A review of The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, by Hans Jonas

Worst-case scenarios of our global future have become regrettably routine. Latter-day Jeremiahs with Ph.D.s forecast impending doom:

– Ecologically, our plundering, polluting, and overpopulating earth's biosphere will soon exhaust its life-sustaining resources.

– Technologically, our accelerating push toward worry-free longevity must someday dehumanize us-whether genetically (as biological engineering transforms our off­spring into collections of spare parts) or spiritually as sophisticated machines rob us of meaningful work).

– Geopolitically, our intensifying arms race raises the none-too-distant prospect of (acci­dental?) nuclear holocaust.

To dismiss the doomsayers as one-sided misses the point. The purpose of prediction, as Professor Jonas reminds us, is not theoretical but practical. "The prophecy of doom is made to avert its coming, and it would be the height of injustice later to deride the 'alarmists' because 'it did not turn out so bad after all'" (p. 120).

Jonas himself is neither a doomsayer nor a Pollyanna, but an exceptionally eloquent and erudite professor of philosophy. His present book caps half a lifetime of concern for the ontological continuity between body and soul, between organic matter and thinking mind-hence between nature and ethics-as against the fashionable but rigid modern dualism spawned by Rene Descartes.

Jonas's The Phenomenon Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (1966) proposed recasting Aristotle's hierarchy of souls (nutritive, sensory, rational) into terms congenial to recent evolutionary biology: progressive stratification of organic structures becomes dynamically equiva­lent to (a) increasing scope and distinctness of experience, and (b) accumulating freedom of action. His subsequent Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (1974) pointed to the need for a philosophical anthropology, a reasoned image of Man, against which to measure the use and abuse of nature by modern techno­logical means-as a viable alternative to contem­porary nihilism, curiously prefigured in the ancient Gnosticism which occupied Jonas's earlier scholarship.1 Now Jonas writes in search of an ethics to help us face our undecided future as "captive beneficiaries" of modern technology (p. ix). Previous theorizing, he maintains, is not quite up to that task.

Formerly ethics considered technical skills (except medicine) ethically neutral. It was anthropocentric. It supposed man's nature and condition essentially constant, not subject to deliberate or catastrophic reshaping. Above all, it confined itself to familiar, foreseeable, proxi­mate, hence predictable transactions between man and man-leaving their long-run conse­quences to chance, providence, or fate. Past ethics failed to reckon with "the inherently 'utopian' drift of our actions under the conditions of modern technology" (p. 21). Nowadays our power to act on ("improve") ourselves and our environment grows exponentially, while our power to anticipate and assess the palpable results tends to shrink. Seemingly small-scale decisions become ingredients of our common technological practice, and set off further cumulative dynamics whose remote effects for good or ill are scarcely calculable by strict analogy with the past. Our deeds are no longer simply man-centered but world-changing, if not world-shattering. If so, Jonas argues, then we need new principles for human conduct, to govern our ever-extending, myopic reach into the nature of things.

The watchword here is caution. "Never must the existence or essence of man as a whole be made a stake in the hazards of action" (p. 37). Jonas's stark imperative would counteract our rampant meliorism-our unlimited trust in technological progress on the (unwarrantedly pessimistic) presumption that the common human lot is to be improved at all costs! Such meliorism lacks self-restraint, let alone moderation. Jonas recommends instead a "heuristics of fear" (pp. 26f., 202f.). He means (1) to develop recently pioneered forecasting techniques imaginatively ("heuristically") for making vivid the practical consequences of a proposed technological innova­tion, and (2) to "educate our soul to a willingness to let itself be affected by [‘fear'] the mere thought of possible fortunes and calamities of future generations, so that the projections of futurology will not remain mere food for idle curiosity or equally idle pessimism" (p. 28). We must learn to anticipate distant possibilities emotionally as well as cognitively, in order to respond preven­tively here and now.

Various objections to Jonas's cautionary note suggest themselves. How can we have a direct responsibility to the future, since what does not yet exist cannot claim any rights on which to base our duties? Nature itself, Jonas answers, supplies "the archetype of all responsible action" in the "selfless . . . one-way relationship to depen­dent progeny, given with the biological facts of procreation" (p. 39). Even so, what if our descendants had no complaint about being deprived of human dignity and vocation? "The absence of protest would then itself be the gravest accusation"; for, Jonas emphasizes, "in the final analysis we consult not our successors' wishes (which can be of our own making) but rather the 'ought' that stands above both of us" (p. 41). But isn't nature value-free, permitting no inference from "is" to "ought"? Not necessarily; Jonas rebuts current axiological dogma by analyzing examples (e.g., walking, digesting) to show that nature harbors at leastapparently or subjectively purposive actions-implying an ontological locus of value. He does not challenge scientific deter­minism on its own ground:

[W]e leave entirely open the manner in which a generalized, unconscious "purposiveness" of nature may assert itself in its deterministic causal mechanism, not so much against as through it: just as natural science must leave open how tight or loose, how precise or blurred, the causal web really is at the undermost base of things (beneath a certain threshold of size). (p. 72)

In a lengthy appendix, however, he reduces to absurdity the "epiphenomenalist" solution to the "psychophysical problem" by proving that if mind were only a side-show in nature, then it would be paradoxically a "creation from nothing," a "noneffective physical effect," and a "delusion in itself."2

