Technology Responsibility: Reflections on the New Task of Ethics
Ethics have been a science, understood and studied, for thousands of years, but as times change so do aspects of this important part of who people are. In the twentieth century it many changes occurred. Women received the right to vote, world wars crossed the globe, and technological advances spurred a golden age in human development. The changes to the technology people use have had positive consequences in that they have made living easier and better in many ways. However, an argument exists that ethics was also changed by the advent of this great technological change. Hans Jonas, the modern father of Gnosticism (Schonborn, 2007), wrote a well regarded essay that discussed the contribution technological advances have made to ethics (Jonas, 1974). His nine points of argument have become the philosophy which many live by. This essay will summarize the nine points which Jonas made.
Jonas begins by quoting a piece by Sophocles which celebrates humans as the conquerors of nature and the kings and queens of their domain (Jonas, 1974). This quote if a famous piece by a Greek who admired the early accomplishments of people was countered by Jonas. He was of the opinion that people had not conquered nature, but that nature, always in the background, is just as strong as it ever was. The fact that people were able to hold sway over parts of the natural order did not mean that they had any real impact on nature as a whole. Nature is stronger and more resilient than humans can ever be (Jonas, 1985). He became the leader of the environmental movement in his native Germany (Casada da Rocha & Rodriguez-Arias, 2008).
His second point develops the argument of ethics. He states that morality has always dealt with man's dealings with man and had nothing to do with nature. Actually the natural world was neutral. Meaning that anything that was not human was outside the laws of ethics as they were seen by philosophers who had been studying the science since the, so called, dawn of man (Jonas, 1974). His other contention in this section was that all of the maxims that were hallmarks of the ethical argument were in regard to the present. People had a responsibility to make sure that their treatment of others, right now, was honorable, but there was no thought of the future that present actions would sacrifice. He is setting the deductive scene for an argument for an ethical change which has to occur in the lives of present people (Scodel, 2003).
He then branches into the argument taken up by Kant that humans do not have to be gifted by some rare form of intelligence to construct an ethical stance. He never says that people are at their very core ethical, but he does say that people do not need to have some unnaturally high intellect to understand what is good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. Aristotle seemed to think that this was not the truth. IN fact he argued that government would eventually come down to a few chosen, highly intellectual, people who would be beneficent because of their amazing intellects (Schonborn, 2007). Jonas refutes that idea, but he says that even the basest intellect continues to think in present terms and not for their progeny or the continued viability of the planet.
In the fourth section of the essay Jonas really begins to explore his treatise. He says that technology is enlightening in several ways. First, it shows that ethics have changed because people everywhere are affected by the actions of everyone else. The old ethical stance my still be fine for close relationships, but it has to change when the larger picture is considered. Since technology has brought people from all parts of the world closer, it is more evident that general ethics has to change to incorporate everyone within the human sphere (Jonas, 1974). His other contention is that modern technology has also opened people's eyes to the fact that humans are not the great benefactors of the world (Scobel, 2003). On the contrary, the actions of humans have been one of the main reasons that the Earth is sick. Technology has had two very different consequences. On the one hand, technological innovation has increased the rate at which humans adversely affect the Earth. However, this rapid expansion of technology has also shown people the extent of the destruction that they are enacting (Jonas, 1974). Therefore, he sees technology as an agent of good and evil. He also sees that the advent of this enlightenment that he sees could bring about a change in the past, flawed ethical stance.
The next road he takes in this essay is one that leads beck to a previous bit of discussion. Humans have tried to conquer nature. Actually, not only have people tried to conquer nature, but the notion of who they are (Schonborn, 2007). By this he seems to be saying that people have made advances that not only affect the planet, but, more intimately, themselves. He discusses the boundary between what was once considered the natural element and the human (ie, nature and city). No place now exists that is not city because of the technological boom. Of course, he had no idea when he wrote this piece that the fact he espouses here would become even more evident in later iterations of technology. With cell phones, computers, and etc. people are never outside of the city. The ethical implications of this are that humans can care even less about the impact they have on nature because none exists (Jonas, 1985).
He is leading to the fact, in the next section, that the natural ethic is changing to one in which no contradiction exists in the "thought that present and proximate generations would be bought with the unhappiness or even non-existence of later ones -- as little as, after all, in the inverse thought that the existence or happiness of later generations would be bought with the unhappiness or partial extinction of present ones" (Jonas, 1974). This statement is consequent to a discussion in which he states that this new brand of ethics -- that people have to concern themselves with the present destruction of the Earth for the continued existence of the human species -- does not have to involve some sort of ultimate sacrifice on the part of "present or proximate generations." He says that the new imperative might be "Act so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of such life" (Jonas, 1974). This then is the rallying cry of the new ethic. Past morality focused on a present selfishness that was contrary to the survival of the species beyond that present. Jonas says that people are now more cognizant of the damage they are doing to future generations because of technology (Jonas, 1985).
His argument now turns from the terrestrial to the personal. Before, Jonas was focused on how the decisions that people are making have caused the present sickness of the Earth. With this section he is more focused on how people are also engaged in changing themselves (Jonas, 1974). He quotes a scripture from the Bible about the natural length of the human lifespan and how in the past people were resigned to a certain term of existence. However, now people are thinking about the possibility of endless terrestrial life. This is not the spiritual argument for eternal life, but a discussion of how some scientists believe that they can countermand aging. One major problem with this he sees is that if death is abolished, then procreation has to be as well (Jonas, 1974). Another problem with modern medicine is that people…