Hans Jonas The Imperative Of Responsibility Assignment

Course in French with English and Chinese subtitles Ce cours présente les principaux courants qui marquent aujourd'hui la réflexion éthique et touchent tout un chacun dans sa vie personnelle, sociale et citoyenne. D’Aristote à Kant, de Bentham à Derrida, à travers un voyage philosophique passionnant nous entrerons dans le vif du débat éthique contemporain. Notre monde toujours plus complexe semble nous échapper. Réchauffement climatique, questions de début et de fin de vie, évolution vertigineuse des bio-technologies, inégale distribution des richesses, pressions migratoires accentuées… La tentation est grande d’une vie morale repliée sur elle-même à partir d’une éthique minimale : « fais ce que tu veux, du moment que tu ne mets pas en péril la liberté des autres ». Nous proposons de prendre le contre-pied : défendre l’idée d’une éthique qui nous plonge dans notre réalité sociale et politique, parmi nos semblables et avec eux. Et pour cela nous reposons la question de ce qui est juste, de ce qui est bien. Sans repartir de rien, sans tout réinventer. C’est pourquoi nous présentons un cours qui permet de se familiariser avec les plus importantes perspectives éthiques traversant le monde contemporain : l’éthique des vertus (ou perfectionnisme) ; l’éthique du devoir (ou déontologisme) ; l’éthique utilitariste (ou conséquentialisme) ; l’éthique de l’amour (ou éthique du don). Ainsi chacun pourra mettre de l’ordre dans ses idées, repérer les différentes manières de s’orienter dans la vie morale, comprendre les différences d’appréciation face aux diverses situations qui interpellent et sollicitent. Quels que soient votre champ de savoir académique, votre engagement professionnel ou vos choix personnels, il s’agit de proposer des clés d’analyse dont vous disposerez. Pour cela, nous alternerons tout au long de ce cours les présentations des grands courants, sous leur forme ancienne puis contemporaine, et des questions plus transversales ou des cas concrets. Avec un seul but : clarifier les idées pour mieux comprendre le réel et mieux orienter l’action. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - About this course: This course presents the main schools of thought that frame today’s ethical reflection and affect everyone in their personal, social and civic life. From Aristotle to Kant, from Bentham to Derrida, we will take you to the heart of contemporary ethical debates through a fascinating philosophical journey. Our increasingly complex world seems to elude our grasp. Global warming, beginning and end-of-life issues, the dizzying evolution of bio-technologies, the unequal distribution of wealth, heightened migratory pressures ... In response, we are tempted to make the moral life a self-legislating and isolated affair: "do what you want, as long as you do not put at risk the freedom of others". We propose to go against this trend and to defend the idea of ​​an ethics that immerses us in our social and political reality, in and amongst our peers. We thus reformulate the question of what is right and what is good. This is not to say we are starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. Rather, we will offer a course that allows you to encounter the most important ethical perspectives of our contemporary world: virtue ethics (or perfectionism); ethics of duty (or deontology); utilitarianism (or consequentialism); ethics of love (or ethics of the gift). Everyone will thus have a chance to evaluate his or her ideas, to identify different approaches to the moral life, and to understand a range of perspectives on different situations that face us in our lives. Whatever your field of academic knowledge, your professional commitments or personal choices, this course presents key concepts for further analysis. Therefore, we will alternate discussions of the founding schools of ethical thought, in their ancient and contemporary formulations, with cross-disciplinary issues and applied case studies. The goal throughout is to clarify ideas in order to better understand reality and orient human action. - - - - - - - - -- - - -- - - - - - - -- - - - - - -- 善、正义、功用:哲学伦理学导论 本课程旨在向大家介绍伦理学的主要流派,这些流派对如今的伦理思考意义非凡,并且涉及到每个人的个人生活、社会生活和公民生活。 从亚里士多德到康德,从边沁到德里达,通过引人入胜的哲学之旅,我们将进入当代伦理学辩论的核心问题。

The Wisdom of Humility: A Discussion of Responsibility and Bioethics

Erin Galgay

Abstract—The controversy over stem cell research is part of a greater struggle over the role of technology and science in society. The work of Hans Jonas is particularly pertinent to this debate due to his evaluation of morality and ethical systems in the light of technological and scientific accomplishments. Drawing on the Judeo-Christian concept of “stewardship” Jonas offers us a new ethical imperative, “act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” The “heuristics of fear”, a cornerstone of his ethical system, acts as a balancing agent against the lure of technological advances driven by politics and markets. New stem cell treatments, Jonas might have argued, would essentially equip humanity with the power to unbind the threads of the natural tapestry and re-weave them to our own likings with unforeseeable ethical repercussions. This paper contends that Jonas has contributed significantly to the field of bioethics and the stem cell debate despite the fact that his work was composed prior to our recent hopes for stem cell cures.


