Take and Read: The Imperative of Human Responsibility

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Participants in a 1,500-strong environmental march gather in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican June 28, 2015. (CNS /Paul Haring)

Participants in a 1,500-strong environmental march gather in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican June 28, 2015. (CNS /Paul Haring)

by John T. Pawlikowski

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

The Imperative of Human Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age
by Hans Jonas
University of Chicago Press, 1984

As an emerging academician in 1972, I participated in a one-time gathering of learned societies of religion. That experience left a lasting impact on me as a person as well as my future scholarship, largely because of the powerful keynote address delivered by Hans Jonas.

Jonas, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, was then associated with the New School for Social Research in New York. Ethnically Jewish but secular in terms of belief, Jonas’ scholarly contributions focused primarily on developing a philosophically grounded ethic for the technological world of our generation and beyond. He also wrote on the significance of the Nazi Holocaust though he did not do much to relate these two areas of his concern. His best-known book, which is in effect a collection of essays written over a period of years beginning in 1959, remains The Imperative of Responsibility.

As I sat and listened to Jonas make the presentation in 1972, my horizons were expanded and my sense of what is required of me as part of contemporary humanity and the rest of creation was enhanced in a way that had never occurred before or since.

Early on in his speech, Jonas uttered a sentence that has become permanently implanted in my consciousness: "We are the first generation forced to ask the question whether there will be future generations."

Never had I been confronted in such a dramatic fashion about the condition of the creation in which I shared as a human person. Never had I understood the depth of responsibility that I and the people of my generation now shared for the survival of planet Earth and the life it sustains.

I came to realize that many of the issues with which I had already been engaged, such as racism, economic justice and human rights, while still critical in their own way, nonetheless relinquished their primacy in the face of the challenge of creational sustainability. Even if we might prove successful in addressing these particular issues, such success would prove ultimately meaningless if we failed to take the immense steps necessary to preserve the life-giving capacity of the air and the water that surround and sustain us. In short, we will all be dead.

Jonas' Los Angeles address basically became Chapter 1 in The Imperative of Responsibility. His argument begins with an analysis of the significant change in the nature of human action in the modern world.

Prior to the onset of modernity, human action was perceived as having a neutral relationship with the rest of creation. Humanity's actions in relation to nature were not deemed to be ethically significant. Ethics only came into play in the sphere of inter-human activities. In part, this was due to a mistaken belief that human actions involving the natural world had no negative impact on that world.

For Jonas, all traditional ethics were anthropocentrically grounded. They only affected people’s relationship with themselves and with other human persons. And even within the human sphere, ethics pertained largely to the immediate effects of particular human activity. Discussions about ethics were focused on the impact of the activity as it was taking place.

There was little or no consciousness of more remote effects of human conduct or of possible future consequences of present-day activity. If future results were raised, they were relegated to chance, fate or providence -- areas beyond human control and therefore beyond ethical discernment.

The operative maxims that guided and evaluated human behavior, such as "Love your neighbor as yourself," "Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you" or "Subordinate your individual good to the common good," all reflect a concern with the impact of an action in the process of its actual occurrence. It is those presently alive and in some relationship with the doer of a deed who must be considered from an ethical perspective.

In order to apply such a perspective, some knowledge was required. But it was not technical or scientific knowledge, according to Jonas, but rather the knowledge of a kind readily available to a human person, the type of knowledge described by Immanuel Kant. And even in more sophisticated ethical discussions, such as those found in the writings of Aristotle, there is no need to probe the "science of things" in the process of coming to ethical conclusions.

For Jonas, the extended implications of human action in a specific time constitute the most crucial dimension of the new ethical challenge. Ethics must become part of the fabric of the future as well as of the present. In the past, no one was responsible for the long-term consequences of a particular act. While the particular act might be well-intentioned, well-considered and well-performed from an ethical perspective in its time, down the road it may produce disastrous results.

This is especially the case with regard to acts that impact the world of nature. Hence, the need today for an ethic that breaks through the immediacy of human action and creates moral criteria for far-reaching consequences. It is a challenge that no previous generation had to confront to the same degree as those of us living today.

In responding to the new ethical challenge, Jonas describes key components of the transformation of human consciousness that needs to be realized in our day. The sphere of "neighbor ethics" still commands importance. But it must be incorporated into a wider ethical perspective that guides the cumulative effects of actions by the global community as a whole. These "cumulative effects" often take on a power unknown in the more proximate sphere of human activity and hence generate a level of human responsibility well beyond what previous generations were able to conceive.

