The "Imperative of Responsibility" According to Hans Jonas

by Yolanda ZIAKA
In his book "The Imperatie o! Responsibi"it#$" p%b"ishe& in '()($ the German
phi"osopher *ans +onas p"ea&s !or the e,treme emer-enc# to -ie o%rse"es an ethics !or
techno"o-ica" cii"i.ation base& on "the imperatie o! responsibi"it#." *is theor# starts !rom
the !in&in- that the promise o! mo&ern techno"o-# has t%rne& into a threat o! &isaster:
science con!ers to man preio%s"# %nkno/n !orces$ the econom# constant"# p%shes !or/ar&
in an %nbri&"e& imp%"se.
Economic achieements hae amp"i!ie& the mass pro&%ction o! possessions /hi"e
re&%cin- the 0%antit# o! h%man /ork re0%ire&$ "ea&in- to oercons%mption an& an
immense"# increase& metabo"ic interaction /ith the nat%ra" enironment.
At the so%rce o! the c%rrent threats is the o"& i&ea o! &ominatin- nat%re to improe
h%man !ate. *o/eer$ s%ccess in the s%bmission o! nat%re has achiee& e,cessie
proportions an& has sprea& to the er# nat%re o! man. Accor&in- to +onas$ po/er has
become its o/n master$ /hereas its promise has t%rne& into threat an& its perspectie o!
sa"ation into apoca"#pse. A sin-"e !orm o! "i!e$ man$ is no/ in a position to en&an-er a""
!orms o! "i!e 1his o/n inc"%&e&2. A&&e& to the scope o! the "on-3term e!!ects o! h%man
action$ is their irreersibi"it#. 4hat man can &o to&a# has no e0%ia"ent in past e,perience.
4e nee& an ethics o! the state o! crisis$ an ethics o! responsibi"it#$ o! conseration$ o!
preseration. Tra&itiona" ethics$ /hich -oern re"ationships amon- h%man bein-s$ can no
"on-er in!orm %s on the norms o! "-oo&" an& "ei"" to /hich /e m%st s%bmit. In this ethics$
nat%re &oes not constit%te an ob5ect o! h%man responsibi"it#. It takes care o! itse"! as /e"" as
o! man. No/ that o%r po/er is %n&erminin- the nat%ra" ba"ances$ o%r responsibi"it# sprea&s
be#on& interh%man re"ations to the biosphere an& sho%"& incorporate "on-3term e!!ects in
an# !orecast.
+%st as h%mankin&6s er# !%t%re is threatene&$ the ethics o! responsibi"it# res%"ts in an
imperatie to h%man e,istence: man imperatie is to be$ an& to "ea& a "i!e /orth# o! bein-
ca""e& h%man. The !%t%re o! nat%re is %n&erstoo& as an essentia" con&ition !or this
ob"i-ation: man6s interest coinci&es /ith that o! the rest o! "i!e$ /hich is his Earth home in
the most s%b"ime sense o! the /or&. The preseration o! nat%re is the con&ition o! o%r o/n
s%ria". Th%s$ /e can speak o! "man6s imperatie" in re!erence to t/o imperaties 3 to man
an& to nat%re 3 that are intrinsica""# "inke&. 7%rther #et$ the so"i&arit# o! man6s an& nat%re6s
&estinies 1o! /hich /e hae become a/are thro%-h &an-er2 a"so makes %s re&iscoer the
a%tonom# o! the &i-nit# o! nat%re an& comman&s %s to respect its inte-rit# be#on& its
%ti"itarian &imension.
+onas metic%"o%s"# &emonstrates the interna" contra&ictions an& the "imits o! the
8topian &ream o! man6s emancipation !rom the serit%&e o! nee&s$ p%rs%e& /ith the same
&e&ication as m%ch b# the proponents o! the s%premac# o! economic$ techno"o-ica"$ an&
scienti!ic "pro-ress$" as b# the 9ar,ist c%rrent. Th%s$ a -oo& part o! this book is &eote& to
a criti0%e o! 8topias. As hi-h"i-hte& b# the a%thor$ this criti0%e is not so m%ch meant to
re!%te an error in thinkin- as to b%i"& a !o%n&ation !or its a"ternatie$ /hich is nothin- e"se
than an ethics o! responsibi"it#.
+onas reie/s man6s c%rrent attacks on nat%re 1s%ch as -enetic manip%"ation2 as /e""
as the eco"o-ica" cha""en-es o! o%r times that are the !r%its o! o%r techno"o-ica" choices: the
0%estion o! !oo& !or a /or"& pop%"ation increasin- e,ponentia""#$ the p"%n&erin- o! non3
rene/ab"e nat%ra" reseres$ the chemica" contamination /ater$ the sa"ini.ation o! soi"s$
erosion$ c"imate chan-e. *is ana"#sis "ea&s to the 0%estion o! ener-#$ the basis o! a"" h%man
actiities$ an& arries at the 0%estion o! the &an-er represente& b# -"oba" /armin-. +onas
th%s e,p"ains that 8topia comes %p a-ainst ph#sics: the 0%estion is there!ore not to kno/
ho/ m%ch man /i"" sti"" be ab"e to &o$ b%t to kno/ /hat nat%re can s%pport. No one &o%bts
to&a# that there are "imits to to"erance... T/ent#3!ie #ears a!ter this !in&in-$ /e see that the
0%estions raise& b# +onas are sti"" c%rrent.
