Taking Responsibility for our (Technological) Monsters
Taking Responsibility for our Technological Monsters The Imperative of Responsibility – In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age by Hans Jonas Contents Introduction 1 Preface 2 Chapter 1: The Altered Nature of Human Action 3 1.1 The Example of Antiquity, 1.2 Characteristics of Previous Ethics 4 1.6 Earlier Forms of “Future-oriented Ethics” 6 1.3 New Dimensions of Responsibility 7 1.4 Technology as the “Calling” of Mankind 8 1.5 Old and New Imperatives 9
1.7 Man as an Object of Technology 11 1.8 The ‘Utopian’ Dynamics of Technical Progress and the Excess Magnitude of Responsibility 12 1.9 The Ethical Vacuum 12 Jonas’s Thesis 13 Conclusion 14 Introduction Many people will be acquainted with the story of Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley but they may not realise that the name refers not to the monster but to the man who created the monster. According to Bruno Latour, “Dr Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather that he abandoned the creature to itself.” Latour’s message in his 2011 paper amusingly entitled Love Your Monsters is
that we need to be responsible for the monsters we create. His paper may be seen as a timely reminder for the world since Hans Jonas had already talked about this same moral responsibility for technology some 32 years before, in his book The Imperative of Responsibility. However, while Latour is talking about how we need to care for the monster after it has been born, Jonas is more concerned with our promiscuity and whether we should conceive the monster in the first place. Jonas was born in 1903 in Germany and lived to a ripe old age of 89 despite surviving both WW I and II as a German-Jew and a Zionist. He fought in WW II as part of the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and later also in the Arab-Israel war. He studied philosophy and theology in Germany under
Edmund Husserl and later Martin Heidegger, who was his PhD supervisor. He finally settled in the US at the New School for Social Research as a professor of philosophy and today, the New School recognises his intellectual legacy by naming a professor of philosophy chair after him. This short biography may be interesting; the wars he experienced and his mother dying in Auschwitz must have profoundly influenced his thinking, but perhaps another angle to understand his philosophical approach to technology is to consider what are the new technologies he encountered in his lifetime, such that it made him think of technology as a threat that we must responsibly deal with rather than a blessing to be enjoyed. In 1903, the year he was born, the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered heavier-than-air aircraft. Guglielmo Marconi had sent the first message by
radio wave in 1895 such that Jonas might have heard the first commercial radio broadcasts in the 1920s. Television had to wait seven more years to be invented. The first computer, ENIAC, was put into use in 1945 and the atomic bombs fell that same year on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, mankind’s first satellite into space in 1957 and America landed the first man on the moon in 1969. Microcomputers became a mass-market product in the 1970s and the
book we are examining today, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, was published in 1979. You are now listening to me speaking about his book 43 years later. In that time, the world has seen many more new technologies, some of which are as revolutionary as the ones in his time. We may be living in an era even more dominated
by technology than Jonas’s was. As you listen to this talk, I want you to wonder whether what Jonas has to say about the responsible use and development of technology is still relevant today. Preface In his book, Jonas sees two threats from technology. The first, an “atomic holocaust,” is acute and cataclysmic,
like a ruptured appendix or a heart attack in the human body. It is sudden, extreme and because of its intense concentrated destructive force, is something we would actively try to avoid triggering. What is more difficult to head off is the slow creep of technological power that we have incrementally but steadily accumulated. The journey to the state-of-the-art technology we now possess is one that took us thousands of years, a “slow [and] long-term cumulative” process which might even be aimed at “peaceful and constructive use” for the most part, to satisfy our demands. Primitive people first developed and refined their tools to meet their immediate needs, for instance to gather food and water just to feed themselves and their families. This early technological power was then extended to meet the needs of their communities, which perhaps was just their village, which later widened to became societies and today the needs of the entire global population, because of “rising production, consumption and sheer population growth.” This threat is far more slow-acting than the threat from nuclear bombs,
akin to how a person might eat small amounts of sugar-rich foods daily and finally ending up with a chronic illness like diabetes. Because of its relatively tardy and incremental nature, that person may not even recognise the harm that is slowly but surely developing. Both threats identified by Jonas impose a toll on nature but in different ways and acuity. Both wreak potentially permanent ecological and environmental harm, and can harm the human condition and by extension, contemporary society. They can also harm future generations of people. We face the danger of reaching “points of no return, where processes initiated by us will run away from us on their own momentum – and towards disaster,” according to Jonas.
