Hans Jonas’ Ethics of Technology and Stanley Kubrick’s, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Dr. Strangelove is quite possibly the blackest of black comedies. After all, what could possibly provide a less comic situation than the threat of nuclear war and the destruction of the planet? But somehow, Stanley Kubrick manages to wring hilarity from the absurdity of almost every scene in the film. This makes providing a philosophical commentary for such a comedy somewhat questionable, as nothing is more likely to kill laughter than a serious discussion of ethics. But then again, Kubrick’s film trades on the aforementioned absurd flippancy with which nuclear arms are treated – and it seems to me as though this black setting for the comedy in fact brings some interesting philosophical themes to the fore.
The philosopher who I wish to discuss in this regard is Hans Jonas, a hugely under-read German-Jewish thinker. Jonas lived an extraordinary life in extraordinary times – born in 1903 in Mönchengladbach, North-West Germany, Jonas studied at Marburg University under Martin Heidegger in the 1920s. However, Jonas soon found himself faced with a life of persecution, and worse, under Nazism following Hitler’s rise to the Chancellery in 1933. Sensibly Jonas fled Germany for Israel, reportedly vowing to himself ‘never to return except as a soldier in a conquering army’. (1) The chance to fulfil this pledge came when the Allies went to war against Nazi Germany. Jonas consequently left Israel for England in 1940, joining the Jewish Infantry Brigade – a division of the British Army set up specifically for Jewish soldiers – a real-life Inglorious Basterds. As a well-educated man he was offered a role in military intelligence, which he refused, preferring to play his part on the front line when the Nazi regime fell. By the end of the war Jonas had seen combat in Italy and Germany, and he subsequently attempted to get back in contact with his mother, only to tragically discover that she had been murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Jonas felt that he could not forgive Germany, and emigrated for good. He spent the rest of his long life firstly as a Zionist, fighting in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and then in New York, where he became a professor at the New School for Social Research and died in 1993, aged 89. (2)
Jonas’ work was deeply influenced by his dramatic biography – his philosophy owes equal debt to Heidegger (whom he publically denounced for Nazi complicity) and Jewish theology, but also to the warring ideologies of capitalism and Soviet-communism which had after the war torn Germany in two. The influence of the Cold War – the war of economic and technological competition depicted in Dr. Strangelove – is felt in Jonas’ great book The Imperative of Responsibility. In this work Jonas puts forth the hypothesis that no previous Western morality, secular or religious, could now provide a comprehensive guide for ethical action in the age of nuclear warfare and environmental crises. He says: ‘my contention [is] that with certain developments of our powers the nature of human action has changed, and, since ethics is concerned with action, it should follow that the changed nature of human action calls for a change in ethics as well’. (3) We can see here the combined influences of Germanic philosophical scope with analytic clarity which marks Jonas’ philosophy as distinctive. Certainly, the aim of his work is not a modest one, so the focus here will be on one or two points which may illuminate some of the situations and events portrayed in Dr. Strangelove.
Firstly is the issue of what Jonas means by the ‘changed nature of human action’. The new capacities which Jonas has in mind are, of course, technological. Modern humanity has a degree of unprecedented power which our forebears, even of one hundred years ago, could never have imagined. Following from this, Jonas argues that all previous ethical systems were based primarily on a more modest picture of relations between humans – the world-as-a-whole was something which figured into ethical considerations only as an afterthought, simply because it was so vast that humanity could scarcely affect it. However, the Second World War signified a fundamental shift – whereas World War I was still fought traditionally by men against men, World War II concluded with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ethical relation between humanity and the earth had by then essentially altered, as we acquired the power – and demonstrated the will – to destroy both it and ourselves en masse. In light of this, Jonas argues that the common basis of traditional ethical systems is too limited in scope, too anthropocentric, to deal with this new power, and the net of ethical consideration must therefore be cast far wider to cover this moral gap left by weapons of mass destruction. Jonas calls for the imperative of ethical responsibility – not just to humanity, but to all life on earth – which he delivers most powerfully in ‘The Outcry of Mute Things’. He says: ‘[i]t was once religion which threatened us with a last judgement at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day […]. The latest revelation […] is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation’. (4)
The obvious moral force of this imperative for the technological age is precisely what the characters in Dr. Strangelove flagrantly disregard. In fact, Kubrick’s film highlights Jonas’ central point in comic style – humans are portrayed as simply too irresponsible to be allowed to wield such enormous power, and the technology supporting the chain of command as too unreliable to deliver such catastrophic orders. The only characters who seem to fully grasp the gravity of the situation are the repressed ex-Nazi and Presidential adviser Dr. Strangelove, née Merkwürdigliebe (played with relish by Peter Sellers), and the hapless Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers, again). By contrast, those who wield actual power are shown to be either gung-ho imbeciles like General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), paranoiacs such as Brigadier General Jack. D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), or simply the bickering married-couple of U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers, once more) and Soviet Premier Dmitri Kisov. Perhaps the best example of the film’s nightmarish situation heightened by black humour is the iconic climactic scene in which Major Kong jumps on the nuclear bomb to facilitate its drop from the plane – falling with it down to earth, Kong rides the shell rodeo-style to the earth’s imminent destruction. Little did Kubrick know, in forty years the scene would perfectly capture the worrying predicament of real-life cowboy George W. Bush sat in the White House with the nuclear codes in one hand, and in the other a foreign policy not entirely unlike that of Kubrick’s military buffoons.
