Though it was only written in 1979, Hans Jonas’ Imperative of Responsibility
is an exceedingly timely book that has, from what I can tell, been nearly forgotten. At the heart of thesis is that the advent of the power to destroy the species requires rethinking morality, as traditional moral theories and their focus on interpersonal relations are incapable of resolving them. Human action now exceeds moral reasons grasps, we might say. This includes the future: the expansion of our powers requires a sense of responsibility to generations that we will never overlap with, demanding an account of how we can meaningfully fulfill those duties. That a radical rethinking of ethics is required in light of, say, gene-editing technology is not a thesis I’m fully persuaded by. But Jonas’s book is still a treasure trove of insights and arguments.
Especially his considerations of the place procreation has in our moral theory. Jonas starts with a familiar observation, namely, that we have in the case of procreation a fundamental instance of our non-reciprocal relations to each other. Parents have a responsibility toward their child that is unconditional, and that children do not obviously owe in return (unless, perhaps, we take into account filial duties at the end of parents’ lives). As Jonas comments, this is “the only class of fully selfless behavior supplied by nature.” It is here, in this relationship, that Jonas thinks we should look for a paradigm case of responsibility, and not in the mutual, reciprocal relationship of adults. Jonas suggests that the “sex relation” is “bound up with” this fact As he puts it, it is the “archetype of all responsible action” that has been “powerfully implanted in us by nature or at least in the childbearing part of humanity.”
[Academic aside: finding the grounds or basis for moral reasoning and responsibility in the parent-child relationship forms a sharp contrast with Buber’s account of the I-Thou relationship, which in its emphasis on mutuality and reciprocity creates difficulties for understanding the parent-child relationship. Karl Barth follows Buber in this respect, though his own view has a much sharper patriarchal dimension to it than I gather Buber’s does.]
Suppose for a moment that Jonas is right, and that the procreative relationship really does function as the image or paradigm for how we take responsibility for one another. If so, then what is given in procreation must be learned within marriage. In marriage, male and female take responsibility for each other. Such a responsibility is mutual and reciprocal, in ideal cases. But it is also unconditional, in any case. Only it does not seem that way on the surface. If anything, at the beginnings of a marriage everything seems conditional (how much bartering does the first-year couple do?!). And the mutuality and reciprocity of love, which are so desirable and important, have in one way to be unlearned: male and female must take responsibility for the other without the expectation that doing so will entail the other will or must do likewise. The covenant of marriage imposes mutual obligations, but love fulfills obligations while freeing the other from their debts: it gives without an interest in receiving, as parents give to their children in taking responsibility for them.
In this way, procreation is related to marriage in a particularly important pedagogical way: it discloses something essential about what marriage and love actually requires. To deny the possibility of children, or to enter a sexual union in which they are impossible, cuts the person off from the foundation and beginning of the responsibility that they ostensibly are undertaking in marrying. Procreation in this way precedes marriage: it is second in time, but first in priority. It is the fulfillment of the union of male and female, but in the economy of God’s kingdom what comes last is the most clear revelation of what has been true all along.