Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Not Compassion Alone: On Euthanasia and Ethics

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Not Compassion Alone: On Euthanasia and Ethics

Article excerpt

This interview by Countess Marion Donhoff and Reinhard Merkel first appeared in the Hamburg periodical Die Zeit, 25 August 1989. Translated by Hunter and Hildegarde Hannum.

Marion Donhoff: Professor Jonas, you have written a book with the title The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Why do we actually need a new ethics? Couldn't one say that we can get along with the Ten Commandments?

Hans Jonas: Quite certainly not with them alone. They are merely the framework for a social order and for the personal conduct of life. Ethics must teach us how we should behave in our actions. All actions have to do with reality; a large proportion of them are actions that are forced upon us because we live in a world that we want something from and that for its part has laws we cannot just treat lightly according to our whim.

For some time now we have found ourselves in a situation in which reality places demands on us or necessitates our acting in certain ways but at the same time presents us with possibilities that previously didn't exist at all. In this new situation we must reexamine our ethical duties. That doesn't necessarily mean we need a new ethics, but there is undoubtedly a completely new area of application for morality, for duty, and for the "Thou shalts" and "Thou shalt nots." A new situation like this--that is, our highly technological era--calls for a new examination of ethics.

Donhoff: You say that our powers have taken on such an order of magnitude as to force us to adopt new patterns of behavior, since we can do things in many areas that couldn't even be dreamt of earlier. What compass should guide us in this new relationship between responsibility and power?

Jonas: Power--I can't help thinking of a play on words in German: Macht (power) is the ability zu machen (to do, to make), to accomplish something, to change the world, to shape it according to our wishes, or to force others to comply with our will. Consequently, the forms and extent of power and its new varieties are in and of themselves a direct summons to responsibility. Responsibility is the complementary side of power. We are responsible for what we do. And we do whatever we are capable of. When, for example, we can alter human beings by genetic engineering, we assume a responsibility that never existed before because such a thing wasn't even possible. We must therefore consider factors that we didn't have to consider before.

At present we find ourselves confronted unexpectedly with a possibility that can have enormous consequences. And, thus, it is wiser--in any case it is a moral imperative--for us to ask ourselves what is permissible for us to do, what impermissible, how far we ought to go or where we ought to hold back.

Donhoff: In all your observations, lectures, and books, one is always aware of your concern about the hectic nature of this dynamic process that presses on and on without a definite goal. A question: Is it conceivable that this process--research for the sake of research that takes us into areas where we didn't really want to go--can somehow be halted?

Jonas: The real question is, can we become masters of the technology we ourselves have created? There is a kind of inherent dynamism in technological evolution; the opening of paths in certain directions then forces us to proceed further in the same direction so that we lose the option of a free choice. That is marvelously portrayed in Goethe's poem "The Sorcerer's Apprentice": "The spirits that I summoned up, now I cannot banish." And your question is, can we gain control of that process? It is extraordinarily difficult to imagine a halt in a society characterized by free enterprise and a free-market economy, that is, in democratic and liberal societies. It is my pessimistic theory that what wisdom and political reason can't bring about can perhaps be accomplished by fear.

We are receiving warning shots from Nature, and I hope that a series of small natural catastrophes will awaken us to reason in time so that we will be spared the big catastrophe. …

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