» Karnes – Applying the Ethic of Reverence for Life

In his book Out of My Life and Thought, Albert Schweitzer argues that humanity is in a period of spiritual decline. Having discovered the principle of Reverence for Life, which contains the ethical affirmation of life, Schweitzer wanted to effect change in the world by helping people "to think more deeply and more independently" (223). This is an interesting avenue through which to look at the abortion issue in America whose two sides fight for the right to life and the right to choose. Each side contains an ethical principle about which Schweitzer felt very deeply. Schweitzer has Reverence for Life, but he also argues that independent thought is necessary for an individual to be capable of living this ethic. Therefore, I will first discuss Schweitzer’s views on independent thought and how they pertain to the right to choose, and then on Reverence for Life, relating it to the right to life. I will conclude with the consideration of how, with Schweitzerian ethics, these two can be used together.

coverFirst, a brief review of the opposing sides. The Pro Life faction, which supports the right to life, posits that an unborn fetus is a human life and therefore has all the rights of a human being, including the right to life. Pro Lifers argue that it is the responsibility of government to protect all human life by making abortion illegal. Some Pro Lifers support abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life, while others do not support abortion under any circumstance. Many Pro Lifers are also against sex education and birth control.

The people who support the right to choose call themselves Pro Choice, and advocate both sex education and birth control. Some agree and some disagree with the Pro Lifers that an unborn fetus is a human life. Regardless of each Pro Choicer’s view on the status of the fetus, the argument they defend together is that our government is not the appropriate body to make this difficult decision: the body of the mother is.

Independent Thought and the Right to Choose

William R. LaFleur wrote in his book, Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan, of our desire to define "life." Many think that if we could accomplish that, things would fall into place, and our ethical dilemmas would begin to dissolve. He observes that our society seems to believe that with sufficient definitions salvation from our problems can be achieved. It is "as if matters of substantive difference do not exist and the only problem we have is the relatively easy one of clarifying a few key terms" (14). LaFleur also suggests that our desire for agreement on definitions is connected with another belief our society has: "if only we could pass the ‘right’ laws or repeal certain other laws, our society would be on the road to solving its deepest social problems" (14).

In the case of abortion, Americans are looking to the courts for the solution to this ethical dilemma. We hope that someone else will tell us what makes a person "dead," and at what "point" in time life begins. By accomplishing this, we think we will be able to distinguish between "acts that are innocuous and even charitable from ones that are murderous and cruel. Thus we try to pull off moral miracles with words and definitions" (15). In so doing, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can pass the responsibility of our ethical choices and actions from ourselves to someone or something else.

This exemplifies the reason Schweitzer described the spirit of our age as being "filled with contempt for thought" (Schweitzer, 223). People doubt the efficacy of using thought to answer the question in life that brings meaning and substance to it, namely, what is our relationship to the universe? The problem is compounded because people not only neglect thought, they also mistrust it (224). This is because the "organized political, social, and religious associations of our time are at work convincing the individual not to develop convictions through his own thinking but to assimilate the ideas they present to him" (224). This makes a thinking person at least inconvenient and perhaps even ominous to organized institutions because they cannot trust him to comply uniformly with their agendas. It is within this uniformity that corporate bodies believe they have their power. The spirit of the age ignores the fact that human progress is a result of thought, and that there could be future achievements because of it. Instead it sets its course to discredit individual thought every way it can (224).

People today are constantly being exposed to influences that tend to rob them of confidence in their own thinking. The atmosphere is of intellectual dependence and it pervades every aspect of what people hear and read: from the people they meet, to the political parties and associations that claim them as their own (225). Convictions are repeatedly forced upon the individual, and refuse to let a person find her or himself.

