Should humanity ever stop doing science

Summary of The principle of responsibility

The dark side of progress

In the 1970s, the world was in the middle of the Cold War between the two great powers, the USA and the Soviet Union. These represented two different economic systems, capitalism and communism, and, both with allied states in tow, competed for power. During the Cold War, a nuclear arms race between East and West took place and numerous so-called proxy wars were waged in which the USA and the Soviet Union fought each other indirectly on foreign territories, for example in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1973 with the withdrawal of the USA . In the same year the conflict flared up again in the Middle East when Israel fought against Syria and Egypt in the Yom Kippur War. This conflict resulted in an oil embargo by the Arab countries against the Israel-friendly states of the West. The global oil crisis that this triggered showed the industrialized countries for the first time the great dependence on oil and awakened an awareness of the finite nature of energy resources. After the decade-long boom in the wake of the Second World War, the darker side of technological progress became increasingly apparent in the 1970s. Although technical progress continued to explode, for example in space travel or in the further development of computers, there were setbacks in various areas. In March 1979, the largest incident to date occurred in a nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when a core meltdown occurred in a reactor. Environmental disasters such as the dioxin contamination around a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy in 1976 or the first cases of oil spills caused by damaged tankers raised awareness of the vulnerability of nature. Environmental protection movements were founded in various countries at the end of the decade. While the 1970s were marked by social liberalization in the West, a feeling of concern about the threat of war, environmental degradation and international terrorism also spread.


Hans Jonas, who emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1933, lived in the USA since 1955, where he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. There the philosopher dealt more and more with the natural sciences. The framework conditions were favorable: the numerous scientists and artists who had emigrated from Europe at the teaching institute stimulated each other in their interdisciplinary research. In the 1960s, Hans Jonas published a series of philosophical reflections on biology and technology. Several parts of The principle of responsibility he published between 1973 and 1977 as articles in American scientific journals. To write the work - not in English, but in German, his mother tongue - Jonas retired to the seclusion of a villa in Beth Jizchak (Israel), where he wrote the first chapters. For this he was financed an academic vacation year by two foundations. In his foreword from July 1979, the author thanks friends in Israel and Switzerland, where he repeatedly retreated to work retreats during the years in which the work was written. The principle of responsibility was first published in 1979 by Insel Verlag in Frankfurt am Main.

Hans Jonas supplemented the analyzes of his main work in 1985 with the study Technology, medicine and ethics, in which he determined practical ethical standards, especially in the field of human biology and medicine. In addition, he questioned the dogma of freedom of science and research and called for more awareness that not everything that is technically feasible has to be put into practice.

Impact history

The principle of responsibility is the most famous work of the moral philosopher Hans Jonas. The book made him known far beyond specialist circles and sparked a passionate debate about the consequences of technical progress and the current situation of mankind. As one of the first philosophers, Jonas gave an answer to the dangers of modern technology. Today, every new knowledge in the natural sciences is therefore checked for its ethical harmlessness and people are confronted more than ever with the requirement to leave future generations an environment worth living in. The principle of responsibility has actually brought about a reflection in large circles of society - and very few philosophical textbooks can write that on the flag. Hans Jonas, who had already been valued as an original thinker among theologians and philosophers, achieved world fame as the founder of the ethics of responsibility. However, he was criticized for his efforts to justify moral norms of action metaphysically. Individual aspects of his assessment of Marxism were also controversial. On the occasion of the award of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1987, Jonas emphasized the political dimension of the ethics of responsibility and pointed out the necessity of renouncing consumption and restricting the free market.

In the discussion of environmental protection, biotechnology, genetic research and medical advances in general, Jonas’s ethics of responsibility has provided ongoing impetus to this day. The Hans Jonas Center for research into questions of future responsibility was founded at the Free University of Berlin in 1998.