How can we confront these threats ethically? Chapter 1: The Altered Nature of Human Action If we are trying to figure out broad moral principles to tell us how we can live morally, you would think that ethics will be the right place to look. However, Jonas sees a problem with that, from his analysis of what ethics has to offer so far. The human condition is determined by our own human nature in its interaction with things. Previous ethics has assumed that the human condition is static and essential. Because the essence of things and of human beings was considered fixed and hence stable and unchanging, what is good for us can be worked out from that static human condition. From there, we can deduce that the range of human action will be limited,
hence making the responsibility for it likewise limited. However, Jonas contends that with the development of our powers, the nature of human action has changed and hence our ethics must change accordingly. What is this power that Jonas refers to? It is the power of technology, the technology that we have developed which has extended the range of human action. This extended range of human action increases our power over nature and people. However, technology
is not something new. Technology has been with us since prehistoric times – think of primitive tools like flintstone axes made by cavemen. Today we just have much more sophisticated tools, such as nuclear weapons, so what makes modern technology different from those found in antiquity? 1.1 The Example of Antiquity, 1.2 Characteristics of Previous Ethics “The raping of nature and the civilising of man go hand in hand,” writes Jonas.
To improve our lives, to escape the state of nature towards becoming civilised people, we had to make use of nature. However, even as we started to develop agriculture and transport in antiquity, these still had low impact on our environments. No matter how much we fished, the oceans still had enough fish. The resource was not depleted. When we plough the land, using perhaps an ox tethered to a wooden plough, the land affected was still only a small area compared to the massive industrial scale of modern farms today. Not only was the area insignificant compared to the surface of the planet, the effects of our labour on it were not so deep and damaging that if left fallow, the land could not recover. Nature seemed abundant enough and more than a match against our primitive technological powers. To restate the case more generally, consider the
impact of our actions both on the object of action and us as the subject. With respect to the object, our actions impinged “little on the self-sustaining nature of things and thus raised no question of permanent injury to the integrity of its object, the natural order.” With regards to the human subject, techne, Greek for human making and doing, was driven by necessity and not as a way to reach loftier goals. Hence, our dealings with nature
seemed ethically neutral and not something we had to morally concern ourselves with. Nature seemed more than capable of taking care of herself and of us as well. Hence, she was not an “object of human responsibility.” However, as we lived in increasingly bigger groups, from family units to villages, communities, cities and then kingdoms and countries, we needed to find ways to be able to live peacefully together. This became the business of traditional ethics, which concerned itself with human relations and hence is anthropocentric. The pre-modern human being’s effective range of actions was also limited in space and time.
The effects of their actions were limited to those they came in contact with. If one cheated a customer whom he sold vegetables to, he only cheated one person. Even if this vegetable farmer-cum-seller wanted to cheat more people, the reach of his product only extended so far. Compare this to a situation where one somehow managed to corner the precious metals market today. The number of people affected will not just be limited to market participants but the entire globe would be affected with the complex linkages between gold prices and fiat currencies. The reach of the pre-modern person is also often limited to the moment or at most their lifespans.
The same vegetable seller’s act of cheating is contained in the moment of transaction. Perhaps he will gain a bad reputation at the local farmer’s market which will haunt him as long as he lived. Fast forward to today. Imagine if some smart technologist creates a decentralised currency harvested by digital mining that has somehow captured the imaginations of people and even national governments around the world and its impact, not just on the people living today but perhaps several generations forward. I do not want to exaggerate the effect cryptocurrencies may have on the future of finance, but even if the concept faded away, the environmental damage from its electronic mining activities still remains. Forget cryptocurrency.
