Living Ethics: The Way of Wholeness
by Donivan Bessinger

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17

Reverence for Life and Natural Ethic

To become ethical means
to think sincerely.
Albert Schweitzer _*_


The ethical model just presented demonstrates that acting ethically requires acting with awareness. Acting ethically is influenced by one's own feelings. It requires bringing into consciousness one's own motives. It requires thinking sincerely of the effects of actions on life systems. Though ethical analysis requires applying logic and reason, ethics is also a matter of attitude.

In presenting the ethical model, we have used a direct linear style of thought to build a logical structure. Yet now we say that we must not only think, but "think sincerely". We must consider attitude, even feelings. What place have feelings in philosophy?

From the standpoint of the natural systems worldview, and in the light of modern knowledge about the dynamics of the human psyche, we must now reply that feelings have a place in philosophy because they have a place in human functioning.

Feelings influence our worldview, and the dynamic unconscious (of which feelings are symptoms) provides images for conscious processing and thus directly influences the conscious processes of reason.

Thought is not limited to linear logic, but includes the creative and sublime process of searching for patterns which express meaning. Linear logic is the process by which the knowledge base is constructed. However, linking the knowledge base requires more. Sublime thought is that attitude of thought which provides the energy field in which creative insight first glows.

There have been few minds as well prepared to deal creatively with the questions of life and ethics as that of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. In his description of reverence for life, Schweitzer presents the attitudinal dimension of the natural ethic. Since his life story provides an important part of his ethical argument, a brief life sketch is pertinent.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was uniquely challenged by his position in place, time, and training to sense a need for, and to develop a modern ethic. His birthplace in Alsace had been alternately German and French as wars and political tides had swept past. His lifetime overlapped Darwin's by five years, and spanned the development of modern scientific civilization through two world wars and the use of nuclear weapons.

His academic work in centers of European learning (Berlin, Strassburg, Paris) included published treatises on the philosophy of Kant, Goethe, and India. He published several theological works, and a biography of J. S. Bach. He was a concert organist. His international rank in philosophy, theology and music brought him into contact with the learned in many nations.

Despite these multiple successes, Dr. Schweitzer determined to devote himself to service rather than scholarship. Upon completion of a medical degree in 1913, he moved to Africa and founded a hospital at Lambarene (French Equatorial Africa, now Gabon), and he worked there until his death in 1965. Nevertheless, he maintained contact with Europe through regular visits for lectures and concerts (by which he raised funds for the Lambarene hospital), and with the world through an active correspondence. He received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1953.

The trip on the Ogooue‚ River in Gabon on which Schweitzer named reverence for life came early in his African experience (September 1915), and he used the term in a sermon in Strassburg in 1919. However, reverence for life was first set forth formally in Civilization and Ethics, the second volume of his Philosophy of Civilization (Kulturphilosophie, 1923).

As original thinkers must, Schweitzer described his concepts in terms having special meaning. In his presentation of reverence for life, the key concept was will-to-live, a term which he seems to have chosen in answer to Schopenhauer's use of it. Schopenhauer is not easy to quote, but this passage introduces his meaning:

Schweitzer described all life as impelled by will-to-live. The German is Lebenswille. Whether conscious or not, all life shares an inner imperative, a metabolic healing struggle to reproduce, to survive, to prevail. The will-to-live is that aspect of life which distinguishes the living organism from its mere matter and shape. If he had developed these thoughts after Cannon wrote in 1929, Schweitzer might well have referred to will-to-live as homeostasis. One could certainly argue a distinction, but the key point is that life, in whatever form, is a dynamic system ordered toward survival.

In modern usage, will is a term of consciousness. However, will-to-live must be distinguished from a conscious will (desire) to live. Will-to-live operates even when one consciously wills to die. If suicide is to be successful, the traumatic insult must be sufficient to overcome life's innate will-to-live. It is to indicate that distinction that I have chosen to write will-to-live as one hyphenated word.

Schweitzer wrote that "Whether it can express itself before me, or remains dumb", there is in all will-to-live "a longing for wider life and for the mysterious exaltation of the will-to-live which we call pleasure, with dread of annihilation and of the mysterious deprecation of the will-to-live which we call pain". *

Schweitzer's will-to-live concept accepts life as it finds it, and is fully prepared to acknowledge the physicochemical processes which govern metabolism and reproduction. Since the concept does not imply a metaphysical or necessarily mysterious life force, and since it does not attempt to explain the meaning or source or nature of life itself, it cannot be equated to the ancient concept of vitalism.

