In today’s Sacramento Bee newspaper, Kassie Siegel, from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute in San Fransisco, has a Op-Ed calling for the immediate ban on fracking in California. Public testimony on fracking in California will start in late July, not soon enough for Ms. Siegel, but she is committed to the transparency such public hearings will offer.
The view that avoiding or prohibiting whatever creates harm is known as ‘prudence.’ Aristotle is famous for writing about prudence, and the concept has long been a part of Christian theological doctrine. Prudence is a life-saving judgment and whatever is life-saving is usually life-flourishing, so prudence should have a more prominent position in philosophy.
The difficulty with prudence is when it becomes non-empirical, that is, when the principle of prudence becomes ideological. For example, much political agitation accompanied the introduction of saccharine into the marketplace, arguing that the artificial sweetener had never been proven to be safe before it was marketed to the public. Since the sweetener was unknown to be carcinogenic, the agitation demanded it be banned, in accord with the principle of prudence.
But wait. In logic, such use of the prudence principle is self-defeating, because it eliminates any human action before knowing the consequences. No one knew whether or not saccharine was carcinogenic, so banning the sweetener without having such knowledge meant adopting a suicidal position based upon one’s personal psychic pessimism. Fortunately, the final regulatory decision on saccharine rejected the pessimism of ideological prudence and now anyone can safely enjoy non-caloric sweeteners.
When we caution children not to put their finger into an electrical socket, we are exercising prudence, and such prudence is based upon actual experience. Banning fracking because it might be harmful is not prudence; it’s ideological pessimism, the psychological trait whereby anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Not to make too much of this point, but the regress of penultimate pessimism is suicide. Until fracking is proven to be harmful to Ms. Siegel’s California condor, kit fox, and “blunt-nosed leopard lizard”–or especially, to humans–the oil extracting technology should not be banned in California.
Prudence is a valuable, life-saving judgment. Ideological prudence is simply psychic suicide.[Email comments are welcome: duoism(at)sbcglobal.net]