Think of guns handled by white people landing in ships off distant coasts hundreds of years ago and how some peoples still live with the aftereffects of slavery and colonisation today. Because the reach of people in the past was limited, the impact of their actions was likewise limited, contained within small geographies and their lifespans. Because the ethical conception of the human good was static and unchanging, what is good for the moment also holds for every other time in the past or future. “The short arm of human power did not call for a long arm of predictive knowledge,” Jonas surmises. We do not have to take his word for it. A quick review of the major ethical systems can give us an indication if Jonas is correct. We can begin with the ‘law of the jungle’ where each man is for himself, the state of nature that Thomas Hobbes had imagined. In that dog-eat-dog world, the agents’ actions are limited to their
immediate concerns and do not extend beyond their time and space. How about Aristotle’s virtue ethics, where each should foster their own values such as honesty, courage and being just? Virtue is to be moderate in one’s conduct. The focus is on the individual. When each member of the society is virtuous, the society is then virtuous. The virtues remain the same virtues across time. Let’s look at divine command theory, which have edicts like “love your neighbour as you love yourself.” What is a neighbour if not the person living next to you? How about consequentialist
theories like utilitarianism, where we should seek to maximise pleasure and minimise pain? The utility under consideration begins from the individual. If we want to compute the utility of the group or society, we sum the utility of their individual members. The utilitarian calculus fails if it has to extend its computations to all of mankind including those yet to be born, even if we had the most powerful supercomputers to do the arithmetic. How about Conventionalism which David Hume talked about, where what is good is what is decided by society to be good? What a society decides to be good is what its current society needs. For it to extend also to future societies, the system must assume a static human nature.
Lastly, we can take a look at a more recent thinker, John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice (1971) predates The Imperative of Responsibility. His idea is to bring a random group of people behind a “veil of ignorance” to decide on principles governing their society. Does this not imply a static view of humanity since how can a person hundreds of years from the future come join his committee? Besides, his idea of redistribution to help the least advantaged is restricted to just their “closed society,” which statists have argued is required because a national solidarity giving rise to a shared identity is apparently necessary for the more well-to-do to be willing to sacrifice anything at all to the less fortunate. Attentive listeners
may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned Immanuel Kant’s deontology, or ethics of duty. Jonas will critique that directly later. The above examples of ethical systems are mine. Jonas also examines some ethical forms that seem to consider the future and future generations. It is a mark of good philosophising when the thinker does not cherry pick his evidence to substantiate his theory, but instead even argues against his own case, since his aim is not to ‘win’ but to get closer to ‘the truth.’
1.6 Earlier Forms of “Future-oriented Ethics” Jonas considers three examples that seem not to be entirely oriented to the present: 1) Religious ethics which enjoins that the conduct of life be directed towards eternal salvation 2) Statesmen and legislators with long-range concerns for the future common weal 3) Political utopia Religious Ethics The religious ethic is directed towards the afterlife. Its followers should try to live a life pleasing to God so as to have a good afterlife. However, such a life that is pleasing to God will be considered by its practitioners to be the best, most worthwhile life anyway. Hence they will rationally choose to live in such a way even if there was no reward or blissful afterlife. Being just, doing charity and being pure of heart is presumably pleasing to God, but even if there is no God, living in such a way is good for its own sake. This then reduces to an ethics of contemporaneity despite the transcendent goal.
Statesmanship In the case of statesmen and legislators, the durability of the system they create is a mark of its success but that success is not due to planning ahead for something that will come in future generations that is not already attainable in the current times. The best state today will also be the best one for the future, since its present stability ensures that there is a future. Moreover, a good order need not change if human nature does not change. However, human nature does change which is why there needs to be the “continuous governing wisdom of the statesmen.” So in this ethical form, there is still a present-orientation.
