Taking Responsibility for our (Technological) Monsters

Taking Responsibility for our (Technological) Monsters

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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.

2022-07-30 07:55

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