210 – Kairos and the precautionary principle

Posted on February 13, 2013 by

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I’m no friend of the precautionary principle – and I’ve argued against its indiscriminate use. I could not pinpoint clearly my uneasiness, however. Thanks to Biljana Scott (http://bit.ly/VghI0L) I’m now able to do so.

In a recent blog she refers to a special Greek notion of time: kairos (καιρός), which can be translated as the opportune or supreme moment, qualitative in nature” and is opposed to chronos – ordinary or linear time.

In debating future action, we should logically consider: (a) ends, (b) means, and (c) timing. Normally we would follow the sequence from (a) to (c). In practice we may never come to an agreement about the three and we may end up deliberating in a circle: coalitions about ends may dissolve in disagreement about means, and after that, of timing.

Enter kairos – opportune moment. By postulating that “it is the right moment” the discussion over ends and means is foreclosed. The argument becomes only one about timing, and kairos argues for the NOW. Again the discussion is skewed: in fact it is “now or never”. Kairos implies irreversibility.

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Kairos is a rhetorical device. Surreptitiously it leads the listener to a preordained conclusion – act NOW – by intimating urgent necessity. It shortcuts both the discovery of the facts and deliberation on strategy and tactics by arguing lack of time. It urges precautionary measures based on incomplete reasoning. The proposed action is usually bold – daring, and often simplistic. It is an exercise in “will to power”, rather than cleverness. The problem is overwhelmed, rather than solved.

The urgency may be mythical – as when a “historical moment” is conjured. It appeals to ancient glory, pride, and historical continuity. It argues that the past is history in the making – as when historical determinism is conjured. Kairos often builds on analogy rather than reasoning: it points to instances where dithering proved fatal, while foreclosing verification. Here it might rely on the availability bias: we remember instances where quick and timely action was liberating (seldom do we remember those who succumbed to precipitate action). Even less are the historical figures praised for biding their time – like the Roman Fabius Maximus Cunctator.

Kairos may be dangerous: lynching[1] is predicated on such rhetoric. Wars of choice are often justified as reflecting kairos. Here some examples: MOLTKE argued for a blow against Russia before the country could fully industrialize[2]. Hitler was 50 when he started WWII: he fatuously thought that waiting would have made him less fit to wage it. Dick CHENEY is alleged to have argued “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response”[3] – thus setting a hair-thin trigger for the inevitability of immediate action.

The war in Iraq in 2003 may either have been a war of conquest (oil) or a civilizational war (to bring democracy to the county), or to forestall doomsday (weapons of mass destruction may fall into the wrong hands). A tell-tale sign of “kairos rhetoric” is the surfeit of arguments, all poorly buttressed. Choices are presented under time-constraint.

“Thinking slow” – rational deliberation – in the end has to yield to emotions: this is particularly important when collective action is needed and wills to act need synchronizing. Kairos rhetoric has its uses in such a context.

Using kairos demands deep knowledge of kairos – in other words: it is an art, not a principle.


[1]           See: Philip DRAY (2002): At the hands of persons unknown. The lynching of Black America. Random House, New York.

[2]           David FROMKIN (2004): Europe’s last summer. Who started the Great War in 1914? Knopf, New York.

[3]           Ron SUSKIND (2006): The one per cent doctrine. Deep inside America’s pursuit of its enemies since 9/11. Simon & Schuster, New York.