Political Utopia Political Marxist utopia arises from a conception of “modern progress” where time is a series of stepping stones that will finally culminate in utopia through a dialectical process. It assumes a teleology which final state is utopia. The actions taken in the present is for the sake of this future utopia of which the agent, its victims and their contemporaries will not live to enjoy, even as they have an obligation towards that goal. While it may seem to be a future-oriented ethic, the Marxist conception relies on leveraging technology to free mankind from onerous labour which may lead to deleterious environmental degradation. Because of this, Jonas’s ethic of responsibility is anti-utopian. 1.3 New Dimensions of Responsibility Back to the train of Jonas’s argument. Things have changed and hence Jonas contends that previous ethical wisdom is unable to cope with what is required of ethics in our technological age. In his words, “modern technology has introduced actions of such novel scale, objects and consequences that the framework of former ethics can no longer contain them.” The agents,
their actions and its effects are no longer just limited to the immediate space and time. Even when the practice of technology is undertaken for proximate ends, there are effects of irreversibility and cumulativeness. Irreversibility is going past the “point of no return.” Once an animal or plant species becomes extinct, it is gone forever. Once climate change exceeds a certain point, perhaps two degrees of global warming according to the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, nature may no longer be able to self-correct its climate.
Once we have a nuclear holocaust, the biosphere may be permanently damaged. Cumulativeness is when effects add up such that future generations may see their choices differing from the current generation. If air pollution continues to worsen, it may mean that going outdoors without a gas mask may not be possible for our great grandchildren, or that great heat may make hiking in the woods life-threatening. What we take for granted today
may be seen as a luxury by future generations. According to Jonas, traditional ethics did not have to consider such irreversible and cumulative effects since human impact previously did not entail such effects given nature’s capacity to self-repair. Societal norms established from society’s past experiences may no longer be valid since some situations arising from technology may be unprecedented. Some instances I can think of is how social media is warping people’s perception of one another and changing their attitudes, or how digital platforms are creating a gig economy which is making current labour protection measures insufficient for gig workers. To act responsibly, when such technologies are developed, their immediate and future impact needs to be considered but with today’s “fail-fast, fail often” entrepreneurial mindset, who has the time to care? Even if innovators do care, that care is not sufficient, not that that excuses them from caring. Our knowledge and ability to build new technologies runs ahead of our ability to predict their consequences. There is a “gap between the ability to foretell and the power to act” to
create new technologies. That gap may be difficult if not impossible to bridge but that does not mean we can then shelve it aside. To act responsibly, we need to recognise our ignorance and incorporate that recognition of ignorance into our ethics, so as to regulate our power to create. This clearly has to be a societal effort, and not be left up to individuals or even industries to self-regulate. This means that it is in the domain of policy, which puts it into the realm of the political. 1.4 Technology as the “Calling” of Mankind Is it a part of our nature to create technologies?
Are we Homo Faber, i.e. Man, the Maker? From our history, we certainly seem so, where we develop technologies as a matter of necessity to fulfil our basic needs and then some. As our abilities to create become stronger, technology has become not just something that makes our immediate conditions better but has become a pathway to bigger goals, an “infinite forward-thrust of the [human] race.”
Technology has become our “most significant enterprise,” “a permanent, self-transcending advance to ever greater things,” a way to reach our destiny, and hence has become a “vocation” for some among us. Because of the “central place it now occupies in human purpose,” technology has become ethically significant. The advancement of technology has taken on a positive feedback loop, reinforcing the powers of those who create it. The creation
of new technologies drives the demand for its creators to manage these technologies, in turn giving them even more success, which then spurs them on to even more creation. This in itself is not a bad thing. Some may argue that this cycle of reward is needed to keep mankind advancing; it is the very mark of progress. This attitude leads to a “growing ascendancy” of this side of human nature, the Homo Faber, over all our other sides and at their expense. An increase in the prestige of such creation has lead to a starving of resources to the other sides.
