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The Precautionary Principle as a Basis for Decision Making

11 Pages Posted: 9 May 2005  

Robert W. Hahn

University of Oxford, Smith School; Georgetown University

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)


Over the coming decades, the increasingly popular "precautionary principle" is likely to have a significant impact on policies all over the world. Applying this principle could lead to dramatic changes in decision making. Possible applications include climate change, genetically modified food, nuclear power, homeland security, new drug therapies, and even war.

We argue that the precautionary principle does not help individuals or nations make difficult choices in a non-arbitrary way. Taken seriously, it can be paralyzing, providing no direction at all. In contrast, balancing costs against benefits can offer the foundation of a principled approach for making difficult decisions.

Keywords: precautionary principle, decisions, non-arbitrary

JEL Classification: H00

Suggested Citation

Hahn, Robert W. and Sunstein, Cass R., The Precautionary Principle as a Basis for Decision Making. The Economist's Voice, Vol. 2, No. 2, Article 8, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Robert Hahn (Contact Author)

University of Oxford, Smith School ( email )

United Kingdom

Georgetown University

Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy
Washington, DC 20057
United States

Cass Sunstein

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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