Albert Schweitzer though ethics was nothing more or less than reverence for life. To him, the good was that which maintains, assists and enhances life, and the evil was that which destroys, harms or hinders life.
In Out of My Life and Thought, Schweitzer told how his idea of reverence for life came to him while on an errand of mercy in Africa. He was on a boat, creeping slowly upstream and following channels between the sandbanks. His mind was deep in thought, searching for some conception of the universal ground of ethics. He scribbled disconnected sentences on sheet after sheet of paper, refusing to abandon his mental quest:
Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, “Reverence for Life.” The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible.
Schweitzer also told of the discovery of a more intuitive form of this ethic when he was only seven or eight years old: One spring, a friend invited him to go to a place where they could shoot birds with a sling-shot. Though the idea was repugnant to the young Schweitzer, he went along, fearing that his friend might laugh at him if he didn’t. They found a bird singing in a tree. His companion put a stone in the leather catapult and Schweitzer, determined to be brave and manly, did the same. At that very moment the bells of a church began to ring. Schweitzer felt it was a voice from heaven, reminding him of the wrongness of senseless killing. He shooed the bird away and ran home.
Schweitzer insisted that all human beings have these feelings, but most of us refuse to express them out of fear of being ridiculed and called a sentimentalist. In Civilization and Ethics, he spoke of reverence for life as an intrinsic motivating system: “Reverence for life drives a man on as the whirling, thrashing screw forces a ship through the water.” He called reverence for life an inner necessity, which has little to do with thinking or understanding. “Reverence for life brings us into a spiritual relation with the world which is independent of all knowledge of the universe.”
Schweitzer extended his ethics to other species. He spoke of a tradition in European thought, beginning with St. Francis of Asissi, that envisions ethics as a reverence for all life.29 A man is truly ethical in Schweitzer’s eyes only when life — plants, animals, his fellow man — is sacred to him, and when he devotes himself to all life that is in need of help. To be ethical is to feel responsibility in an ever-widening sphere.
Schweitzer insisted that the deeper we look into nature, the more we recognize that all life is a mystery and that we are united with all life that is in nature. Man can no longer live his life for himself alone. With this insight comes a spiritual relationship to the universe. As we grow spiritually, we widen the circle of our sense of kinship from the narrowest limits of the family to include the clan, then the tribe, then the nation and finally all mankind. But ethics does not stop here; it expands until one declares the unity of all created beings.
For Schweitzer, even the smallest manifestation of life is sacred. The ethical person goes out of his way to avoid injuring anything that is living; he doesn’t tear leaves from trees or step on insects. He rescues worms stranded on a sidewalk after a rain. Schweitzer said the ethical person is reluctant to shatter ice crystals gleaming in the sun.
In Indian Thought and its Development, Schweitzer describes the Jains, a religious sect who carry this principle to its absolute limit. In accordance with a commandment of Ahimsa, they give up hunting, bloody sacrifices and eating meat. They also consider it their duty to be careful not to trample on insects or other crawling things. The Jain monks even tie a cloth over their mouth in order to avoid breathing in (and thus killing) tiny creatures in the air.
According to Schweitzer, the Jains were the first to have discovered the principle of reverence for life. Schweitzer himself is less rigid. Human beings,he says, are able to preserve their own lives only at the cost of other life. Killing and injury are necessary to sustain life. The central issue becomes whether or not killing and injury arise from necessity or simple thoughtlessness. It is acceptable for a countryman to mow a thousand blossoms in order to feed his cows, but is not accept able for that same person carelessly to snap off the head of a single flower while walking home after work.
Unfortunately, no matter how seriously people attempt to abstain from killing and damaging, they cannot entirely avoid it. We are under a law of necessity, which compels us to kill and to damage both with and without our knowledge. The only answer is a mystical participation in nature; the hunter and the hunted become a single thing; the berry and the berry-gatherer are one.
Schweitzer also was not sentimental about killing. He wrote that a slavish adherence to the commandment not to kill can be contrary to the dictates of simple compassion. When there is no way to alleviate the suffering of a living creature, it is often more ethical to end its life by killing it mercifully than to do nothing. It is also more cruel to let domestic animals, which one can no longer feed, die a painful death by starvation than to kill them quickly and painlessly. Furthermore, there are many real-life dilemmas in which in order to save one living creature we must destroy or damage another. The ultimate principle is compassion. When the decision to injure or kill is made, the ethical person must be aware that he or she is acting on subjective and arbitrary grounds and therefore bears the responsibility for the life sacrificed. We ought to feel what an odious thing it is to cause suffering and death out of mere thoughtlessness.