Dissipation of Guilt

Even the prime ontologist of the human race’s “obligation to be”, Hans Jonas, concedes that the begetting of new human beings is something laden with guilt. He does not, indeed, seek to eliminate this guilt – something he would consider to be guilt’s suspension – but rather to disperse throughout the supra-individual medium of the species. To arrive at an exculpation of those who procreate Jonas conceives of the species as itself a community of procreation. But in doing so he neglects the fact that said community has also been, for many millennia, a growing community of communication and one which, in recent centuries, has developed in ever greater degree the capacity to take up argument-backed stances either for or against procreation.  Human beings can the more easily refuse bionomic claims – “biological radicals” – the farther a culture, and its members capacity to “reflect themselves out of Nature”, have progressed. Jonas, therefore, writes:

“An element of impersonal guilt inheres in any causation of being (the most radical of all the forms of causation of which a subject is capable) and permeates all personal responsibility vis-à-vis the object of this causation, which was not asked beforehand whether it wished to be caused. But this guilt is shared by all, because the deed of the procreators was a generic one, not one thought up by themselves alone (indeed they might not even have known they were committing it) and the potential accusation of children and grandchildren to the effect that this deed was morally irresponsible – the most comprehensive and, in practice, pointless of all accusations – is one implicitly directed toward every person presently living. As, indeed, is any gratitude that might be expressed by these children and grandchildren.” (Jonas, Das Prinzip Verantwortung)

It remains mysterious, however, why all presently-living human beings should be collectively guilty here, i.e. even those who take a position against the so-called “procreative drive” and do indeed refuse to procreate because it has become clear to them that no one can, in fact, live up to the responsibility involved in begetting a new human being. But perhaps Jonas only means: it is only those who have actually procreated that are collectively guilty. Then, however, the question arises of why, pointing to the “species nature” of the procreative act (“the deed of the procreators was a generic one”) he attempts to exculpate those who commit it without ever going into the issue that Man, being a cultural being, can always find ways and means of resisting “biological radicals”, or at least of sublimating them.

It is only at very few other points in Jonas’s work that one encounters a comparable degree of scepticism regarding procreation, i.e. a degree of scepticism that threatens to undermine Jonas’s own onto-ethics of a moral duty of humanity to exist. Instead of as the Summum bonum procreation now counts as objectively burdened with guilt. Burdened with guilt because it remains constantly questionable whether the responsibility that parents take upon themselves by procreating is a responsibility that can ever really be met. Both gratitude for existence and the imprecation cast upon existence can, Jonas frankly admits, be directed toward any one of us. Further clarification of Jonas’s puzzling text is provided by a footnote:

“The child cannot, indeed, actually ask his parents, reproachfully or otherwise: ‘why did you bring me into the world?’ because the parents in question cannot be said to have had any influence on the specific “thisness” of the “me” that is making this reproach to them; rather, he can only ask them: ‘why did you bring a child into the world?’ and the answer to this is the incurring of this guilt was itself an obligation – not, indeed, one vis-à-vis the not-yet-existing child (no such obligation exists) but rather vis-à-vis the morally binding cause of humanity as a whole. Of this we shall speak later.” (Das Prinzip Verantwortung) One seeks in vain, however, in Jonas’s book for this “later”.

Put very simply, there is opened up, with every birth, a credit and a debit column. It is incumbent upon the parents to fill up the credit column of their child’s life to such an extent that he is content with this life. Even Jonas concedes that this almost never occurs and that the >Saldo natale all too often is a negative one, signalling parents’ failure to meet their responsibility. But instead of simply admitting, at this point of maximum philosophical exposure, that human responsibility is here always and necessarily overstrained, so that his own pronatalism at this point ethically collapses, Jonas performs a veritable >Salto natale, extinguishing the guilt of the parents by adducing a barely argumentationally-supported “obligation” of these latter not to let humanity die out. Whatever meaning one may assign to the lines cited from Jonas above, the fact is hardly simply to be dismissed that he avows, at this point, that his “principle of responsibility” flips over here to become a principle of the irresponsibility of human procreation.

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