Mortality and Morality

by Hans Jonas

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186

Hans Jonas tackles one of the most troublesome problems in all of philosophy: establishing an objective ground for ethics. He contends that ethics is based on value that is contained in nature itself. Jonas draws on a sparse number of what he believes to be fertile truths, which serve as the seed and ground of most, if not all, of what he writes in the essays collected in Mortality and Morality. These truths are that philosophy has lapsed into a study of one part of reality, the study of mind, at the expense of the other part, the philosophy of nature. German idealism in the forms of neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, and existentialism neglects the organic basis of mind and therefore distorts what it means to be a human being. This idealism descends from French philosopher René Descartes’s metaphysical dualism, which took the form of a bifurcation of the mental and the material. According to Jonas, the living organism with its indissoluble inwardness and outwardness is the undeniable evidence against dualism, and it serves as the starting point for the development of a uniform theory of being.

Evolution and Freedom

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In the first essay of Mortality and Morality, “Evolution and Freedom: On the Continuity Among Life-Forms,” Jonas asserts that the Western philosophical tradition has made the fundamental mistake of ascribing certain features exclusively to humanity, although, according to Jonas, these features are also characteristic of nonhuman organisms. Organic life is a continuum that includes humanity and is identified by key capabilities and functions including metabolism, motility, appetite, feeling, perception, imagination, art, and thinking. There is, however, an ascending order to organic existence according to the knowledge and power of an organism or its perception and action. Jonas maintains that not all organisms in this ascending order have “mind” or “will,” but all organisms do possess “freedom” and that this is the property that distinguishes organic life as such.

“Freedom,” in Jonas’s vernacular, has an unusual meaning. It is to be contrasted with lifeless matter and is to be associated with metabolism, the fundamental characteristic of all living organisms. Jonas asserts that things that have metabolic processes display freedom. The freedom of the most primitive organisms is the freedom to transcend matter and to use it. In its most developed form, in humans, freedom is the freedom to form ideas and to choose ways of life. This, he admits, runs counter to the usual understanding of freedom as something unique to the mind and will of human beings. Jonas, however, is concerned with giving an account of humanity that, according to principles of evolutionary biology, positions humans in nature and as a part of nature. One barrier to an understanding of Jonas’s philosophy can perhaps be overcome if one keeps in mind that human beings can be differentiated from other life-forms on the basis of functions and capabilities, but human beings are not in “metaphysical isolation” from other life-forms. Jonas contends that it is the nature of living organisms, humans in particular, to have an interest in preserving their own existence and that this interest is evidenced in the striving to sustain metabolism.

Jonas makes a demarcation between the purely physical universe and organic life: The former functions according to immutable law; the latter in accordance with freedom. Sometime during the evolutionary process, organic life separated from mere matter. Matter, of course, is indispensable for organic life, but through metabolism—the exchange of matter with the environment—the material parts of the organism are only temporary contents. There is, in other words, no persisting material substratum in any living organism. This suggests the organism’s transcendence of material existence in the direction of freedom. Metabolism is the basis for all sophisticated capabilities and functions that are characteristic of animal life, including feeling, perception, and motility, but even in the most primitive organisms, metabolism represents a departure from material necessity. Jonas suggests that what is unique to living things is their ability to alter their own matter for the purpose of their own preservation. This is the theoretical payout of the philosophically indigent notion of metabolism, and it seems to be at the heart of Jonas’s notion of freedom and responsibility. >From these humble beginnings, Jonas erects a philosophical edifice that builds a bridge from the meaning of life to the duty to preserve it, but as a preliminary to this all-important task, he must first show the basis for a distinction between the “subject” that carries the responsibility and the “object” to which it is responsible.

Jonas contends that another way of looking at freedom is in terms of “selfhood.” He observes that the altering of matter by an organism puts matter at the disposal of an organism and that the continued striving of the organism in its self-preservation can be described as “self-concern.” Jonas is sensitive to the charge of anthropomorphizing, but he has stipulated exactly what is meant by self-concern; it involves the acquisition and use of matter for the continued existence of the organism. This self-concern carries with it the notion of selfhood and subjectivity.

Humans, Other Animals, and Mortality

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In “Tool, Image, and Grave: On What Is Beyond the Animal in Man,” Jonas compares and contrasts humans and other animals. The distinguishing feature of humans is the ability to form representative ideas, which Jonas views as a mark of greater freedom and responsibility. He notes that humans have a surplus of capacities and capabilities that have nothing to do with biology and survival. Humans have, for example, self-generated purposes that afford luxuries, not merely necessities. Jonas evaluates the significance of human artifacts that, he thinks, point decisively to particular and unique human qualities. A tool is produced as a result of an idea in the human imagination that as an expression of freedom is imposed on matter. This idea, or form, in the imagination is not the result of any biological function of the organism as is the case with a spider and its web, for example. Image making, such as that which produced early rock drawings, is biologically useless. The interest that humans have in such a nonpractical exercise is associated with the freely created idea from which the image is derived. The image is a representation of a general sort, and it is understood by its creator to be such. Jonas contends that other animals do not have the aptitude to differentiate, in this way, between perceptions and representations. Lastly, on the subject of the “grave,” he notes that commemoration of the dead through burial is associated with beliefs pertaining to things invisible and immaterial. The grave signifies the unique human capacity to reflect on one’s own origin and destiny and to have a concept of self. The human endowment of being able to form ideas that are representations and not mere perceptions is the source of the human ability to be concerned with what ought to be, not merely with what is.

