Back to the Future: Technological Ethics, Hans Jonas and Neo-Confucianism

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In this discussion we step back from the concrete specifics of business ethics and the dilemmas that must be addressed on a daily basis to look at some of the underlying philosophical issues. This paper asserts two primary propositions:

1.Technology has created the need for a new approach to ethics including business ethics. 2.The Neo-Confucian emphasis on practicality can contribute to the clarification of business ethics especially in the context of global technology.

The first proposition will be explored through the work of Hans Jonas and the second through reflections on neo-Confucian thinking on pure practicality, the self and society. Perhaps this rather paradoxical approach represents an unlikely synthesis and one that philosophers west and east might hesitate to endorse. Yet in this age of globalization the confrontation of disparate systems is no longer unusual and if nothing else serves to inspire new investigative strategies. This approach is further justified because the analysis of Jonas regarding the urgent need for a new technological ethics for the future is unique and not widely understood. The notion that neo-Confucian thinking can offer the basis of a response is perhaps new and based upon a particular and possibly unusual reading. Part I of this discussion outlines the position of Jonas regarding the crisis he discerns in Western civilization. It focuses on one key category that he argues has made the crisis complex and in need of a solution not found in Western philosophy. Part I concludes with a brief consideration of the importance of nature and tradition in the construction of a new technological ethics for the future. Part II explores the neo-Confucian teachings on the self and social responsibility. It is worth noting that neo-Confucianism likewise emerged as a philosophy of crisis that embraced elements of Chinese culture, Taoism and Buddhism, which were not part of the literary/scholarly/Confucian doctrine. Although in this discussion emphasis is given Zhu Xi it is not argued that his position is ultimately correct. Part III concludes the discussion with some comments relating the European and Chinese worldviews with respect to grounding a contemporary, technologically influenced business ethics. In the intellectual spirit of Hans Jonas the strategy of this paper thus reverses chronology suggesting that neo-Confucian ethics at least helps contribute to understanding the ethical dilemmas that arose in the late 20th century. The notion that current dilemmas may provide a key for unlocking classical texts and that, conversely, classical texts can propagate fresh approaches to current problems is a hermeneutical strategy practiced famously by Jonas. Additionally, much in this particular discussion is indebted to Heidegger’s appreciation and appropriation of Taoist views, although this is by no means a Heideggerian account. Central to these considerations, but left largely unexplored here, is the philosophical biology inherent in both the thought of Jonas and presupposed by traditional Confucian and neo-Confucian thought.


Keywords: Heidegger, Jonas, Neo-Confucianism, Business Ethics
Stream: Knowledge and Technology
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr. Harold Sjursen

Professor of Philosophy, Associate Provost, Philosophy and Technology Studies Center, Polytechnic University
New York, New York, USA

Professor of Philosophy, Associate Provost for International Education and Research and Executive Director, Institute for Global Alliances for Technology Education, Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, New York. Director of Center for Liberal Arts in Engineering Education (a satellite center of the UNESCO International Center for Engineering Education). Publications range widely and include studies of European phenomenology and existentialism, the neo-Confucian thought of the Song dynasty, East-West comparative philosophy, the ethics of technology and globalisation. Current research centers on the ethical problems posed by technology in the global context. Completing a book entitled From Tradition to Technology: the Ontological Ethics of Hans Jonas.

Ref: T08P0278