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
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,...
(The entire section is 2,030 words.)