In August 2005 I attended the European Summer Academy on Bioethics in Germany. I had the honor of interacting with scholars from Europe and North America, traveling to research laboratories, and forming relationships with people from diverse cultural backgrounds and professional careers. Questions about the nature of life, the future of science, and the role of God in the life of the modern person compelled me to attend this Academy and have prompted continued research into this field. My time in Germany was not about finding answers, but about refining the questions. I returned with a clearer picture of the task at hand for the modern ethicist, and a new respect for those who brave the precarious ground between science and religion. During the past year I have begun to process and refine my thoughts about how to approach the ethical questions surrounding stem cell research. On August 16, 2005, Dr. Holger Burckhart delivered a lecture entitled, “Hans Jonas: Philosophy of Responsibility.” I was particularly taken with the directness with which Jonas addresses the modern concept of “technology.” The following paper represents my first efforts in researching Hans Jonas, a Philosopher who has received little attention. Exploration into his thought will facilitate a renewed dialogue among ethicists who have the responsibility of looking beyond the wonders of science in order to preserve the integrity of the universal quest for knowledge and the dignity of every human.

This work focuses on his principle work, “The Imperative of Responsibility.” It is my sincere hope and expectation for the future to expand my research in the writings of Hans Jonas and to reveal the full potential of his work to inform future dialogue within Bioethics.

“Speech and thought like the wind
And the feelings that make the town,
He has taught himself, and shelter against the cold,
Refuge from rain. Ever resourceful is he.
He faces no future helpless. Only against death
Shall he call for aid in vain. But from baffling maladies
Has he contrived escape.”
   —Sophocles' Antigone [Lines 358-364]

Against the world man has always wrestled for control. We have built cities, drawn forth the essentials for life in the most inhospitable environments, and we have walked on the moon. Human intellect interrupts nature's plans and bends the resources of the earth towards its own needs and desires. The chorus of Sophocles’ Antigone gives evidence to the fact that consideration for the relationship between man and nature has its roots in the classical world. The slow march of technology in past centuries, however, stands in sharp contrast to the rapid technological “race” of the modern day. For Sophocles the immensity of nature and mortality stood as limits to the cleverness of man. The human mind has created weapons to wipe out the human race, and the amount of pollution and harm to the environment caused by technology give testimony to the destructive force of human development. Hans Jonas begins his groundbreaking work, “The Imperative of Responsibility,” with this very quote from Sophocles and in doing so calls into question our expectations for progress and technology. From classical ethical systems and new concepts of possibility, a system of ethics responsive to the rapid movement of science must be created.

Hans Jonas (1903-1993) was born in Germany and studied philosophy and theology under Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann. The political allegiance of Heidegger to the Nazi party disillusioned Jonas, an active Zionist. He left Germany for England, but lost his mother in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The ravages of war and the brutality of the modern world lay in the background of his thoughts. The limitations of prior ethical systems and the deconstruction of religion have left room for new philosophers like Jonas to stake out new ethical territories. Ethical considerations are always concerned with human action. The objects of human action have changed, but more importantly the scale of human action has become exponentially larger. The consequences of present actions may be delayed for years, possibly even generations. According to Jonas, the more powerful man becomes, the more responsible he is called to be.

The history of man is the history of technology (techne) itself. In former ethical systems the interaction of man with the non-human world was viewed as an “ethically neutral” realm. The scale of human development in prior times, however, caused no threat to the self-sustainment of the natural world. Technology was focused on necessity rather than the development of technology for its own sake. For this reason, traditional ethics focuses on the relationships between humans, and is thus anthropocentric. Each act was also judged within a small time frame; the good or evil nature of an action was limited to the praxis or the immediate consequences. Thus, ethics developed essentially for typical situations encountered by people in an immediate setting (Jonas 5). One need only look toward the Judeo-Christian commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” to see that the agent of the action and the object are construed as existing contemporaneously.

