Normative Aspects of a 'Substantive' Precautionary Principle

29 Pages Posted: 12 Sep 2007

See all articles by Gordon Hull

Gordon Hull

University of North Carolina at Charlotte - Department of Philosophy

Date Written: September 7, 2007


This paper discusses some of the current literature around the precautionary principle in environmental philosophy and law with reference to the possibility of transgenic food in Uganda (GMO bananas specifically). My suggestion is that the distinction between formal and substantive versions of a principle, familiar from legal theory, can be useful in imposing some conceptual clarity on aspects of debates concerning the precautionary principle. In particular, most of the negative critical response to the principle has been to formal versions of it, and follows a pattern not unfamiliar from discussions of how to get from rules to outcomes. For its part, the less-discussed substantive account admits of at least two very different emphases. The first, which I call "Heideggerian," exhibits a deep distrust of technology. The second, "autonomist," is less concerned with the fact of technology than with the question of who controls it. As with any exercise of analytic taxonomy, this one will fail to adequately treat many of the objects it studies. However, I hope to illuminate what I take to be serious philosophical differences within the precautionary camp, and to highlight some of the questions they suggest in terms of the differences in political philosophy that might underlie and support them.

Keywords: precautionary principle, environmental ethics, GMO, Heidegger, autonomist Marxism

Suggested Citation

Hull, Gordon, Normative Aspects of a 'Substantive' Precautionary Principle (September 7, 2007). Available at SSRN: or

Gordon Hull (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina at Charlotte - Department of Philosophy ( email )

9201 University City Blvd.
Charlotte, NC 28223
United States

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