Jonas opens the paper with a citation from Sophocles’s Antigone. The chorus sings an ‘awestruck homage’ to humanachievements and dominance. The man is able to control reckless wild animals, to take his own fate in his hands except for his own mortality. He has built cities in which he sets up his own rules to obey. Man is definitely superior to all other species on earth, though the chorus outlines the foremost notion that bases man’s boundaries – He is not capable of subjugating the elements of nature, though he is capable of wearing away earth with his plow, man, as Homo Faber, is always bounded by the immutable cyclicality of nature. His tools are guiding his way to build his own urban empire, but his empire could be suddenly doomed and vanish away just as it has suddenly erupted.
Jonas argues with a high extent of justice that this citation presents the equilibrium of powers that has been acknowledged as a divine truth during history between man and nature. The tacit premise of unbeatable nature of nature has played the role of determining the definite framework of ethics. But recently fractures in this image have begun to occur at an increasing frequency.
The recent emergence of vast environmental crisis, the new technological capabilities of connecting mass of people all over the planet to countless discussions at any rate of scale, these and more have all put in question the core basis of the current ethic’s tacit premises. Ethics which was always bounded to the domain of the instantaneous and close events carried by its agents and conceived nature as immune. The author argues that once taking into account these contemporary circumstances – the underlying presumptions of ethics should be enhanced, a move which clearly causes a collapse of the current ethical construction for the good of one.
Jonas looks for an ethical framework that is grounded on reason rather than religion and chooses to propose an enhanced formula for Kant’s famous categorical imperative that states
“In your present choices include the future wholeness of Man among the objects of your will”.1
A notion that rather of being based on a hypothetical experiment of universalization of one’s action is based on an “objective responsibility” for man’s consistency on earth. A simple implication of this imperative could be taking into account environmental considerations for one’s present action. Although the author states that this enhancement imperative is derived from a non-ethnocentric ethical perspective, still this imperative fails to implement a holistic point of view in which man is not wreath of creation. Does the responsibility that the author proposes necessarily applies to animal’s preservation as well as subjects rather than man’s objects? Does the notion of man’s continuation is essential at all if eventually although its noble ethics man fails to maintain his own continuation? Why could not we simply assert that if ever a massive human extinction will take place it only can imply to man’s clear inferiority compared to evolution’s natural selection?
Jonas does not stop there but aims forward with additional three plausible scenarios in order to explicate his final insight. The first one concerns the plausible scientific achievement of the elimination of mortality, the second derives from contemporary experiments that succeed to achieve partial behavioral control in the biochemical field, and the third concerns a self genetic modification of human to a greater form of itself (he does not explicate this implication in details so I may only guess he regards any plausible enhancement of man’s capacities, e.g superior artificial intelligence or ability to self-engineer one’s genome to be immune and have enhanced senses). Finally Jonas introduces his insight, Just as much as ‘Thou shalt not kill’ could be phrased on the background of its common occurrence and concrete capacity – so does a new ethics should be written now, as we reach a point in which it is either that these technological achievements will be restricted by the new ethics or an irreversible shift will take place and the ethics will lag behind and will eventually be shaped by these achievements.
Within the boundaries of our limited scope, I can only point out here a single argument that Jonas raises that is far from taken for granted:
“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 and advanced a further step on the road from responsible subjects to programmed behavior systems.”2
Though it may be a thorough controversy where exactly this technological revolution is heading, I propose to object this monotonous argument, It is not that a linear line could be drawn between a human problem, through an impersonal mechanism solution, to an end that necessarily is a programmed behavior system. Many technological contemporary solutions that we already use on a daily basis may possibly cause a permanent replacement of the previous tools (e.g. using Waze as a navigation tool, using Google as a resource addressing tool and more), but not necessarily lead to an elimination of our selfhood. In fact, these tools could be used the other way around as well.
It is clear to see that as long as I choose my own goal, and uses these tools merely to achieve what I wish for, it will help me out to get to my desired goal more quickly and efficiently than ever before.
Plato for instance, if wishes by theory to address the full context of a specific quote of Heraclitus, had to spend hours over hours on searching over a large range of books, not even mentioning the very plausible option that the desired book may not be found. On the other hand, we today may address the same piece within minutes just by typing few words on the keyboard. If only few years ago we could easily spend too much time during a ride while attempting to get from point A to B because of taking the wrong way, we might be doing so today during the minimal time it could take thanks to smart navigation applications. Hence as long as the principle of a free will is kept while avoiding any external attempt to circumvent the individual along the way, these tools could be highly effective for one selfhood’s development.
1 Technology and Responsibility, Reflections on the new tasks of ethics, Hans Jonas, 44.
2 Ibid, 49.