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19.3.05

Is The Precautionary Principle Un-Christian?

I've been reading about the precautionary principle and risk aversion, and it occurred to me that one could make a Biblical argument against them. The passage that came to mind was Matthew 25: 14-30, the parable of the talents:

14 [Jesus said] "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.


When the master returns, he praises the first two servants and condemns the third. It's unclear how risky the ventures were that the first two servants invested in, and we don't hear the master's reaction to the servant who bought a talent's worth of shares in pets.com. But the parable does seem to suggest that a minimum-regret strategy of focusing on not losing any of the master's money is unacceptable.

The parable seems especially relevant to John Rawls' Difference Principle, which is justified by the minimax precautionary strategies pursued by the parties in the Original Position. Rawls argues that the parties would take a minimax approach, rather than the more obvious maximization approach, because they're acting as representatives of other parties not involved in the discussion. While one might accept some risks on one's own behalf, Rawls says that when acting as a representative one needs to take care to avoid the chance of harm to those you represent. I never found that rationale entirely convincing on its own merits, but this bit of off-the-cuff exegesis suggests it may also be un-Christian. The master in the parable berates the servant who took a minimax approach on his behalf.

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