For instance, there is an increased emphasis of STEM education, education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, versus education in the humanities and the arts, which can lead to a shrinking of our self-conception. This impact on the nature of our being, society as a whole and society in the future means that the future of humanity is the “relevant horizon of responsibility,” which means that our ethics has to be able to inform and influence the realm of technology, and to do so through public policy. “The city of men, once an enclave in the nonhuman world, spreads over the whole of terrestrial nature and usurps its place,” laments Jonas. Our activities through technology have now affected all of the world including its non-human parts. Some of these activities threaten the whole of existence. To ensure there remains a world for
future humanity, we have to act to counter such a threat. Does that sound hyperbolic? Some may think so but it is hard to deny the effects of our actions on the environment when we face annual heatwaves and other extreme climate events, ostensibly the result of climate change which according to the scientific evidence is at least partly due to human activities. Jonas posits that when we first arrived in the world, that is also when the premise of obligation in human conduct first arose, when a moral order first came into being. No human beings mean there is no morality. Non-human nature by itself is amoral. When a tiger kills a lamb, it is not doing something bad but just obeying its nature. To ensure that morality remains in the world, we need to have a continued presence of humanity in the world, to ensure the “existence of mere candidates for a moral order.” This means we have “the duty to preserve this physical world
in such a state that the conditions for that presence remain intact.” To put it another way, goodness and evil only began when human beings came into existence since morality is a human concept. If one accepts the premise of there being a teleology, a grand goal for the cosmos which is towards The Good, that is only possible if there remain human beings in the cosmos. 1.5 Old and New Imperatives Jonas is now almost ready to propose his new ethics, which he is going to justify using the inadequacy of Kant’s categorical imperative as an exemplar of traditional ethics. The categorical imperative states: “Act so that you can will that the maxim of your action be made the principle of a universal law.”
Jonas pays attention to the “can,” which expresses logical compatibility rather than morality. This is not unfair to Kant since Kant’s aim is to arrive at moral reasoning out of pure reasoning, which is a matter for logic. So long as there is no self-contradiction between what one wills for oneself and for everyone else, that will tell us how we should act. Say I want to read at night and I turn on the lights. I would not have a problem with others doing the same since others too should be able to read at night. However, if it was broad daylight and if the lights were left on, I would have a problem with that because it is unnecessary and a waste of electricity.
I would not do it myself and I would not want others to do it. No self-contradiction there. However, a logical lack of self-contradiction is not sufficient to ensure intergenerational justice. Say 100 years after I die, fossil fuels are going to run out. If we conserve them now, future generations will still be able to have electricity and so be able to read at night. So should I not read at night now, so that others may do so in the future? Or should I carry on reading at night leading to future people being unable to? According to Jonas, there is no self-contradiction if the current generation’s happiness or existence is at the expense of future ones and vice versa, where current happiness or partial extinction is sacrificed for future happiness and existence, if we look at it only logically and not morally. There however is an important moral difference. In the former case at its extreme where the preservation of current happiness is at the expense of future existence, the series of future human life may terminate, while in the latter case, human existence continues into the future. The logic of the categorical imperative fails to capture this moral dimension. If there
were no people in future for the universal law (resulting from my maxim of action) to apply to, then there is no need to consider them since there is no ‘them’ to consider. The logic of the categorical imperative is not sufficient to capture these dimensions. For that, we require moral arguments and metaphysical ones such as why being is better than non-being. Hence Jonas sees the need for a new ethical imperative to fill this moral gap in the categorical imperative. His formulation is: “Act so that the effects of your action are
compatible with [or not destructive of] the permanence of genuine human life,” which could also be thought of as: “In your present choices, include the future wholeness of Man among the objects of your will.” What is Jonas implying by “genuine” human life? What he means is that future people should be able to live a life of dignity and in roughly similar or better conditions to the current people. It is not just a matter of being alive, since the people remaining after a nuclear apocalypse may be alive, but are forced to live in terrible or primitive conditions. With Kant’s categorical imperative, there is no logical contradiction if one wants for oneself a “short fireworks display of the most extreme self-fulfilment,” even if the future of humanity is annihilated. However, Jonas’s new imperative “says precisely that we may risk our own life – but not that of humanity.” “We do not have the right to choose, or even risk, nonexistence for future generations on account of a better life for the present one,” he asserts. He acknowledges that the obligation to
