Team:KU Leuven/Human Practices/HansJonas


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Hans Jonas

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Normative evaluation

Ethics from a general point of view.

The critical reading of Hans Jonas is part of the traditional approach, which is top-down structured.
The aim of this contribution is to explore the ideas of philosopher Hans Jonas to investigate the responsibilities of scientists, and more specific, synthetic biologists.

We developed a new additional approach, which is bottom-up structured. However, the traditional approach is still relevant and important nowadays, for example in politics. By using the work of this well-known philosopher, the traditional approach gets a strong foundation.

In 2008, Boldt and Müller published a commentary in the journal Nature Biotechnology in which they argued that synthetic biology poses several new ethical issues (Boldt & Muller, 2008). These new ethical issues would constitute a fundamental turning-point in the progress of science. Up till now, it has been possible to manipulate genomes (genetic engineering), but nowadays scientist are even able to design a genome. Seen from the perspective of the scientist it was merely the next step in terms of the usage of genomes. Boldt and Müller argue that moving beyond manipulating constitutes wholly new ethical issues. When it comes to the field of synthetic biology, the shift from manipulatio to creatio is one, they argue, “with considerable ethical significance”. The creation of new life forms does not only add value to an existing organism, but the whole existence of the organism is created from what the scientist considers to be valuable. On the other hand, they admit that the creation of a new organism is not by definition worse than changing an existing organism.
Without going into detail whether new ethics are needed or desirable or whether we are only facing some new ethical issues we can agree that with this new evolution in science, the ability to change the world increases with enormous speed and will increase even further. In the book ´Das Prinzip Verantwortung. Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation’ (PV)(Jonas, 1984), the philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-1993) argues that the modern technology requires a new, additional ethical perspective. Jonas’ book, published in 1979 in German, was written before the upcoming of synthetic biology, this is the reason why he didn’t discuss the topic in his writing (although he wrote a section on genetic manipulation (PV, pp. 52-53)). However, we think Jonas’ central thesis is still relevant nowadays. In our contribution we will explore his train of thought. In the first part we will explain his demand for a new ethics adjusted to modern technology. In the second part, we will compare Jonas’ ideas with synthetic biology. We will first examine to what extend Jonas’ thinking can be applied in the daily life of the scientist and how Jonas defines technology. Next, we will try to extend the thinking of Jonas to synthetic biology, based on the section in which Jonas speaks about genetic engineering.

The basic assumption is that modern technology unavoidably influences our whole life sphere. If we do not succeed in controlling this process, it could pose a grave threat. This controlling process does not only require technological skills, but also an ethics adjusted to this wholly new situation. Jonas distinguishes modern technology from pre-modern technology. The latter is characterized by the invariability of the human condition. The range of human acts is well determined, and human flourishing was well defined. Jonas gives the example of the Greek polis in classical antiquity. The polis has a balance parallel to and in the broader perspective of a balanced cosmos. All human acts that influence nature took place within the polis. The essence of things was not changed. Nature was not opposite to ethics, but intellect and inventiveness were (Jonas, p.21) ( “(…) nicht Ethik, sondern Klugheit und Erfindungsgabe war ihr gegenüber angebracht.“ (PV, p.21) ). All ethics found their basis and stability in the life within the polis, according to Jonas. Ethics in this era of pre-modern technology are characterized by its anthropocentrism and by the fact that the essence of being human was well defined. It is as if human beings act in a world that remains unchanged by their behavior so that ethics can be limited to human affairs only. When it comes to matter and other non-human objects, no ethics concerning right or wrong conduct existed. In addition, the restricted range in space and time is important. In the era of modern technology, next to the range of the pre-modern technology, a new range with expansion is added. The long-term consequences of human conduct are potentially irreversible. The causal chain of human behavior is enormously extended as far as the eye can reach, and even beyond. When it comes to these consequences, naive optimism is not enough. Therefore, Jonas investigates the possibility of adding extra deontological ethics (figure 1) which cover the “ethical vacuum” caused by modern technology.

Before Jonas develops his categorical imperative and his analysis of responsibility, he introduces the term ‘The Heuristics of Fear’. In this experience-based approach of problem solving, Jonas tries to explain how we can identify what our highest priorities are. For example, the work in the laboratory to create a new E.coli bacterium is of great importance for the iGEM competition. However, when the safety of one’s fellow students is at stake, one will give priority to their safety, even when participation in the iGEM competition is hampered. At such moments, you will recognize the most fundamental value(s). Furthermore, Jonas argues that due to the enormous complexity of interdependences in the modern technology, uncertainty becomes a factor we always have to bear in mind. Because of these two factors, the irreversibility effects of conduct and the uncertainty due to the complexity of modern technology, we need to be prudent on the long-term. Both the actual complexity and the effects in the long run, are new features that did not exist in the Greek polis. The principle of precaution implies that not every risk is acceptable (e.g. an nuclear disaster), even if it is very unlikely to happen. Some risks are too hazardous to incorporate in a benefit-risk model, but this principle needs to be adopted into the considerations and decisions. One may think of long term effects of nuclear material, that introduces a time span that has never been envisaged before in the history of mankind. Between the lines, one can read Jonas’ implicit conviction that modern technology does not respect with the principle of precaution, because it still sticks to pre-modern concepts of responsibility.