Another consideration to be made when evaluating former ethical systems and their relation to bioethics is the notion of knowledge. In order to act morally, previous philosophers, such as Kant, took as principle the idea that common knowledge was sufficient for moral action. Jonas, who often comes into dialogue with the ethics of Kant, cites the preface of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, “there is no need of science or philosophy for knowing what man has to do in order to be honest and good, and indeed to be wise and virtuous” (Jonas 5). The hurdle that bioethics presents is that proper ethical judgment requires at least a general knowledge of the science involved. Kant's faith in the average man to make moral decisions may still be valid in many social decisions, but the cognitive abilities of humans are more valuable than ever before when confronted with bioethical questions. The relationship between scientists and philosophers must be developed, but often, attempts at such relationships are hindered by the fact that each group has a unique "language" and orientation to nature. Knowledge in one area does not necessarily translate to the other. Academies such as the European Bioethics Academy provide a situation where participants are exposed to both ethical and scientific knowledge. As the media tackles the issues of stem cell research and genetic engineering, the confusion and uncertainty of the general public is evidence of the necessity for an educational system that provides both types of knowledge.

A particular type of knowledge concerning the future is also necessary for a new form of ethics. The potential harm of both future generations and the future welfare of the earth necessitates a type of foreknowledge that no previous form of ethics required. The public policy of stem cell issues, for instance, requires knowledge of the potential benefits and harm of this ever-evolving technology. The common good is not a static goal, but continually changes with the scientific landscape. The lack of public policy concerning stem cell research is a sign that those in positions of power are struggling to respond to the centrality that science now takes in human purpose and to overcome barriers of knowledge. The new ethical system thus demands that considerations for the future take a central role.

When Jonas speaks of “future,” he intends a meaning beyond the lifespan of a human being to a scale of existence itself. As evidenced by the words of Sophocles, in former times there was a clear division between the natural world and the artificial world created by man. Slowly man has largely brought the earth under his control, and the difference between the natural and the artificial has blurred. The Judeo - Christian notion of “stewardship” over creation serves as a precursor to this concept in Jonas’ thought. Jonas sees the concept of stewardship coming into conflict with the scientific view of nature that “emphatically denies us all conceptual means to think of Nature as something to be honored, having reduced it to the indifference of necessity and accident, and divested it of any dignity of ends” (Jonas 8). The mass extinction of animal and plant species as an indirect consequence of human actions, for example, constitutes a cry from nature for a responsible steward. Indeed, the future existence of the human race is in question. It is at this point in Jonas’ thought that ethics takes a powerful leap from the realm of action into a type of “doctrine of being.” For an ethical system to engage the forces that threaten existence itself, a powerful thrust must be made to move the ethical conversation into the area of metaphysics.

The existence of humanity was once taken as a given within ethical systems. In a world where the power of the atomic bomb has been tested and new genetic technology can shape future organisms, the obligation to future generations has become a moral concept. It is clear from the writings of Hans Jonas that the existence of man in the world, and the preservation of the physical world conducive to the flourishing of human life are his moral imperatives. Continuing in the tradition of Kant, Jonas recreates the categorical imperative to include an imperative for existence itself, “act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life’ (Jonas 11). The moral responsibility of the individual is no longer confined to his lifetime or even to his direct actions. In a sense, to adopt this new imperative is to view the growth of responsibility as proportional to the growth of human power.

Michel Foucault echoes the notion of a shift between the classical and modern notions of ethics with slight nuance. By using the language of sovereignty over life, Foucault classifies the shift in emphasis from the classical “to take life or let live” toward the modern “to make live and let die.” Dr. Stuart Murray from the University of Toronto included in his lecture at the summer academy the haunting words of Foucault, “if genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race.” For Foucault, humanity was in control of its own existence (and non-existence). Foucault shared Jonas’ concern for the newfound power of humanity, but Jonas worked to further his ethical system in the direction of public policy and a more tangible system of ethics than Foucault. The impact of the World Wars cannot be over-emphasized. There was no longer a possibility of technology being used to cause death on a massive scale. It was a historical fact. Where before there was an infatuation of human power, there came in its place fear and hesitation. Self-questioning is a part of progress and reflection. For this reason, Hans Jonas grounded his thought into the potential application of his ethics within public policy. Ethics was no longer a side discussion but a necessity.

