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Müller, Wolfgang Erich
Hans Jonas. Philosoph der Verantwortung.
Darmstadt: Primus 2008. 256 S. 8°. Geb. EUR 29,90. ISBN 978-3-89678-632-6.
Environment has become one of the most discussed topics of our times. While Hans Jonas was certainly not the first philosopher to seriously take up the issue of environment, his studies on the topic have to be seen as path-breaking. His ethics of responsibility, which seeks to develop general ethics from the way organisms relate to the world, is indeed to this day perhaps the most ambitious attempt to include the natural world into ethical deliberations. Thus, it comes with perfect timing that Wolfgang Erich Müller has written the best scholarly treatment of Hans Jonas so far published in any language. Most previous scholarly treatments of Jonas suffer from two rather simple problems: First, Jonas is often attested a prophetic or, in more modern terms, iconic status because of being a very early philosopher of environment indeed. Particularly German-language reception has often been very much in awe of Jonas’ doubtlessly great achievements. In addition, the fact that Jonas was a student of Heidegger who so obviously did not follow his master and often publicly discussed and condemned Heidegger’s problematic past, seemed to add a heightened sense of credibility. Second, most scholarly treatments of Jonas take his own statements about connections between the different issues he tackled at face value and simply assume that there is indeed a connection between Jonas’ Gnosis research and his later ethics of responsibility. These two tendencies often amount to a relatively uncritical and even normative treatment of Jonas’ work.
M., with the simple aim of giving an overview of Jonas’ entire body of work, does exactly the opposite; in fact, he starts from Jonas’ concept of God and questions every assumed or known link in Jonas’ work and constructs a philosopher’s path and work much more complex but also clearly more vulnerable than usually assumed. M.’s argument can be summed up as follows in his own words: »In der folgenden Darstellung erweist sich der Denkweg Jonas’ als eine Bemühung, den an der Gnosis exemplifizierten und in der Moderne wirksamen Nihilismus auf der Grundlage eines normativen Naturbegriffs zu überwinden. Der kosmogonische Gottesbegriff seines eigenen Mythos über die Relation von Gott und Mensch begründet eine ontologische Ethik, die das Gewolltsein des endlichen Geistes durch den unendlichen voraussetzt und das Sein als Wert, als gut an sich versteht, für das es Verantwortung zu übernehmen gilt.« (16) In other words, M. presents Jonas as a philosopher who is in the end fundamentally theologically driven. For M., Jonas’ philosophy of nature and ethics of responsibility are in a complex relationship with Jonas’ theological ideas. Indeed, it can be argued that the former are in fact unthinkable without Jonas’ highly specific idea of a God who, according to his argument, has released the world to human responsibility. M.’s discussion is lucid and convincing. All in all, this is an excellent introduction to Hans Jonas and also the best discussion of his work. However, while it exposes the theological background behind Jonas’ concepts of nature and ethics, M. fails to draw two obvious consequences resulting from it:
First, while the idea of a self-limiting God is theologically highly interesting and original, it also presents a very serious problem to Jonas’ ethics of responsibility: without this theological background, the entire elaborate edifice of environmental ethics becomes rather hollow, even if it remains rhetorically powerful. The latter is indeed laudable, but it is a poor guide for a philosophically solid argument. In addition, as Jonas himself admits, such a concept of God is, in his terminology, distinctly Gnostic. However, as Jonas himself discovered, his writings about Gnosticism reveal more about Heidegger and, arguably, modern nihilism than about Gnostic writings as such. What neither Jonas nor M. realize is that the idea of God retrieved from Jonas’ writings on Gnosticism reflects in the end the idea of God present in Heidegger’s existential analytics that Jonas used in his writings on Gnosis. Jonas simply puts Heidegger’s man as caretaker of the house of being into a different language but with the same purpose: nature needs us to take care of it.
This, however, leads to another issue. It is factually true that mankind has indeed become a master of nature. As Martin Wolf from Financial Times summarizes the by now well-known figures: »human beings now exploit 50 per cent of the terrestrial photosynthetic potential; they have put up a quarter of the carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere; they use 60 per cent of the accessible river run-off; they are responsible for 60 per cent of the earth’s nitrogen fixation; they are responsible for a fifth of all plant invasions; over the past two millennia they have made extinct a quarter of all bird species; and they have exploited or over-exploited more than half of the world’s fisheries.« We are almost solely responsible for what is going on in nature. However, this does not mean that our ethical response to this fact has to be, as Jonas but also pop-economists such as Jeffrey Sachs assume, that the only way to act in such a situation is to limit human activity and needs. (The most notable weapon in this self-limitation is seen, again by both Jonas and Sachs, in the population control in the poor regions of the world.)
This is a very simplified view, which is based on the assumption that the resources for development are, first, mainly natural and, second, also highly limited. For Jonas, both assumptions follow directly from his concept of nature. However, both assumptions are historically wrong. The main problem with these assumptions is that they completely fail to take into account the enormous role technology plays in human development. Indeed, economic development in the past as well as today is largely based on technological progress and more specifically on a very wide array of effects resulting from technology, commonly referred to as virtuous circles of growth, which have little to do with nature or natural resources. Simply put, technology makes development not a zero-sum game and, most importantly, largely a man-made affair; development is always a result of human activity through policy-making that creates specific incentives for specific technological and economic advances. Rather than concentrate on technology and policy-making, Jonas and the current environmental and developmental mainstream concentrate either on self-restraining ethics (Jonas) or on development aid pushing specific self-restraining policy agendas (Sachs et al.). We can also argue that both options pull away the development ladder from under the noses of poor countries saying that while the West got rich climbing the technology ladder without any self-restrains, today’s poor have to first self-restrain their wants and only then try to grow rich. Without Hans Jonas realizing it, his philosophy of nature, stripped of its theological background, ends up being a strong but nevertheless rhetorical argument that can be easily used for often misleading neo-liberal arguments about development. As mainstream development thinking about environmental and developmental problems lacks serious footing in thinking about institutional and technological change, it is perhaps similarly the key problem for Jonas’ ethics of responsibility. Its ultimate naïveté with respect to policy-making and development issues make Jonas’ ethics a noble dead-end with shining theological credentials. Indeed, as M. shows so convincingly but perhaps inadvertently, Jonas’ lasting impact may very well be in showing that the attempt at philosophical biology inevitably needs some sort of theological foundation. Once we lose this foundation, much of the building that it supported becomes undone. In the end, our developmental and environmental problems cannot be solved by ethically or theologically grounded self-restraint of our needs, as Jonas wants us to believe, this can only sound hollow and even cynical. Rather, we need to re-invent the institutional framework that governs growth and development in order to incorporate environmental concerns while allowing for technological progress and its gains to also be reaped by poor countries. In this, however, Hans Jonas is a poor if not misleading guide.