Jonas proposes that a radical new concept of responsibility should be the answer to the problems raised by the modern technology. This responsibility is closely connected with the increase of power of modern technology to manipulate reality (Achterhuis, 1992). Jonas holds that due to this increase of power, a merely anthropocentric approach for judging technological developments cannot suffice. Because the impact of our conduct has influenced much more people over a far longer period of time, the responsibility has increased immensely. This new responsibility is not a response vis-à-vis my conscience, God or my parents, but arises from an appeal by the living nature in its vulnerability.
Jonas gives the example of a baby who is totally dependent on the care of his parents. This example illustrates the vulnerability and that the existence of the baby itself is valuable. The instinct of the parents causes them care for their baby, but Jonas would not agree with only this explanation (Van der Valk, 2009). It is not about the instinctive approach of care, because that would give the impression that Jonas reduces the responsibility of the parents to biological necessity. It is about his ontological status, which in itself is valuable. The parents are subject of responsibility, because the baby is object of responsibility. Another example of responsibility is a politician. Politicians choose to be responsible for the wellbeing of the community. They are responsible for the continuity and the identity of the state, during their nomination, but also after that. The primary responsibility of people concerns other people. The overlapping features of these two examples are the emotional identification with the object of responsibility on the one hand, and the incorporation of the whole being of the object.

In the interviews held with our iGEM team members, we tried to explore how student-scientist think about this concept. We asked them whether they feel responsible for their contribution to a biobrick, which is of great importance for their own bacterium, but which can be abused by others, e.g. by placing this biobrick in another bacterium. In a phenomenological analysis of the concept of responsibility, Jonas emphasizes the eternal aspect of responsibility. According to Jonas, it is not ethically possible to say for example: the iGEM competition is over, so is my responsibility for the work I have done. Another aspect of responsibility is its non-reciprocal character. It is not correct to say: I only feel responsible if the other person feels responsible for me. This turns ethics into self-interest. Which although it will not be lacking as driving force of our behavior, should not be regarded as the sole incentive for ethics. Other aspects of responsibility are that it is juridical nor contractual. The appeal to responsibility comes from nature itself, so the responsibility is established horizontally, not vertically. It is nature in its temporality and frailty. In the next section, we will see how this new concept of responsibility is difficult to apply in a practical setting.


In the footsteps of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Jonas formulates a new categorical imperative. Categorical means that it applies to all humans, regardless of their desires and interests. One can distinguish categorical from hypothetical. Hypothetical means that the imperative is binding under certain circumstances only. Hypothetical imperatives are therefore not universal. Jonas is looking for a compelling imperative for all humans, that is both categorical, and non-anthropocentric, i.e. its ethical concern is far wider than only one’s fellow human being. Jonas formulates it this way: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life”; or expressed negatively “Act so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of such life.” (PV p.36).1 When we compare this new categorical imperative with the categorical imperative of Kant (Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction), we may notice several differences. Firstly, the imperative of Jonas contains an explicit reference to time. In this re-formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, we do find a reference to time, more precisely, a reference to a time span far beyond one’s own lifespan. We have seen that Jonas emphasized explicitly this aspect. However, although Kant’s imperative does not contain an explicit reference to time, his imperative does not exclude a relation to temporality. Jonas is more explicit on this aspect. Secondly, one can get the impression that the new categorical imperative is no less anthropological than the classical one. Still, in the philosophy of Jonas, the human plays a key role, but he is not placed above or against nature. Neither has the human part of the nature an intrinsic value as a whole. Jonas emphasizes that nature has its own value and teleology which should be distinguished from the value of human beings. This position may be called hybrid, for he both emphasizes the value of human beings and shifts away from it. This hybrid position of Jonas is a difficult one, and perhaps incompatible. Thirdly, the addressee is different. The Kantian categorical imperative is directed to the individual and his conduct, whereas Jonas’ categorical imperative is directed to the collective conduct (Melle, 1999). In the first instance, the new ethical perspective is political.