The imperative of Jonas is useful for the field of bioethics because it is directed towards the realm of public policy. The position of the statesman in terms of future consequence and possibility is of considerable concern for Jonas. Political philosophy, without sinking into the utopian eschatology of Marx, must anticipate future developments rather than taking present norms as permanent. The ethic of foresight for future generations is a call to an ethic of selflessness. One cannot demand how future generations will benefit him, Jonas likens it to the feeling of duty a parent has towards a child. We are responsible because we are the cause of this life. One does not take care of a child in the hope that they will in turn be cared for in old age. The ethics of future existence is neither concerned with rights or reciprocity. Only in protecting the earth and the integrity of human life can we fulfill this ethic of responsibility to the not-yet-existent. Here again we form a bridge between the ethical action and the metaphysical conviction. The doctrine of existence is an ontological claim that humanity ought to exist.

Hans Jonas has been criticized for the fact that his system of ethics is a normative ethic tightly linked to metaphysical claims. It is clear that while Jonas attempts to find a non-religious metaphysics, his ideas are clearly grounded in the Judeo-Christian image of the created universe. Perhaps the most important characteristic of Jonas’ thought is his fearlessness to stake a claim for the importance of metaphysics in an ethical discussion: “a kind of metaphysical responsibility beyond self-interest has devolved on us with the magnitude of our powers relative to this tenuous film of life, that is, since man has become dangerous not only to himself but to the whole biosphere” (Jonas 136). This metaphysical conviction claims that Nature has a purpose and the derivative ethic is that humanity must ensure the viability of this purpose.

Humans are the only beings conscious of the purpose of Nature and their purpose within Nature. The knowledge obligates us to bear the responsibility of ensuring it will continue. How do people go about doing this? The heuristics of fear play a major part in this line of thinking. There is a need for increased humility in the face of our own power. People must evaluate the foreseeable consequences of our actions and judge accordingly. The issue raised here is, how does one judge the potential consequences of action? In tackling the issue of stem cell research one soon discovers the difficulty of predicting the results of research. Often human hopes overshadow scientific reality. Genetic manipulation was an area of particular concern for Jonas, “man will take his own evolution in hand, with the aim of not just preserving the integrity of the species but of modifying it by improvements of his own design” (Jonas 21). There is valid concern here. The slow process of natural evolution exhibits a conservative patience that has worked by taking small steps towards change. The risk for disaster is small and contained, but the impatience of modern technology lacks this prudence and foresight. For Jonas there was also the belief that short-term aims of science may create positive change, but these aims tend to make themselves independent due to the irreversible momentum of science. Many may propose stem cell research in the hopes of finding a cure of cancer, but can they stop the use of that same technology by people hoping to “custom design” their own offspring? In this way the heuristics of fear would propose that if there is a chance of causing harm, even indirectly or far in the future, the action must not be taken.

An interesting contrast to Hans Jonas is the thought of Thomas Aquinas. It is of particular interest that Professor William J. Hoye (University of Munster) pointed out the importance of the term responsibility in his lecture on Aquinas. So much of the discussion of the academy focused on promoting the notion of responsibility among scientists, but this is a term that Aquinas, according to Hoye, neither used nor needed. It is specifically interesting that Hoye framed his discussion of modern responsibility around the definition of responsibility as “the secularization of the idea of God's reason and will.” Rather than using a language of responsibility, Aquinas looked to virtues and sound reason for informing human action. A dependence on human goodness and reason may allow human science more freedom. The outcome of Hans Jonas, in dubio pro malo, may function in the world as freezing scientific thought instead of harnessing its potential power for good.

The theological underpinning of Jonas’ ethic has its roots in this century's trouble in facing the omnipotence of God after Auschwitz. Perhaps the development of theology since the time of Aquinas is the idea of distance between God and his creation. For Jonas, the distance between God and Man is manifest in the responsibility man faces to be a co-creator. Indeed, the strivings of modern man may unknowingly be man’s movement toward God. The rational metaphysics of Jonas may help to answer the charge that his thinking is fatalistic. On the other hand one may run the risk of projecting his human desire for progress onto a divinity beyond human powers of reason. It is a question of how one utilizes the language of responsibility in ethical and theological discourse.

The pendulum of Jonas’ thought arguably swings too far in the direction of total responsibility. The development of antibiotics brought cures for common ailments, but it also led to the development of deadly biological weapons. Are humans to sacrifice the benefits? It seems dubious that the scientists who first developed penicillin ever foresaw biological warfare. The notion of progress is difficult to define in terms of good and evil. Jonas himself recognizes the irreversibility of human progress, “going on with the adventure of knowledge is an august duty” (Jonas 167). The rapid development of technology for its own sake however poses issues that are clear to all. We live beyond our needs and consume the resources of the world to satisfy our every whim. The issue at stake is defining clearly the aim of science. The harnessing of fear may have the potential to transmute a seemingly negative human emotion into a powerful tool for ethical decision-making.

