Volume 1, Issue 3, 2001
To Do No Harm? The Precautionary Principle and Moral Values
From over 2000 years ago the ideal expressed in the Hippocratic Oath has encouraged doctors never knowingly to do harm: primum non nocere. Over 25 years ago the management writer Peter Drucker proposed it as the basis of a management ethic, ‘the right rule for the ethics managers need, the ethics of responsibility’. He argued then that the rule had wide scope encompassing for instance executive compensation, management rhetoric and the management of business impacts. In 2000 the United Nations Global Compact embodied a Principle 7 enjoining ‘a precautionary approach to environmental challenges’ as defined in Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration. But what can such precautionary injunctions mean in practice? And what of conflicts with other values? Robin Attfield lays out the key questions he argues need to be asked about the Precautionary Principle if it is to be taken seriously and acted upon soundly. His focus is on the management of vulnerable resources - specifically planetary ecosystems - with whose management knowingly or otherwise we are all concerned.