Jonas thinks he can overcome the ‘Sein-Sollen-dichotomie’ or, in English, the is-ought problem (figure 2). The first step in his reasoning is that the whole nature is teleological, it is purposeful. Setting a purpose is assigning it as valuable. The second step contains a incorporation of axiology in ontology. In other words, Jonas wants to demonstrate that purposeful is better than purposeless. The proof of this argument lies in its intuitive character. This reasoning is very problematic: Not his teleological attitude towards nature, but the naïve epistemology of Jonas’ metaphysics is very problematic. The compelling force, in terms of universal application, of this ethical frameworks, which Jonas promises us to develop, is lacking.

In the second chapter of Das Prinzip Verantwortung, Jonas tries to answer two questions. The first question asks about the foundations of ethics in the era of modern technology. The second questions its practical application, in which Jonas chiefly emphasizes the role of politics. (PV p.61). In the fifth chapter, Jonas goes into more detail when he deals with the question whether capitalism or Marxism is more capable of implementing the responsibility for future generations. Jonas points to a considerable disadvantage of capitalism when he tackles this question. The artificial maintenance of markets of goods, people could not even imagine, has the tendency of wastage. Jonas doesn’t have confidence in the incorporation of ecological views and responsibility by companies. He is remarkably pessimistic about the capability of democratic states to deal with the adverse effects of modern technology.

The practical application of the work of Jonas for the scientist is a delicate question (Achterhuis, 1992). How to incorporate his concept of responsibility, which reaches so far that it is impossible to implement this in the practical setting of science. Only outright prohibitions can be derived from this approach, but these are issues at the end of the spectrum, not questions that common scientists need to deal with.
This dilemma is partly due to Jonas’ attitude towards technology. We have to keep in mind that this book was published in 1979. Technology for Jonas is something outside the human and which threatens the human, although technology and ethics are intertwined. Men and the community are not prepared for this modern technology. Nowadays, we can view technology in a less antagonistic way and rather consider it part of human life. Hence the encounter between the human and technology can be seen from a different and less dualistic perspective. Technology is not only external, but is also a part of our life on which we rely and which creates new values. For Jonas technology intrinsically means alienation.
This aspect of alienation is characteristic for philosophers who were confronted with enormous impact of technology during the last century. The evolution of technology during that time was fast, and consequently it became a part of the human life, but it was not fully integrated. The development of technology was considered somehow external. The attitude of philosophers in that period of time was one of being critical (e.g. Heidegger, Ellul) and even inimical to technology. In addition, the development of technology deemed insurmountable. For example, Ellul emphasizes the autonomous power of technology. Philosophers in this period of time thought that technology would influence labor relations and social structure, but also human life on a more fundamental level (van den Berg & Keymolen, 2013). Nowadays, technology is not external to us, but interwoven with our life.


Back to synthetic biology. If we would try to extend the thinking of Jonas to synthetic biology, one would not be surprised that Jonas would be very careful. In his section on genetic engineering, in which he speaks about genetic engineering of human beings, he warns us, human beings, not to be reckless in trying to rule the evolution. Humans should maintain evolution, but should not try to change and improve it, according to one’s own judgment. In synthetic biology, science brings a bacterium (at this moment) into existence that, because of its being alive, counts as valuable from the point of view of human beings. For Jonas, it is clear that we first have to think of ethics which are adjusted to the current situation of science.

To what extent Jonas has succeeded in providing an answer to this call for a new ethical framework is still a question for debate. The foundation of his ethics seems sometimes problematic, because he tries to ground his ethics on ontology. We have seen the problems that arose with this position. Concluding, we can say that aspects of Jonas work are still relevant nowadays, e.g. responsibility in science and the concept of precaution. His attempt to raise ethics above a merely anthropocentric and here-and-now level can be important for the future of our planet. However, Jonas promised us a compelling ethical framework, in terms of a categorical imperative, which he intended to be universal. In my view we have to satisfy ourselves with an ethical framework which can be applied by well willing people, but lacks the universal compelling force.

Achterhuis H. (1992) ‘Ethiek en techniek’ in: Hans Achterhuis (red.). De maat van de techniek. Baarn: Ambo.
Boldt J, Muller O. (2008) Newtons of the leaves of grass. Nat Biotechnol; 26(4):387-389.
Jonas, Hans. Das Prinzip Verantwortung. Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984. (original edition 1979)
Melle U. (1999) ‘Van de utopische hoop naar een ethiek van de zelfbeperking’ in: K. Boey e.a. (red). Ex Libris van de filosofie in de 20ste eeuw. Deel 2: Van 1950 tot 1998. Leuven/Amersfoort: Acco.
Van den Berg B. & Keymolen E. (2013) ´Techniekfilosofie: het medium is de maat.’ In: Wijsgerig perspectief. 53 (1): 10.
Van der Valk, A. (2009) De negatieve teleologie van Hans Jonas. Proefschrift.