Sean Ireton, Associate professor of German, University of Missouri
“Toward a Cross-Cultural Environmental Ethics: Hans Jonas and Aldo Leopold”
The German-Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas studied under Heidegger during the 1920s but left his homeland when the Nazis came to power. In 1979 he published his landmark book Das Prinzip Verantwortung, in which he painstakingly worked out a new system of ethics. Whereas previous moral codes have regulated interhuman behavior (e.g. the Judeo-Christian commandments and Kant’s categorical imperative), Jonas seeks an ethical standard for humanity’s conduct toward nature. His analysis offers a trenchant critique of philosophical anthropocentrism as well as of socialist utopianism and capitalist myopia, all of which remain blind to the dangers facing our planet. Nevertheless, a crucial fundamental question facing his philosophy is: To what extent does the principle of responsibility contain an inherent anthropogenic prejudice? In other words, does his imperative also have a general bioethical validity, one that extends to all life forms regardless of humanity’s role or presence? How, for instance, is the following precept to be interpreted: “Handle so, daß die Wirkungen deiner Handlung verträglich sind mit der Permanenz menschlichen Lebens auf Erden.” Does this maxim also extend to non-human entities, as for instance in the latest version of Ecuador’s constitution, which grants inalienable rights to all of nature? Here in the United States, Aldo Leopold remains a more influential moral spokesman for the environment. His classic essay “The Land Ethic” (first published in 1953) presents the same basic idea of acting responsibly toward nature, though the specifics of his argument are more scientific and ecological than philosophical and political. Nevertheless, both Leopold and Jonas reverse traditional Cartesian subjectivistic philosophy, divesting the rational ego of its instrumental supremacy and valorizing the rights of nature. My talk will examine the cross-cultural environmental-ethical implications of Jonas’s and Leopold’s conservationism, all the while establishing a transcontinental dialogue between the two.