the not-yet-existing is difficult to prove and hence, he is putting it forward as an axiom. Besides, Kant’s imperative is addressed to the individual and is meant to be covering only the moment and not the future. “It was no part of the reasoning that there is any probability of my private choice in fact becoming universal law,” writes Jonas. It imagines
what if everyone acted like me, while Jonas’s imperative requires actual collective action, which hence needs to be realised through public policy making. It also accounts for the future. 1.7 Man as an Object of Technology Human beings are typically the agent of action, acting on other things but how about human beings as the object of technology? Jonas considers three possible applications – the extension of life span, behavioural control and genetic manipulation. Extension of life span Advances in cell biology may be able to prolong life through counteracting the biochemical processes of ageing. The ethical questions that need to be asked are: how desirable is this, both for the individual and for the human species? Who should be eligible? Those who can afford it, the eminent who merit it, or everyone? To answer the question, Jonas examines potential consequences. Extended age must be paid for by less new births to keep the population stable if we are to avoid the Malthusian crisis of insufficient food and resources.
Hence there will be a decreasing proportion of youths combined with an ageing population. Is this good or bad for mankind? Is it right to displace the place of youths? How about if we are able not just to extend life but to make it eternal? “Mortality is but the other side of the perennial spring of ‘natality’,” writes Jonas. If death is abolished, then procreation must likewise be abolished since new birth is life’s answer to death. There would be no new people to surprise us. Individual mortality grants
to the species “the eternally renewed promise of the freshness, immediacy and eagerness of youth.” With eternal life, we will have individuals with greater and prolonged experiences, who may be jaded, rather than those who can see the world with fresh eyes and with wonder. In addition, what will give us the incentive to treasure our days if they are unlimited? Behavioural control Medical treatments which involve mental control can help psychiatric patients in distress. It can be tempting for the authorities to extend the use of such techniques to relieve society of difficult individuals, breaching their human rights and dignity. Jonas writes: “Each time we thus bypass the human way of dealing with human problems, short-circuiting it by an impersonal mechanism, we have taken away something from the dignity of personal selfhood and advanced a further step on the road from responsible subjects to programmed behaviour systems.”
Genetic manipulation can potentially be used to improve people. Proponents of human biological progress might extol it as us taking evolution into our own hands. But who will decide what are considered desirable traits in individuals? Jonas’s point in raising these examples is not to make a judgement on the matter but to show that human beings as the object of technology raises ethical questions which never needed to be asked before. Traditional ethics are unable to deal with such questions since they consider human nature to be constant, certainly not biologically modifiable. 1.8 The ‘Utopian’ Dynamics of Technical Progress and the Excess Magnitude of Responsibility
Such a use of technology to perfect the human condition is just an instance of technological power’s support of mankind’s utopian dreams. Such dreams concern “the total condition of nature on our globe and the very kind of creatures that shall, or shall not, populate it.” We have a power which requires an ethics of responsibility but also humility. Previously, we are humble because our power is small but now, we need humility because of “the excess of our power to act over our power to foresee […,] evaluate and to judge.” We need to restrain our technological development because of our ignorance of what our use of novel technologies may bring. Jonas’s new ethics cast doubt on the capacity, mode of operation and principles of democratic politics to meet the demands of this technological world. “According to those principles and
procedures [of democratic politics], only present interests make themselves heard and felt,” he notes. Future generations are not represented because the “non-existent has no lobby and the unborn are powerless.” The current democratic systems are not accountable to the non-existent and hence there is no “political reality” for decision-makers to consider them. For such political reality to arise, the body politic needs to support ideas that may be contrary to their self-interest. How can we get the knowledge, values and insight to act wisely?
