Hans Jonas and the Ethics of Responsibility – SWR2

As early as 1979, a book was published that anticipated the goals of the Fridays for Future movement and is still very relevant today: The Principle of Responsibility by the philosopher Hans Jonas. It was a bestseller in German-speaking countries in the early 1980s and then a worldwide success.

The author gets on the nerve of time. Millions of people are concerned about unconditional advanced technology, nuclear threats, acid rain, dying forests and environmental pollution.



The depressing images show the coal fog over the Ruhr in the summer of 1973


IMAGO



images imago / Klaus Rose


Criticism of technology and economy: resource exploitation

Hans Jonas criticizes science, technology and industry destroying the biosphere for alleged progress. And it attacks an economy that awakens consumers’ dreams and makes them come true. If the earth’s resources were so ruthlessly exploited and nature was destroyed, the future of all mankind would be at stake. Therefore, one must take responsibility not only for the here and now, but also for the future.



Dead forests were a problem both in the 1980s and today (photo: IMAGO, imago stock & people)

Dead forests were a problem both in the 1980s and today


IMAGO



imago stocks and people


Hans Jonas became a Zionist as a young man and emigrated in 1933.

Hans Jonas was born in Mönchengladbach in 1903 and grew up in a Jewish industrial family. As a young man, he criticized their assimilation. In view of the increasing German anti-Semitism around 1920, it is necessary to experience one’s Judaism in public. At the age of 18, he became a Zionist and campaigned for the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian territory.

Jonas studies philosophy in Freiburg and Marburg, among others. After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, he emigrated to London, and two years later he moved to Palestine. Quite unusual for a philosopher, from 1940 he volunteered as a soldier in the British Army. After World War II, Jonas teaches philosophy in Canada and becomes a professor in New York in 1955.

The “principle of responsibility” revolutionizes philosophical ethics

With his book The Principle of Responsibility, Jonas revolutionizes philosophical ethics in many ways. For centuries, scientific knowledge did not matter much – to Jonas, otherwise you cannot understand the modern world. It tracks scientific research into different types of environmental destruction and recognizes that individual discoveries are interrelated – as a result of which the global ecosystem is changing dramatically.



Jonas asks if we don't have to deviate from the ideal of permanent growth and become more humble - the issue is also being discussed again in current movements such as Fridays for Future (photo: IMAGO, imago images / ZUMA Press)

Jonas asks if we don’t have to deviate from the ideal of sustainable growth and become more humble – the issue is also being discussed again in current movements like Fridays for Future


IMAGO



images imago / ZUMA Press


Hans Jonas thinks far in time and space

Previously, ethics focused on activities between individuals, the consequences of which would be visible immediately or in the near future. For Jonas, ethics must now also take into account collective action, the consequences of which may not be noticeable until the distant future. He thinks not only in years or decades, but in much longer periods of time. What you are doing today may not have repercussions until a hundred years or more. He also thinks spatially beyond the existing ethics. For example, too high CO2 emissions from rich western countries will also affect people in the so-called “Third World”.



An example of collective action is CO2 emissions, which contribute to environmental pollution from industrial plants, transport and household appliances.  (Photo: IMAGO, imago / Seeliger)

CO2 emissions, which contribute to environmental pollution from industrial plants, transport and household appliances, are an example of collective action


IMAGO



imago / Seeliger


According to Jonah, fear can initiate knowledge and action

As a philosopher, Jonas naturally appeals to people’s reason, but surprisingly, also to their fear. If there were good and bad predictions for mankind, he would always choose the bad predictions because fear can initiate knowledge and action. He formulates a general slogan referring to the famous “categorical imperative” of the philosopher Immanuel Kant:

“Act in such a way that the results of your actions are consistent with the sustainability of real human life on earth. Or to say negatively: act in such a way that the effects of your actions are not destructive to the future possibility of such a life. “

Honor and the work of Hans Jonas

At 84, Hans Jonas received the Peace Prize of the German Bookstore. In an interview, he emphasizes that the problems he shows in the book are far from being solved. He presented them theoretically, but now it is a question of solving them practically.

Hans Jonas died in New York on February 5, 1993. Today, his thoughts in The Principles of Responsibility deal primarily with climate ethics.

SWR 2020



On his 100th birthday in 2003, Hans Jonas was honored with a special Deutsche Post stamp.  (Photo: IMAGO, imago / Schöning)

On his 100th birthday in 2003, Hans Jonas was honored with a special Deutsche Post stamp.


IMAGO



imago / Schöning


the manuscript for the broadcast

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