As shown in the quote above, Schopenhauer acknowledged that will-to-live included an unconscious motivating force, and that the force was present in lower forms of life. However, as he developed his system, he equated will-to-live with desire and thus dealt primarily with conscious manifestations. For him, since will-to-live was based on desire that was ultimately unsatisfiable, life was a state of suffering, leading one to draw away from the life of the world toward an ideal of quiescent inactivity. Durant characterizes this work of his as "a great anthology of woe." *

Schweitzer strongly refuted Schopenhauer's life-negating philosophy. In will-to-live, Schweitzer found instead a fully positive concept, affirming life, and drawing one toward creative involvement and life-fulfillment. That sort of will-to-live is not unlike Aristotle's concept that life (indeed, all matter) contains its purpose within itself.

To express that idea, Aristotle coined the term entelecheia, using the roots entos (within), telos (purpose), and echein (to have). An entelechy was that which made matter (the mere elements of something) realize its potential form (its order or arrangement). For a living organism, it was the difference between its mere anatomy and its living function. It was its inner self-directed activity or its "indwelling purposiveness". *

Entelechy became the germ of vitalism, the doctrine that the life force is different from other forces in nature. That view of life withered as understandings of physicochemical function grew; yet as we have learned more of DNA and genetic programming and of the processes of homeostasis, it is ever more clear that at least in some sense, life does contain an "indwelling purposiveness".

A magazine photograph of Mount Saint Helens, taken only a few months after the devastating life-sterilizing eruption, shows a wild-flower growing on ashen slopes; the caption: "Flowering volcano." Life continually reaches out seeking its domain. Injured, it seeks to repair itself. It attempts to respond appropriately to its environment, reacting to changes in light, temperature, moisture, nourishment, reaching out to prevail. It reproduces, seeking survival not only for the individual but for the species.

In man, this metabolic, autonomic aspect of life is overlaid with a much higher order of consciousness of self, of needs, of others, and of environment, all giving further definition to will-to-live. Encompassing all is the complex world of thought, conscious and unconscious, directing life according to ideas and necessities decreed within. Options become greater and choices are forced.

Now, survival faces not only the challenge of the external environment, but is also placed at risk by the constant tension between will-to-live and conscious desire to act. Life is placed at the mercy of thought, for in failing to affirm life, thought can act out a denial of will-to-live and eventually loose all.


In Wholeness and Ethic, we discussed civilization, using Heraclitus' concept of logos as meaning, and Buber's "I-thou". We were lead to the consideration that ethics arise naturally from the meaning given primal encounter, the primitive dialogue of shared existence. Schweitzer reached the same point by answering Descartes.

Humans find self defined in the inexorable link between thought and existence. Descartes, in seeking "the first principle of Philosophy" sought to "reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt." But if he supposed that all was false, he was left with the premise that if he were thinking, he must Be. "Je pense, donc je suis" ("I think, therefore I am"). * "I see very clearly that in order to think, it is necessary to exist." Thought does not define existence, but the fact of thought proves my existence.

However, "I think, therefore I am" cannot itself be the starting point of philosophy. Descartes' first principle of Philosophy in modern usage would be read as first principle of knowledge. Schweitzer held that starting philosophy at the "I think" premise was both arbitrary and unnecessarily abstract, and held no promise of developing an ethical view. **

Schweitzer argued that if we seek to develop an ethic based on knowledge alone, we are overcome by the vastness of human experience. We are rapidly overwhelmed by the extent of human knowledge, and by its rate of growth. Pressing our quest merely results in ever more complex descriptions of ever more minute phenomena. *

Clearly, Schweitzer's objection was to a reductive view of knowledge. From our perspective now, it is in the reductive mode that no one can comprehend the whole, or harmonize its meaning with the aims and meaning of individuals within it.

Schweitzer held that we need to look "behind" reductive Cartesian thought. In so doing, we find that existence preceeds thought. Elemental consciousness of existence, of will-to-live, is the prerequisite of thought.

Ethics arise from the quality of meaning or the tension existing between individuals and between the individual and the group. There is also the constant internal tension between an individual's will-to-live and his desire to act. Thus from Schweitzer's concept of will-to-live arises the possibility of the widest possible ground of understanding of ethics, for there I begin to understand not only my relationship to others and to the world, but also my relationships within myself.

It is important to note that in Schweitzer's work, reverence for life is not a value itself, that we derive entirely within consciousness. Reverence for life is instead the attitude arising from awareness of existence. It is under the influence of this attitude, and in awareness of life's realities, that values are produced that are consistent with a naturally determined will-to-live.