Dr. Strangelove presents us with another a situation which flies in the face of one more of Jonas’ maxims: ‘[a]ct so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of genuine human life’. (5) In the film, once it becomes apparent that the nuclear holocaust is nigh – thanks to the real-life M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) deterrent – Strangelove, Muffley, and Turgidson gather in the War Room to discuss the possibility of the preservation of life. Strangelove muses that several hundred thousand Americans might be able to survive in an underground colony, subsisting quite happily on nuclear power. The great irony, of course, is that the nuclear power which would sustain this hypothetical quasi-civilisation would be the very same which had necessitated its creation. This is precisely the kind of human life which Jonas might have envisaged as the worst possible outcome of our current predicament – cut off from the natural world, cut off even from the surface of the earth, living a sub-human existence. However, the subterranean civilisation which presents the only chance for survival at the end of Dr. Strangelove is the simply the Cold War threat taken to its logical extreme. From nature we have created wonderful technologies able to give us an easier life, but we have also cultivated the potential to destroy both that nature and that life, hence Jonas’ call for a new ethic based on deliberation and consideration. The alternative, as depicted in Dr. Strangelove, is a degradation of what Jonas regarded as ‘genuine’ human life – people allotted food, water, and procreation according to quotas which would increase the possibility of humanity re-emerging from the underground bunkers when the nuclear radiation had diminished to safe levels. In short, a humanity degrading itself in the quantified-mechanistic manner in which we are – wrongly – used to regarding animals and nature.
Both Dr. Strangelove and Jonas’ thinking appear ever more prescient in light of the current ecological crisis – but how, for Jonas, do we avoid a fate similar to that which Kubrick’s film depicts? To begin with, we have to look again at natural things like forests or fish and learn to see them not simply as resources waiting for our consumption, or at best, as objects of aesthetic value. We have to fundamentally alter our understanding of the ethical remit to regard these entities as having an inherent moral value which is not simply relative to human needs – for Jonas, in striving to be at all, the natural world has a kind of primitive ethical existence which humanity ultimately makes explicit and must take responsibility for. In his other masterpiece, The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas writes: ‘through the continuity of mind with organism and of organism with nature, ethics becomes part of the philosophy of nature’. (6) The view Jonas advocates is that nature – the sum total of what-is – is not only in the sense of physically existing, but also inextricably is in an ethical form, as the ontological source of value. Again, he says: ‘ethics must be based on ontology, which is to say that the law of human behaviour must be derived from the nature of the whole’. (7) In this way, Jonas’ thought can be understood as taking up the ethical question which Heidegger was so temperamentally unsuited to tackle – as mentioned in my biographical introduction to Jonas, the two philosophers’ reactions to Nazism could not be more different. Thus what motivated Jonas’ philosophy was rising to the challenge of the relation between ‘Being and the ought’ which Heidegger notoriously failed to address. (8)
Jonas’ insightful philosophy raises several problems, however. Firstly is the issue that even if we accept his bold hypothesis – that both Western and Abrahamic ethics require a fundamental expansion in light of our current global predicaments – how do we put this new ethic into practice? In The Imperative of Responsibility Jonas considers the pros and cons of the two opposing systems depicted in Dr. Strangelove: capitalism and Soviet-communism. (9) In the film, Kubrick shows us that neither capitalism nor Soviet-communism is at all able to rise to the challenge of global responsibility – the conversations between President Muffley and his Russian counterpart show both sides to be petty, vain, and partisan. Again, the parallels between our own governments’ failure to deal with the present ecological crisis are only too obvious. Jonas likewise regards both capitalism and Soviet-communism as following from traditional Western ethics and thus incapable of dealing with the threat of nuclear warfare. He rejects capitalism out of hand as inherently incapable of realising our suppressed ethical relation to the earth, and the reasons for his doing so are only too obvious. Jonas then criticises Soviet-communism for similar reasons – that it is fundamentally anthropocentric and motivated by industrial and technological domination – but he notes that in aiming to improve the conditions of humanity at least Marxism actually has an ethical basis, unlike free-market capitalism. In the end, however, for Jonas neither mode of production is able to rise to contemporary ethical challenges without changing beyond recognition, and it seems that in this sense he might have appreciated Kubrick’s satirical take on the arms race.
