Modeling the precautionary principle with lexical utilities

Paul Bartha, C. Tyler DesRoches

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Confronted with the possibility of severe environmental harms, such as catastrophic climate change, some researchers have suggested that we should abandon the principle at the heart of standard decision theory—the injunction to maximize expected utility—and embrace a different one: the Precautionary Principle. Arguably, the most sophisticated philosophical treatment of the Precautionary Principle (PP) is due to Steel (2015). Steel interprets PP as a qualitative decision rule and appears to conclude that a quantitative decision-theoretic statement of PP is both impossible and unnecessary. In this article, we propose a decision-theoretic formulation of PP in terms of lexical (or lexicographic) utilities. We show that this lexical model is largely faithful to Steel’s approach, but also that it corrects three problems with Steel’s account and clarifies the relationship between PP and standard decision theory. Using a range of examples, we illustrate how the lexical model can be used to explore a variety of issues related to precautionary reasoning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8701-8740
Number of pages40
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Decision Theory
  • Environment
  • Lexicographic utility
  • Precautionary principle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Social Sciences(all)


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