We tend to look at "the big picture." For most people, Reverence for Life refers to human life, not the "lower" life forms. Even those who are actively involved in caring for the ecosystem might work to preserve another species, but not necessarily care about individuals within a species. They might express concern for the species of earthworm, even avoid stepping on one, yet not go to the length of moving it out of the street so it may survive longer. Schweitzer saw life a bit differently.
He believed, like the Jains, in "unconditional respect for all forms of life" (the video "Ahimsa"). The stories about Schweitzer feeding the ants in his study reflect statements by Jains that "all life is equal . . . therefore, I look on even an ant as equal to me" ("Ahimsa"). How, then, was Schweitzer able to make life and death decisions between living organisms? As a physician he knew that the choices were necessary, and seemingly he had no difficulty in making these decisions when the question was the survival of a bacterium over against the survival of a human. He said, "The necessity to destroy and to injure life is imposed upon me . . . . In order to preserve my own existence, I must defend myself against the existence which injures it" (Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization, 316).
A few months ago I was told that I had cervical cancer, and that a number of organs would need to be removed in order to kill the existing cancer and prevent its spread. I certainly had no crisis of conscience when I was faced with the destruction of cancer cells versus my continued life. I was extremely grateful when I learned that much of the tissue that was removed, and thus killed, was healthy, since that meant the cancer had not yet begun to spread. Nor did I object to killing bacteria when I was told to use anti-bacterial soap to keep my incision from developing an infection. I certainly agree with Schweitzer that any organism which threatens my existence should be destroyed. Killing cancer cells, or a flu virus, is a fairly easy decision, of course. There are certainly much more difficult decisions to be made about which organism should live, even in life-threatening situations.
In the video "Ahimsa," it was noted that many Jains are physicians, and thus are faced with these kinds of issues every day. After mentioning the tuberculosis and cancer clinics established and maintained by Jains, a monk who had been a physician was introduced. He spoke of one of the most controversial of all health issues, abortion, saying, "Killing is wrong, but in cases where termination of the pregnancy is desirable because of the health of the mother . . . this is accepted medical practice, and is accepted among ethical people as well" ("Ahimsa"). If the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, then the choice may be made to terminate the pregnancy, thus losing one life instead two. It was not stated, but can be inferred, that if no life is endangered by the pregnancy an abortion would not be accepted among ethical people. Obviously, these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Schweitzer also saw the need to approach each situation individually, making the decision whether killing was necessary over and over again.
Schweitzer’s lifestyle, if it had been based in ahimsa, would seem paradoxical. He fed ants, yet killed fish for Parsifal the pelican. For most of his life he was not a vegetarian, but enjoyed the various meats that appeared at his daily meals. However, Reverence For Life is not entirely based in ahimsa. It should be remembered that, although Schweitzer admired some of Jainism, saying "their ethics is correct in demanding kindness and mercy not only to human beings but to all living creatures" (Ara Barsam, "The Influence of Jainism on the Thought of Albert Schweitzer"), he rejected it as a complete ethical system. Schweitzer felt that Jainism did not go far enough, that ahimsa was merely a practice of non-violence and avoidance of hurt, whereas he felt that "it is not enough to avoid the bad, one must do good . . . . Reverence for Life requires deliberately working toward healing" (Barsam). He believed that "Reverence for Life is not to paralyze, but to open opportunities" (Barsam). These beliefs led Schweitzer to become a doctor, thus "a mass murderer of the bacteria" (Schweitzer, 317). Reverence for Life led him to choose between lives and between goods, choosing always what he believed to be the greater good. Therefore, he could do good for Parsifal by feeding him, even though this meant he had to kill fish to do so. It should also be remembered that Parsifal would have killed the fish himself if he were not a pet, but all the pelicans I have ever met would much rather be hand fed than go fishing. They seem to like people, or at least people with fish. Either way, however, the fish are going to become dinner.
Most Native American people see all life as interconnected. For the Navajo, as long as each piece of creation is kept in balance with all other pieces, the nation and the land will be healthy. Because every part of the world depends on every other part, it is wrong for humans simply to use that which is around them. Humans depend on meat for food, but it is necessary to recognize the essence of the creature that is killed for food, and the fact that the hunter and the hunted are related. Each animal which is killed for food is thanked for giving its life and is treated with respect. Even the corn and other vegetables are thanked and celebrated. Nothing is wasted, because this would damage the balance, causing illness in the people and the land. The lack of balance and concern for the interconnectedness of all of nature by the "civilized" nations has led to environmental disaster worldwide.
If we take the time to think about it, our daily decisions about life and death are usually not as dramatic or as easy as the one I made about my cancer cells. We have to decide what to eat, whether or not to swat the mosquito, if we should walk around the snail on the sidewalk or place it in the grass, and so on. For many people the decision as to whether to eat meat can be a difficult one, particularly if they had not really understood where those neat plastic packages in Lucky’s Supermarket started out. I was raised on a farm, and grew up understanding that certain animals were destined to become my dinner. We had the responsibility of caring for them to the best of our ability, not merely because we wanted healthy food, but because they were alive and deserved good treatment. The sheep and chickens we raised were given names, played with, and eventually killed, butchered and eaten. It was part of life according to our respective places on the food chain.
Because of these experiences I know that my hamburger used to be a cow. I know where those plastic packages started out, and do not have a problem consuming what I know to have been a living creature, raised for the specific purpose of being eaten. I know that an egg I buy in the store was never fertilized, so it could never become a chicken, thus no life is endangered in my eating it. I know that buying dairy products in the store will not deprive a calf of its food, for the calf was weaned before the cow’s milk was made available for sale.
I was also taught that some wild creatures were dangerous to our farm animals and to humans. At an early age I was taught to shoot, and what I was allowed to shoot at. The deadly cottonmouth moccasin was fair game, but the corn-stealing crow was not. Moccasins are not afraid of anything and will actually attack, but a crow can be frightened out of the fields. Those early teachings continue to affect my life and death decisions. Mosquitoes are annoying, but they are the main food source for fruit bats and other creatures, so I wear Skin So Soft and try to avoid swatting them. I am allergic to bees, yet I prefer to have my husband catch them and put them outdoors to killing them. If it comes down to me or the bee, I will choose for my own life every time.
It seems clear that Reverence for Life is an ethic that can be applied in everyday life. The important, and perhaps most difficult, point is that the decision must be made by each person over and over in every situation. The big, one-time decisions like killing cancer cells seem simple compared to the need to be constantly aware of all the life decisions that come up in a day. It should not even be thought that "this is the decision I made last time, so I will make the same one this time," as no two situations are ever exactly identical. I may have made a lifestyle decision that includes eating meat, but each time I plan a meal I make that decision again. Each time I see a bee I must decide whether to avoid it, catch it or kill it. Reverence for Life requires constant awareness that the decision should be that which would be in favor of the preservation of existence and the greater good.
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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