The second major problem with Jonas’ project, following on from the first, is that it is so utterly pessimistic. Jonas’ constant doom-laden refrains about the impending destruction of the earth make Adorno and Heidegger look positively upbeat regarding the modern condition. For example, in response to Ernst Bloch’s unashamed advocacy of utopian Marxism in The Principle of Hope, Jonas cultivated his own typically uplifting alternative: ‘The Heuristics of Fear’. (10) The reason for this, I believe, harks back to Jonas’ own biography and the troubled times he lived in – after all, as a German-Jew born at the turn of the century he witnessed the First World War, the Great Depression, the rise of European fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war, and finally the mounting ecological crisis. Given these experiences it is understandable that his thinking took on the fears of the age, but there is also the serious threat of a reactionary philosophical response. For example, in his theological work in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz, Jonas claims that in contrast to all previous anti-Semitic persecution which is justified as a part of God’s testing his chosen people, the Holocaust was so utterly incomprehensible that one can no longer seriously entertain the belief in an omnipotent deity. (11) While this seems reasonable, from the point of view of a previously practicing Jew it is a major decision to make, and such an absolutist response to events is characteristic of Jonas. As we have seen, the drastic nature of Jonas’ philosophy bears a similar hopelessness, and one cannot help but feel that when Jonas lost his faith in God he also abandoned faith in humanity. It seems to me that Jonas does not give humanity its due when, for example, he entertains the possibility of drastic measures to limit global population growth if all democratic incentives fail and the risk to the earth is too great to do nothing. (12) One still feels that to envisage such an extreme situation is premature, as the necessary work to halt population growth has hardly even begun.
We have seen that what motivated and troubled Jonas above all was the safeguarding of the possibility of a future for life and humankind – do we even have one, and if so, what does it look like? One certainly hopes that Dr. Strangelove – which offers similar warning, if in a different guise – will remain a great black comedy, rather than resemble that future. But what Jonas and Kubrick’s film both ultimately lack is precisely that: hope – not of the immature, delusional kind, but of the robust and principled. If Jonas is right about the serious predicament of the modern world – as I believe he is – then something more must be offered; we must prevent a firm diagnosis from becoming a cold prognosis. Perhaps then, there is as much to be said about Bloch’s principle of hope as there is about Jonas’ heuristic of fear.
(1) Hans Jonas, Erkenntnis und Verantwortung, quoted in: Vittorio Hösle, ‘Hans Jonas’ Position in the History of German Philosophy’, in The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2008), pp.19-37 (p.23).
(2) Further biographical information found in: Hans Jonas, Memoirs, trans. Krishna Winston, ed. Christian Weise (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Brandeis University Press, 2008).
(3) Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. David Herr and Hans Jonas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p.1.
(4) Hans Jonas, ‘The Outcry of Mute Things’, in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp.198-202 (p.201-202).
(5) Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, p.11.
(6)] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001), p.282.
(7) Jonas quoted in: Albrecht Wellmer, ‘The Myth of the God Who Suffers and Becomes: Questions Addressed to Hans Jonas’, in Endgames: The Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity (Massachusetts.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998), pp.263-268 (p.265).
(8) Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p.98.
(9) See pp.142-157. In the text Jonas fails to properly distinguish between ‘real-world’ Marxist-Leninism – the real target of his criticisms – and original philosophical Marxism, and thus does not do justice to the latter.
(10) In: Ethics in an Age of Pervasive Technology, ed. Melvin Kranzberg (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1980), pp.213-221
(11) See: ‘The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice’, in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp.131-143.
(12) Harvey Scodel, ‘An Interview with Professor Hans Jonas’, Social Research, 70:2 (Summer 2003), 339-368.