The first of the new components of human responsibility for the present and the future is the recognition that humanity now has the capacity to alter nature itself. Nature is no longer seen as a static reality, but as something that can be changed.

Here, Jonas stands very close to another writer of the same era, Victor Ferkiss, who in his 1974 volume The Future of Technological Civilization put the contemporary challenge to humankind in these words: "Man has achieved virtually godlike powers over himself, his society, and his physical environment. As a result of his scientific and technological achievements, he has the power to alter or destroy both the human race and its physical habitat."

For Jonas and Ferkiss, as a result of the development of technology, human action has undergone a profound redefinition. The overall impact of many individual human acts in many different places on the biosphere has emerged as a prime ethical concern for which previous classical ethics provides little or no answer.

Jonas then goes on to detail some of the profoundly new aspects of moral responsibility today. The first is the "vulnerability of nature" in the face of human technological capacity.

The nature and extent of human action have changed. The human community through technology can now impact the entire biosphere. We have acquired new powers over the natural world that no previous generation could ever imagine.

As a result, the extent of our moral responsibility has grown exponentially. As scientific research began to reveal even in the '70s when Jonas issued this warning, human action has the ability to destroy the sustainability of the planet, a possibility that has been raised to a level of near probability over the decades since Jonas' address.

Secondly, contemporary ethics must begin to take the importance of knowledge far more seriously than in the past.

Jonas acknowledges that we face an unprecedented challenge in this regard. It will prove increasingly difficult to acquire and integrate the scope of the knowledge required for the exercise of moral responsibility in our time. It must include an element of prediction as to the ultimate impact of human action on a global scale, both now and in the far-off future, and the possible extinction of the human community. We have acquired an urgent need for a new conception of rights and duties for which there is little grounding in classical metaphysics.

Jonas confessed in his lecture that the view he was presenting still was rooted in an anthropologically centered perspective on creation. But he did go beyond this to some extent by at least raising the issue of whether it is legitimate to speak of "rights" in terms of the rest of creation.

He said in 1972 that it was important to begin asking whether ethics can remain anthropologically centered in an exclusive way or whether we must begin to reflect on moral obligation toward the entire biosphere. Has the entire biosphere now become a "human trust," not merely for our ulterior sake but for its own and in its own right?

Should this prove to be the case, though Jonas was not quite prepared in 1972 to commit to such an understanding, it would demand considerable rethinking of basic ethical principles. It would mean to seek not only the human good in our actions, but also the good of extrahuman reality. The so-called "ends of human action" would need to expand beyond the human sphere and embrace all of creation. No previous ethics, and certainly not the dominant, scientific view of nature, has adequately prepared us for such an expanded vision.

Rereading Jonas’ 1972 address reminds me again of why I was so captivated by its original presentation. Jonas saw far more clearly than most that humanity had moved into a profoundly new situation in terms of moral responsibility. Ethics today needs to take on a global, even a planetary, dimension. So the starting point for ethical reflection today is quite unlike what it was in the past.

Though Jonas remained uncertain as to how far our current starting point must move beyond the human to include all forms of creation, he at least opened the door for a deep-seated discussion in this regard. That discussion has now led to a widely accepted notion of an integrated web of creation, even though consensus has not been achieved as to whether such an affirmation of the web of creation entails the rejection of any notion of a pyramid in creation.

I, for one, would not totally dismantle the pyramid in the manner of some associated with groups such as the animal liberation movement, in part because the human part of creation carries a special moral responsibility for creational survival not shared by the rest of creation.

As I indicated previously, Jonas addressed the question of moral responsibility on a global scale as a secular Jew. He never really discussed the question whether the classical religious traditions were so mired in a non-global, non-futuristic framework that it rendered them useless in terms of creating a base for the new expansive understanding of moral responsibility. That was largely the contention of the late Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry, a pioneer in the religious community on the ecological challenge.

Jonas’ Jewishness came through primarily in his writings on the Holocaust, though he never really brought this analysis to bear on his perspective on moral responsibility in the new global and technological age. In my judgment, Jonas missed an important opportunity here, because the Holocaust raises some of the same issues regarding the scope of moral responsibility in our time in light of greatly enhanced technological power.

I also believe we must probe further whether the classical religious traditions can in fact still be mined as part of a constructive framework for contemporary moral responsibility.

Jonas set me on an entirely new path as an ethicist grappling with the meaning of moral responsibility. There is no possibility of moving backward on this path if creational survivability is to be assured. For that, I am forever grateful.

[Servite Fr. John T. Pawlikowski is professor of social ethics and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union.]

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