Responsibility-that our care for other living beings match our power over them-thus gains a needed ontological foothold. Moral actions require concrete incentive, not just abstract validation. Bare Kantian "reverence" for the moral law remains empty of all but formalistic incentive; on the contrary, Jonas insists, "what matters are things rather than states of my will" (p. 89). Aristotle's self-monitoring teleology of nature safely includes man's crowning faculty for benign contemplation; nevertheless it would seem blind to "the aggressive and manipulative intellect bred by modern science and discharged into the nature of things," which Aristotelian theoria does not validate (p. 138). Moral urgency bids Jonas break new ground. The object of responsibility, he asserts, is life, preeminently human life but basically all life as such. Ontologically considered, the inherent purposiveness of life is ipso facto an absolute preference for being over nonbeing, for continued existence and subsequent thriving over raw annihilation-despite (or through) life's tenuousness, transitoriness, variety, and vulnerability. Hence, wherever the once-given matrix for life may become eroded or whittled away, man's first duty can only be to preserve and nurture it. Jonas finds not one but two paradigms for our newly sober nurturing task: the natural responsibility of parents and the supererogatory or self-chosen responsibility of the statesman.

Today's statesman faces the mounting debris of modern life, "the ominous side of the Baconian ideal" (p. 140). Francis Bacon ushered in modern scientific-technological-industrial civilization by construing knowledge as power. This unprece­dented, second-degree power, modern scientific technology, was to redirect the primal powers of nature toward wholesale betterment of human life on earth. Now that technology's twin off­spring-sustained economic and demographic growth-have come of age, however, they begin to devour each other, as swollen consumerism and swelling populations vie over dwindling planetary resources. Jonas summons responsible statesmanship to exercise its own, third-degree power to rein in Bacon's knowledge-as-power, to curb our hell-bent momentum wisely before it is halted apocalyptically. But how? Would Marxist totalitarian policies succeed better than Western capitalism, which so far has not met the full challenge of long-term mutual survival? On paper, Marxism boasts the advantages of a centrally planned need economy (as opposed to a profit-motivated random marketplace), total autocratic power (versus diversified grass-roots control), and an ascetic (non self-indulgent) moral­ity. Yet in practice, Marxist regimes remain irresponsibly seduced by a collectivist striving after profit, regional economic gain, Baconian worship of technology, and, above all, a glittering but empty millennialism-which Jonas's conclud­ing chapter vivisects.

He singles out Ernst Bloch,3 called "the grand­master and enfant terrible of Marxist Utopians in our century" (p. 194). Jonas shows how Bloch's hoped-for earthly paradise of leisurely activity is impossible, both technically and morally. Technically, raising worldwide living standards even up to today's developed countries' would exact unbearable expenditures, including utter exhaustion of fossil fuels and steady heat-dissipation by nuclear fuels, resulting in earth-shaking climatic shifts and biospheric degenera­tion. Alternatively, these catastrophic conse­quences could be (a) avoided, if human numbers were "sufficiently low or lowered," say, by whatever "monstrous measures" pitiless fanati­cism might devise (p. 192), (b) ignored, i.e., dis­torted by tunnel-visioned true-believers, or (c) begrudged, by sincere if misguided humanists convinced of the Marxist image of man but despairing of its realization. Morally, then, it is all the more needful to criticize Marxism's Utopian dream-world. In Bloch's formulation, the dream is that technology would progressively remove all drudgery from human life until vocation and hobby became one and the same. Jonas foresees "three deadly costs . . .: loss of spontaneity in the hobby becoming a duty, loss of freedom in its necessary public supervision, [and especially] loss of reality . . . and therewith of human dignity":

No ideology can conceal from the actors of this scenario the dismal truth that what they are doing does not really matter, that it could as well be left undone or postponed or done sloppily, without any other damage than setting a bad example and any other penalty than a bad social mark. (p. 196f.)

Would Bloch reply that man's not-yet-existent genuine humanity might otherwise never come to pass? Nonsense, Jonas demurs, for genuine man as he has been with us all along is hardly all play and no work, any more than he is all heights and no depths, all greatness and no wretchedness, all bliss and no torment, all justice and no guilt; rather, his very"ambiguity is insepar­able from his humanity" (p. 200).

Perhaps gratuitously, Jonas appeals to (for?) the ever-present though often muted image of Man, latent in the Biblical notion of mankind in God's image but admittedly unarticulated in terms of the contemporary crisis which he announces. Question: Unless we must abandon all hope for a return to moderation, might Jonas not then be premature in dismissing, however reluctantly, Aristotle and the classical discussion of man and nature? Even now can we afford to take the norms for our well-being simply from the extreme threats which we daily face?

No commonplace jeremiad, Jonas's work nevertheless invites comparison with that of his Biblical namesake. The dire warnings of the ancient Jonas induced an entire city to moral repentance and saved it from otherwise certain destruction. Will Professor Hans Jonas's present exhortations fare as well? Jonas here disavows reliance on Biblical faith, nowadays said to be in eclipse, but trusts our future exclusively to the slender thread of our moral reason. Philosoph­ically, he makes us wonder whether the nature now being systematically pushed out from under us will ever regain its beneficial course.

1Cf. his The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963).

2The appendix, along with earlier versions of two chapters of the present book, is also found in his privately distributed On Faith, Reason and Responsibility (Claremont: The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, 1981).

3Cf. Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, 3 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1959). Jonas's book was originally titled in German Das Prinzip Verantwortung (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1979).