1.9 The Ethical Vacuum Science has eroded the basis from which norms can be derived, specifically from the domain of the sacred. We now have great power but without knowing what to use it for so that we can achieve The Good. Not knowing what the good is, what we can do is only to avoid the bad. This happens through a heuristic of fear, as a “substitute for genuine virtue or wisdom.” However, the further we search into the future for potential consequences and the more innocent the beginnings seem for a novel technology, the less fear we will have, even though it is the distant prospects that we must protect.
Now that the ethics of religious belief has been eclipsed, a new ethics is required. We are now ready to understand what Jonas has to propose as a new ethics. Jonas’s Thesis “Our thesis is that the new kinds and dimensions of action require a commensurate ethic of foresight and responsibility which is as novel as the eventualities which it must meet […,] eventualities that arise out of the works of homo faber in the era of technology,” Jonas writes. Jonas’s thesis: [Preface] 1) Past ethics are unable to cope with “the altered nature of human action.” Past ethics has been based on people dealing with one another,
with the implicit assumption that nature is a plentiful resource which is inexhaustible. Nature then was a threat to man, and not man a threat to it. Past ethics also is focused on narrow spaces and time, and does not deal with global and intergenerational impact. Hence a need for a new ethics. 2) This new ethics he is proposing is an ethics of responsibility. He puts forward an axiom: “Responsibility is a correlate of power
and must be commensurate with the latter’s scope and that of its exercise.” The more power we have, given to us through technology, the greater is our responsibility. To be able to be properly responsible, we need a “lengthened foresight” into the impact of these technologies in the future.
3) However, whatever foresight we have will be based on extrapolating from the past and present, which will fall short precisely because of the novel situations arising from novel technologies. Hence we need an “imaginative ‘heuristics of fear’” to “tell us what is possibly at stake and what we must beware of.” Instead of counting on the promise of new technologies to deliver us fantastic riches, i.e. instead of banking on hope, we must be careful to not trade away our already bountiful situation, because of the magnitude of the stakes and the insufficiency of our predictive ability. It will be like wagering our current state to possibly win a finite upside but lose
infinitely on the downside. Besides, what gives us the right to gamble with other people’s destinies, these people being our contemporaries and also future generations? We need to adopt a precautionary principle to technological innovation. 4) “What we must avoid at all cost is determined by what we must preserve at all cost,” he posits. We need to preserve at all cost the continuation of the human species and hence need to avoid at all cost its termination. With the dictates of religion eclipsed, our metaphysics must inform us on the nature of our being, why being is better than non-being and from that, we can derive the ethical duties we have to maintain the existence of human beings into the future.
To do that, we also need to preserve nature since nature is what supports human life. 5) The imperative of maintaining human life and nature hence “enables us to discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate goal-settings to our Promethean power.” What goals are we permitted? Jonas considers the pursuit of a Marxist utopia undergirded by technological development as an illegitimate goal. “Against the immodesty of its goals, which maximise the inherent technological dangers of overstraining nature, the more modest and fitting goal is set to save the survival and humanity of man from the excesses of his own power,” he writes. Conclusion At the start, I asked you to keep in mind if Jonas’s message is still relevant. Clearly I believed it is since I otherwise would not have bothered to speak about it. However,
his thesis raises some difficult issues for our world today. How can we responsibly balance the precautionary principle he advocates with economic growth and innovation which are also important? What should we do about population growth? If technology is the problem, might it also provide the solution? Can technology save us and can we responsibly count on it? To the last question, I believe Jonas would say no. As he has explained at length, our ability to look into the future is rather limited while our capacity for hope springs eternal. It is better we underestimate what technology can do to resolve our problems of climate change, nuclear apocalypse and whatever new and pressing issues that will certainly surface, and be pleasantly surprised if technology indeed manages to come to the rescue, than to be bitterly disappointed in our final moments before the mass extinction of our species. Biblography Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Latour, Bruno. “Love Your Monsters.” Breakthrough Journal, 2011, 8.