Yet, ethics cannot be drawn from a wellspring of sentiment and intuition discovered "behind" thought. The link between existence and thought holds fast. The ethical tension between my will-to-live and my thought can only be disrupted clinically, for example by death or coma. While I am aware, the ethical tension is always exerted within me, and ethical discoveries and applications to life, though guided by my awareness of my will-to-live and will-to-live around me, may not be realized without thought. The ethics of reverence for life require a rigorous analysis of all factors bearing on a life-question, and appeal to a strong sense of personal responsibility: "To become ethical means to begin to think sincerely."


Though it is Schweitzer who brings it into modern philosophy, the principle of respect for life is by no means new. The sixth century BCE (Heraclitus, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mahavira, Gautama Buddha) shines so brightly in the history of religious and ethical consciousness that it seems to represent a major evolutionary leap in human adaptive thought. A profound respect for life was the defining principle of the Buddha's teaching. Mahavira, the contemporary of Buddha who inspired Jainism, taught reverence for life as the principle of ahimsa, which is reflected especially through the practice of non-injury and non-violence to life. Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged the great influence on himself of a Jaina teacher, and made ahimsa the guiding principle of modern political action (satyagraha).

Many religions have distorted early ethical insights and "strained gnats" in advancing doctrine and ritual. Jainist ascetics did so literally by wearing mesh masks to avoid ingesting even gnats. They were vegetarian, but also avoided agriculture, leaving the killing of plants to those less ethical.

Jainism's ancient ideal of asceticism promoted escape from the world system more than ethical involvement in it. It was that element of Indian thought in general which influenced Schopenhauer's views of life-denial and gained Schweitzer's condemnation. In stark contrast, a systems view of ethics draws one toward ethical encounter with the world, and toward realization of inextricable involvement with it, and is illustrated in the lives of Schweitzer, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and many others less well known.

Schweitzer's ethic was non-doctrinal and non-ritual. Still, to modern ears, reverence for life sounds somehow religious. However, reverence for life is not a creed. Schweitzer's original word was Ehrfurcht; its German roots translate literally as "glory-fear" or "glory-awe". Schweitzer speaks in language of awe, wonder, and respect rather than of ritualized worship. In French, the word is respect; in Latin, veneratio. Each conveys a slightly different meaning. Reverence for life includes all of these meanings.

The meaning of reverence for life does include a sense of spiritual or mystical oneness with all life. Though a pastor and a theologian, Schweitzer develops the concept in terms of philosophy, not appealing to the concept of Divine Creator. Yet he was concerned about theological rigidity that dampened a sense of spiritual adventure and inquiry, and near the end of his life, as reflected in conversations with Norman Cousins, he still harbored the hope that reverence for life would open the door to an evolving Christianity. *

Expressed as it is in philosophical existential terms, however, reverence for life does not conflict with any of the major "true" religions.* It does of course conflict with all ideas, religious or otherwise, which negate the meaning of life and seek its destruction. The attitude of reverence for life enriches religion, and provides a basis for broader understanding among peoples of different religion.

In recent times, reverence for life has also been subject to confusion with the political slogan "right to life". However, reverence for life is not a cause. It cannot be argued in terms of a political right. The idea of a political right implies a measure which can be guaranteed by the state. States can take life, as history amply demonstrates, but no state can give or guarantee it. Indeed, the State is only a creation of life itself. Nor does reverence for life give rise to any particular political agenda, for people of good will, equally committed to reverence for life, will inevitably encounter situations in which they have entirely different political views.

Reverence for life is not a code. Schweitzer refused to define rules or values for individual lives, and stressed instead individual responsibility and individual decision making. Reverence for life cannot be engendered by defining rules; nor does it lend itself to relative value scales for life.


Since the publication of Civilization and Ethics, there have been many changes in civilization. Extraordinary growth in information and technology, scarcity and maldistribution of resources, economic diversity, and ethnologic and philosophic heterogeniety all bring a higher order of complexity to today's problems, and make more difficult the achieving of a consensus on values. Yet without a value system, we are unable even to begin to answer Socrates' (and our) question, "How should we live?"

Our various value systems are based primarily on prideful preservation of parochial interests. We compete for attention to our own concerns, or to those of our small closely-held ethnic, professional, or religious groups. We seek to define ourselves by the small differences which distinguish us, and we draw away from the search for the common values which could unite us.

The systems ethic, however, works toward unity and wholeness. In will-to-live, we find no cultural or religious bias, and we stand united. In the ethics of reverence for life, we are set free to draw together to begin to meet the needs of all life around us.




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