The role of public policy is vital for a discussion of bioethics. The lack of knowledge surrounding the possible outcomes of stem cell research can lead the public in two directions: no regulation at all or a ban on research altogether. Increased scientific and ethical awareness may allow us a middle road. The danger of sensationalism on the part of the media has led to impatience for results and uninformed ethical convictions. Instead of cautious research and an informed discussion on meaningful governmental regulations. It is here that the motives for scientific research become of particular concern. Hans Jonas was particularly concerned with the model of socialism produced by Marx. The utopian character of Marxism promotes the members of society to “generate enthusiasm on behalf of overarching purpose and the institutionally anchored principle of equality” (Jonas 151). The pressure of the market upon human action and the deregulation of the free market are unable to institutionalize the ethic of restraint that Jonas promotes.

At this stage in the public discourse of stem cell research, the practitioner of Jonas’ ethic of the future would be inclined to put the brakes on research. An added complication specific to the stem cell debate is the experimentation on human embryos. It could be conjectured that Jonas would be against any experimentation on human embryos. The potential of the embryo to become a human being, its very existence, would precede all discussion of the status of the embryo as human. In the same vein of thinking from which Jonas placed the existence and dignity of future generations in the realm of human responsibility, the potential of the already conceived embryo would demand care.

This compounded with the unknown future uses of genetic engineering to subvert the natural evolutionary process would lead one to believe that Jonas would argue against promotion of stem-cell research. Through further research into other writings of Hans Jonas I hope to shed light on Jonas’ response to the question of research on human embryos.


Hans Jonas provides a useful basis for the formulation of a new ethics. The most appealing feature of his thought lies in his ability to articulate the new challenges that the modern world faces. His call to recognize that new challenges require new approaches is one that should resound in the ears of all modern ethicists. Former philosophical thinking and patterns of religious thought are still relevant, but they are only relevant insofar as the modern world utilizes their wisdom for current ethical issues. Modern ethical questions cannot be twisted and contorted to fit within the molds of older philosophical systems. Rather, the ethical system must expand and broaden to undertake new challenges.

Stem cell research may hold the hope for future cures. To get beyond the hype of the media around the subject is to encounter the sobering reality of scientific possibility. The power to manipulate human genetics brings humanity into dangerous territory, and it is valid to bring up the question of responsibility. The limitation of Hans Jonas’ thought is that it can be interpreted as demonizing technology and can be fatalistic in its outlook on human endeavors. Science is ethically neutral. The normative ethic he creates, especially his attachment to “in dubio pro malo,” shows that care for the future is at the heart of this pattern of thought. It is valid to be fearful for mankind, but it is important to recognize that through science good has been achieved.

Like all philosophical thought, The Imperative of Responsibility responds to a certain time in history. We may find models to transpose and ideas to bring into modern thought, but it is important to remember the forces at play in the mind of the philosopher. Dr. Holger Burckhart who lectured on Hans Jonas at the European Summer Academy emphasized the impact of World War II on the philosophy and theology of Hans Jonas. After the evil of Auschwitz, the concept of God would never be the same. The failures of the modern world reached a terrible depth of moral depravity, and the scale of death and destruction around the world reached a proportion never before experienced. His fear is valid, but human hope need not surrender in the face of fear. Humanity must find within itself the self-restraint to exercise power judiciously. A system of ethics that denies the possibility of good coming from science will not gain acceptance because everyday humans experience the positive fruits of science. Indeed it would be ungrateful and short-sighted to turn our backs on the progress of science. Instead, humility must be espoused in a system of responsible stewardship and careful research.

Works cited

  • Burckhart, Holger. Lecture: “Hans Jonas : Philosophy of Responsibility.” European Summer Academy, Heinrich Pesch Haus. 16 Aug. 2005
  • Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility. Trans. Hans Jonas and David Herr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • Hoye, William J. Lecture: “The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.” European Summer Academy, Heinrich Pesch Haus. 15 Aug. 2005
  • Murray, Stuart. Lecture: “Beyond Foucault?” European Summer Academy, Heinrich Pesch Haus. 21 Aug. 2005
Categories: 1

0 Replies to “Hans Jonas The Imperative Of Responsibility Assignment”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *