs to alleviate global human suffering and desires to achieve human flourishing should make obvious the folly of stifling our freedom to learn

Let a thousand flowers bloom! By all means, inspect the flowers for signs of infestation and weed as necessary. But don't cut off the hands of those who spread the seeds of the future.

( from )

Ivor: first let me say that as one of the people rather than a scientist .. that what you propose is no more than a scientific charter for the scientists to to carry on as they have always carried on. I think it is referred to as Scientific and Intellectual freedom. However such plaints from the scientists rarely if ever mention social responsibility in return for the crust that they put into their mouths.

Here let me include a quote to make the point .. the point may also be stretched to much of our agricultural and industrial technology.

"If we value personal freedom and dignity, we should, in confronting the moral dilemmas of biology, genetics, and medicine, insist that the expert's allegiance to the agents and values he serves be made explicit and that the power inherent in his specialized knowledge and skill not be accepted as justification for his exercising specific controls over those lacking such knowledge and skill.

In general, we should regard the medical man, whether as investigator or practitioner, as the agent of the party that pays him and thus controls him; whether he helps or harms the so-called patient thus depends not so much on whether he is a good or bad man as on whether the function of the institution whose agent he is, is to help or harm the so-called patient. Insofar as the biologist or physician chooses to act as a scientist, he has an unqualified obligation to tell the truth; he cannot compromise that obligation without disqualifying himself as a scientist. In actual practice, only certain kinds of situations permit the medical man to fulfill such an unqualified obligation to truth telling".

Thomas S. Szasz, MD.
Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus
at the SUNY Health Sciences Center in Syracuse

Ivor: Looking around at the total disaster that has been created with this type of freedom within the past 300 years not to mention the latest debacle of GMOs and the failure of Orthodox Medicine ... Then it becomes obvious that the only ones that have lost any freedom ... is the people themselves who also have to bear the burden of proof that in fact harm has occurred due to a particular pill or industrial process ... that takes a lot of money ... which unless one owns a diamond mine is quite beyond the reach of those that have and do suffer from what it is that is proposed by your elitist organization.

To try to separate mankind from the matrix (Nature) within which we are embedded is totally impossible without the destruction of our kind. That does not sound very intelligent to me. So let us not cut off any hands ... Off with the heads of the 'experts' before they behead the planet.

Ivor Hughes

Posted by: Ivor Hughes on April 4, 2007 01:58 PM


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The Individual Is Supreme And Finds Its Way Through Intuition


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These articles are brought to you strictly for educational and informational purposes. Be sure to consult your health practitioner of choice before utilizing any of the information to cure or mitigate disease. Any copyrighted material cited is used strictly in a non commercial way and in accordance with the "fair use" doctrine.



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