By the spirit of the age, then, the man of today is forced into skepticism about his own thinking, so that he may become receptive to what he receives from authority. He cannot resist this influence because he is overworked, distracted, and incapable of concentrating. Moreover, the material dependence that is his lot has an effect on his mind, so he finally believes that he is not qualified to come to his own conclusions. (225)

Schweitzer points out that individuals are also intimidated by the "prodigious development in knowledge" (225). New discoveries are beyond their comprehension, so people are forced to accept what they do not understand. Scientific truth becomes yet another factor contributing to the doubt one has about one’s own ability to judge (225). As a result, the modern individual no longer possesses self -confidence. "Behind a self-assured exterior he conceals an inner lack of confidence. In spite of his great technological achievements and material possessions, he is an altogether stunted being, because he makes no use of his capacity for thinking" (226).

Schweitzer warns that blindly accepting something as true without personal reflection retards the individual’s advance of reason. "Our very attempt to manipulate truth itself brings us to the brink of disaster" (227). Clearly, we understand this in other areas. Take the subject of math, for example. We would never have a math program that consisted in giving students the answers without the questions. Teaching students how to work through problems is the point of having math class. If we give them the tools they will have the opportunity to advance even further than we have. If we do not, we will not be passing on to future generations the ability to compute mathematically. Personal reflection on the abortion issue is not possible without sex education and options of birth control. As students of life, we know that the stakes are high. Through fear and laziness, we run the risk of cheating ourselves out of spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical independence. Until we take personal responsibility for our thinking, we will be in danger of remaining like children dependent upon others to meet all of our needs. "Only when we gain the confidence that we can find the truth through our own individual thought will we be able to arrive at living truth" (227).

Reverence for Life and the Right to Life

For Schweitzer, Reverence for Life answers the question of how human beings and the universe are related to one another. He asserts that all we know is this: everything that exists in the universe is the will to live manifesting itself. Human beings have both an active and a passive role. At the same time they are subject to world events, they are also capable of preserving or destroying the life that surrounds them (233).

Once man begins to think about the mystery of his life and the links connecting him with the life that fills the world, he cannot but accept, for his own life and all other life that surrounds him, the principle of Reverence for Life. He will act according to this principle of the ethical affirmation of life in everything he does. His life will become in every respect more difficult than if he lived for himself, but at the same time it will be richer, more beautiful, and happier. It will become, instead of mere living, a genuine experience of life (234).

Schweitzer notes that some people object to the ethic having too high a value on natural life. He responds by pointing out that the mistake all previous ethical systems have made includes the failure to deal with this mysterious value that life possesses. "Reverence for Life, therefore, is applied to natural life and the life of the mind alike" (235). In the case of abortion, this would make both the value of the mind to decide for itself important, and the choice to revere life important.

One of the most baffling aspects of the ethic of Reverence for Life is its lack of division between higher or lower and more or less valuable life. However, "it has its reasons for this omission" (235).

To undertake to establish universally valid distinctions of value between different kinds of life will end in judging them by the greater or lesser distance at which they stand from us human beings. Our own judgment is, however, a purely subjective criterion. Who among us knows what significance any other kind of life has in itself, as a part of the universe? (235).

In the abortion issue, this makes the question of whether or not the fetus is a human being irrelevant. It is an organism manifested in the universe with the will to live, and we are duty bound as thoughtful beings to respect its right to life. If we choose to take that life we must take responsibility for our actions. Ethical people will no longer be able to deem arbitrarily some life worthless, and willfully destroy it (235). "If he has been touched by the ethic of Reverence or Life, he injures and destroys life only under a necessity he cannot avoid, and never from thoughtlessness" (236).

The Pro Choice argument offers a perfect example of the type of situation in which an individual’s right to think and make choices can be defended, but we must always remember that with freedom comes responsibility. I believe that the Pro Lifers have the right ethic at heart. Unfortunately, the means by which they are striving to obtain this ethic will inevitably preclude a person’s ability to reach it. We must not only allow but encourage all people to be thinking individuals so that we can develop into human beings who live the ethic of Reverence for Life. Schweitzer gives us hope and direction to achieve these ethical goals. "If people can be found who revolt against the spirit of thoughtlessness and are sincere and profound enough to spread the ideals of ethical progress, we will witness the emergence of a new spiritual force strong enough to evoke a new spirit in mankind."


Published in Marvin Meyer and Kurt Bergel, eds., Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century (Syracuse:  Syracuse University Press, 2002).

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