A couple of months ago I was reading a book called ‘Hans Jonas’ Ethic of Responsibility’ by Theresa Morris. I was not initially familiar with the work of Jonas but I came to find that Jonas was a highly influential figure in Germany and had the unique distinction of being an intellectual who had public significance.
When I was reading through the work I was thinking of objections and issues with Jonas’ overall thesis; Morris wrote the book in a very neat way that anticipated a lot of criticisms, such as the is-ought distinction (I was not convinced of the response but that’s another issue), and the fact that Jonas builds on previous philosophies such as Kant and Spinoza as well as the problems that they had.
When I think about Jonas’s overall thesis I find it forgettable. There’s a sense in which it is basically a hodgepodge of Kant and Phenomenology; Spinozist monism and moral responsibility. I understand the project that there is a need for a convincing set of ideas to frame our sense of responsibility towards the fact that consumption of various products given the developed world’s standard of living cannot be sustained for the current population if it were rolled out for everyone, or our infrastructures from using the internet to having a power grid releases a byproduct that does have an harmful impact on the planet.
I felt that the book hardly gave what we call in ethics a motivational reason. I think also that it may not be within our internal motivational set to be convinced of the ethics of say, using a car or eating meat. I wonder if these factors are motivationally external, that being, non-internal to our motivational set.
I also wonder on another front, when reading the book and reflecting on it, whether it is the assumptions that we make as everyday moral agents that perpetuate an attitude that maintains the ecological status quo. For example, if it is our sense of looking at the individual as our moral agency, instead of say, groups of people, humanity-at-large, or our governments. One discussion that was quite poignant was who counts as responsible in this ecological issue. Jonas seemed to be at the view that it was solely humanity. While I am inclined to agree, I may temper the warning that denying the agency or ethical commitment to non-persons is part of the problem that creates the status quo. We eat animals that we do not consider as people, we disregard our similarities of say, producing offspring or mating because they do not have communicable speech or technology.
There was an extent to which Jonas’s philosophy didn’t seem relevant when the starting point was in the western philosophical tradition. Even as someone whose starting point is the western philosophical tradition, I cannot find it easy to be convinced why say, plane travel is immoral, if we start off from moralistic or metaphysical first principles. It’s just not convincing, even if the ‘arguments’ are sound. In a sense I give a concession to the rhetorical politician who often argues from motivating reasons and the kneejerk reactions of our gut feeling as a basis for moral decision making.
I thought about this book as a parallel with various conversations I’ve had with recent friend, Dave Darby, who poised the question to me of how people are not shocked that they are eating and consuming their way into oblivion and are doing nothing about it. My answer to that was: they aren’t convinced by your narrative and until they are they won’t act. In that sense, the problem with Jonas’s environmental philosophy is not particularly a unique one