As ear"# as the '():s$ +onas /as a"rea&# the prec%rsor o! the "princip"e o! preca%tion$"
/hich has "ate"# been appearin- in s%pranationa" "e-is"ation 1reso"%tions an& other
E%ropean 8nion &oc%ments2$ as /e"" as in a ariet# o! te,ts 1the Charter o! *%man
Responsibi"ities$ the Earth Charter2. +onas notices that$ as !ar as the re"ationship bet/een
h%mankin& an& nat%re is concerne&$ the enormo%s comp"e,it# o! inter&epen&ences makes
%ncertaint# become o%r permanent &estin#. Science cannot o!!er an# !irm res%"ts. 7acin-
this %ncertaint# an& consi&erin- the irreersibi"it# o! some o! the processes tri--ere& b#
techno"o-ica" choices$ the oice o! "on-3term pr%&ence is the primar# imperatie o!
responsibi"it#. +onas th%s ar-%es s%bstantia""# !or the a&option o! a "princip"e o!
+onas ea"%ates the chances o! contro""in- techno"o-ica" &an-ers an& the aptit%&e o!
the po"itica" s#stems o! his time to preent a &isaster !or h%mankin& ca%se& b# the
&omination o! the techno"o-ica" thr%st. The 0%estion is to kno/ ho/ h%mankin& can be
presere& in an era o! imminent crisis. *o/ can materia" /e""3bein- be sere& /hi"e sain-
the nat%ra" reseres more an& aoi&in- enironmenta" &eterioration 1or een &isaster2; The
i&ea /o%"& be to re&%ce the stan&ar& o! "iin- in the most economica""# &ee"ope& societies$
so as to restore the internationa" ba"ance o! &istrib%tion o! reso%rces. This is necessar#$
consi&erin- the -"oba" &imension o! the prob"ems an& the territoria" ine0%a"it# o! nat%ra"
/ea"th. The i&ea is to break a/a# !rom "i!e in ab%n&ance 1base& on &emente& /aste2$ on
/hich in&%stria"i.e& societies /ere b%i"t an& /hich is c%rrent"# the ob5ectie o! emer-in-
societies s%ch as China6s.
4e co%"& ima-ine that a ne/ mass re"i-io%s moement mi-ht perhaps brin- abo%t this
chan-e in menta"ities. *o/eer$ een in the absence o! a re"i-ion to e,ercise an in!"%ence on
societ#$ there sho%"& be an ethics. Or /e co%"& a"so ima-ine$ i! the point is to aoi& &isaster$
that a tota"itarian -oernment mi-ht hae some a&anta-es$ -ien that the meas%res
re0%ire& !or the common -oo& re0%ire &epriations an& sacri!ices that in&ii&%a"s /o%"&
neer impose on themse"es spontaneo%s"#. O! co%rse$ an# po"itica" action pro5ect in this
sense &epen&s on that /hich has the a"%e o! nee&: is it p%b"ic e&%cation$ the restoration o!
&e-ra&e& sites$ armament; +onas e,presses &o%bt as to the capacit# o! a representatie
-oernment to !ace these cha""en-es b# app"#in- its %s%a" princip"es an& proce&%res. These
princip"es an& proce&%res on"# take c%rrent interests into acco%nt. It is to these interests
that p%b"ic a%thorities acco%nt to: that /hich &oes not e,ist has no "obb# an& those /ho are
not #et born hae no po/er. +onas &oes not proi&e an ans/er to the 0%estion o! kno/in-
ho/ /e co%"& s%ccee& in !acin- these serio%s prob"ems thro%-h a &emocratic pro5ect. *e
concentrates on e,p"ainin- /h# 9ar,ist tho%-ht 1as /e"" as the Comm%nist states o! the
time2 cannot o!!er a so"%tion.
The 0%estion !or %s is to kno/ ho/ /e co%"& brin- abo%t the emer-ence o! this ne/
ethics o! responsibi"it#$ an ethics o! pr%&ence$ reno%ncement$ an& so"i&arit#. *ans +onas$
a"tho%-h in&icatin- the on"# possib"e /a# to so"in- the -"oba" cha""en-es$ ethics$ &oes not
te"" %s ho/ to -et there. 4e /o%"& sa# that a/areness raisin- an& becomin- a/are$
there!ore an e&%cationa" e!!ort$ co%"& proi&e the !o%n&ations !or the in&ispensab"e chan-e
in attit%&es an& behaior. *o/eer$ the emer-enc# o! the cha""en-es /e are !acin- to&a#
re0%ires settin- %p a &emocratic po"itica" pro5ect$ #et to be inente&.
4ritten in the '():s$ *ans +onas6s theor# on the nee& o! an ethics base& on the
princip"e o! responsibi"it# is more than eer c%rrent. The threats /ei-hin- %pon h%mankin&
3 in partic%"ar as !ar as the re"ationship bet/een h%mankin& an& nat%re is concerne& 3 hae
-otten /orse. <ecomin- a/are o! these threats an& the irreersib"e character o! the
imp"ications o! certain techno"o-ica" choices can on"# -ie birth to !ear. <%t$ as hi-h"i-hte&
b# +onas$ !ear itse"! is the pre"iminar# "imperatie" o! an ethics o! responsibi"it#. It is !ear
that %n&er"ies the 0%estion /ith /hich takin- responsibi"it# starts: 4hat it /i"" happen to
him i! I &on6t take care o! him; It is a !ear that inites to act an& comes /ith hope: I am
prepare& to &o /hateer necessar# to aoi& the /orst. It is abo%t the co%ra-e to ass%me
responsibi"it# b# trans!ormin- #o%r o/n !ear into a &%t# to act.
Re!erence: +onas$ *ans 1'()(2$ The Imperatie o! Responsibi"it#: In Search o! Ethics
!or the Techno"o-ica" A-e$ 8niersit# o! Chica-o Press$ Chica-o.

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