Two interpretations of the precautionary principle are considered. According to the normative (action-guiding) interpretation, the precautionary principle should be characterised in terms of what it urges doctors and other decision makers to do. According to the epistemic (belief-guiding) interpretation, the precautionary principle should be characterised in terms of what it urges us to believe. This paper recommends against the use of the precautionary principle as a decision rule in medical decision making, based on an impossibility theorem presented in Peterson (2005). However, the main point of the paper is an argument to the effect that decision theoretical problems associated with the precautionary principle can be overcome by paying greater attention to its epistemic dimension. Three epistemic principles inherent in a precautionary approach to medical risk analysis are characterised and defended.
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↵i Some philosophers would perhaps question the assumption that one can in a genuine sense decide what to believe—beliefs are involuntary. I am aware of that discussion, but will not comment on it here.
Competing interests: MP’s work on this article has been supported by a generous grant from Pfizer Global Research and Development.