In “The Burden and Blessing of Mortality,” Jonas observes that all life is mortal. The real threat of annihilation, or death, is with every organism from the beginning. The organism, however, clings to life by performing its metabolic processes, and, in so doing, attributes value to itself. In fact, it is only because of the possibility of life’s cessation that there can be this “clinging” and this “value.” Life, then, is the source of all value.

Preserving Human Life

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In “Toward an Ontological Grounding of an Ethics for the Future,” Jonas attempts to show that the very nature of humanity entails a responsibility to preserve humanity. He tries to do what, throughout much of the history of philosophy, has been considered improper: to show that facts about reality imply ethical duties. Jonas made the case in “Tool, Image, and Grave” that the eidetic aptitude in human beings is a distinguishing mark. This aptitude, the capacity to represent things by general ideas, makes possible the idea of self and what a human “self” ought to be.

The key philosophical move made by Jonas, in grounding ethics in nature, is the affirmation that the value every organism places on its own existence—as evidenced by a clinging, against all obstacles, to metabolic life—is the source of all value in the universe. The very perception, or apprehension, of value is the perception of something that should be. This involves a perception of a responsibility to preserve value and, most important, human life, because it is this value that humans perceive firsthand in their own struggle to survive. By means of the ability to form representative ideas, humans form notions of what humanity should be and, from this, a sense of moral obligation. In the remainder of the essay, Jonas examines the threat that modern technology poses to life. Jonas sets a course in the direction of establishing a theory of environmental ethics.


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The remaining essays in Mortality and Morality are devoted to theological topics. As indicated by the title of part 2, “A Luxury of Reason: Theological Speculations After Auschwitz,” Jonas views theology as a “luxury” of reason rather than as a necessity. As was demonstrated in part 1, ethics is grounded in nature, not in the existence of God. Jonas, however, is interested in theology and has much to say on the subject. For example, Jonas asserts that immortality is not an object of knowledge and therefore cannot be proven or disproven. Jonas examines various views of the afterlife and speculates that what are immortal are human deeds, not human souls. Human deeds live on in the mind of God and form God’s developing image. Throughout part 2, Jonas attempts to articulate biblical concepts in terms that are compatible with modern thought. His presupposition is that faith must be compatible with reason.

Jonas does not subscribe to many of the orthodox teachings of Judaism, and he attempts to demythologize the unnatural and irrational elements in the religious tradition. For example, he denies that God is all-powerful and cites the Holocaust as proof of it. Either God is not complete in love or God is not complete in power, and it is preferable to believe the latter. In addition, he denies divine interventions in nature. Miracles did not and do not happen, but this does not impinge on faith; although, in the case of Christianity and the resurrection and ascension of Christ, the denial of miracles is far more problematic than in Judaism.

It remains to be seen how the thought of Jonas will influence ethical theory and metaphysics. His treatment of God, ethics, and metaphysics reveals a bold attempt to circumscribe the entire universe. This classical, speculative approach to philosophy is reminiscent of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. It is not, however, an approach that has been highly regarded among philosophers in the twentieth century. What distinguishes Jonas, however, is the assimilation of certain accepted principles of modern thought into his ethical theory, especially those coming out of the biological sciences. The intriguing and innovative rendering of the otherwise plain notion of metabolism, for example, together with the philosophical freight that Jonas makes it carry, is reason enough to think that his writings could catch the attention of a wide audience. In the latter part of the twentieth century, his writings inspired a number of European environmentalists, who found in his works a rigorous, philosophical justification for their causes.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

Additional Reading

Lubarsky, Sandra B., and David Ray Griffin, eds. Jewish Theology and Process Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A compilation of essays in honor of Hans Jonas, including one essay by Jonas. An essay by John B. Cobb notes the parallels between Jonas’s doctrine of God and process theology, particularly with respect to God’s manner of relation to the world.

Spicker, Stuart F., ed. Organism, Medicine, and Metaphysics: Essays in Honor of Hans Jonas on His Seventy-fifth Birthday, May 10, 1978. Boston: D. Reidel, 1978. Includes essays by Charles Hartshorne and Strachan Donnelley that contrast Jonas’s view of organisms with that of Alfred North Whitehead.

Wellmer, Albrecht. Endgames: The Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity. Translated by David Midgley. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. A look at some of Jonas’s fundamental ideas in the context of German social thought.

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