Like its English cognate, the German noun Wille—at least in everyday usage—implies intention and desire, and therefore, consciousness. Likewise, the related verb wollen (first and third person singular, present active indicative: will), which can be translated into English as either “to will” or “to want,” is the common, everyday verb meaning “to want.” When a German speaker wants a stein of beer, she says “Ich will ein Stein.” “I want to go home” is “Ich will nach Haus gehen.” In the jargon of 19th century German philosophy, however, especially the bastardized Buddhism of Arthur Schopenhauer, the noun Wille acquired the meaning of a vital, but impersonal, force that is the ultimate reality underlying the world of appearances that we experience day-to-day. With this in mind, let’s revisit a statement of Schweitzer’s that I quoted above in the standard English translation. In Schweitzer’s original German, “I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live,” is “Ich bin Leben, dass leben will, inmitten von Leben, dass leben will” (Association Internationale),which can just as easily, and a lot more naturally, be translated, “I am life that wants to live surrounded by life that wants to live.” But the translator could not use the more straightforward, natural translation because “wants” implies conscious desire, and Schweitzer makes it clear in the passage about not picking a leaf or plucking a flower that he is including in Leben, “life,” everything that grows and reproduces, not simply beings who are sentient and conscious.
In the course of identifying his own will-to-live with all other wills-to-live, Schweitzer systematically confuses the technical, Schopenhaurian meaning of Wille with the commonsense, everyday meaning, a confusion that is facilitated by the happenstance that wollen can mean both “want” and “will.” We can empathize with other wills to live, he tells us, because we can experience our own. But if another will-to-live cannot experience itself (or anything else), what is there to empathize with? Consciousness can empathize with consciousness, but to say that consciousness can empathize with an unconscious force is to commit a pathetic fallacy. In short, Schweitzer anchors his ethical thinking to consciousness, which he initially identifies with the “will-to-live.” But he then uses the dual meaning of “will” to extend his ethic to unconscious beings, apparently failing to realize that he has cut it loose from its original moorings.
This equivocation is the undoing of reverence for life as Schweitzer describes it in The Philosophy of Civilization. An ethic based on love and compassion is grounded directly in experience. I know from immediate, undeniable experience that my pain is evil. Therefore, I can empathize with your pain and know apodictically that it is also evil. The empathy of an ethic based on love and compassion is a valid empathy. An ethic based on will-to-live understood (at least sometimes) as distinct from and prior to consciousness is grounded in an intellectual abstraction, not direct experience. In this regard, Schweitzer’s “will-to-live” differs little from Descartes’ “thought”. Its empathy is an illusion of abstract thinking.
To use Schweitzer’s examples that I quoted above, if I crush an insect I have destroyed a will-to-live that is conscious of itself and wants to continue living, wants to experience pleasure and avoid pain. I know that this is evil because I know directly, immediately, unarguably, that it would be evil if done to me. But neither the leaf nor the tree, the flower nor the plant on which it grows, is conscious. And so when I tear a leaf from a tree or pluck a flower, I do nothing wrong unless I indirectly harm a sentient being, such as a caterpillar for whom the leaf was food or shelter or a honeybee who needs the nectar from the flower. I have caused no pain. I have deprived of life nothing that wanted to live, nothing, in fact, that experienced life in any way. In terms of the suffering I have caused, I might as well have broken a rock with a hammer. All sentient beings are valid objects of love and compassion, and only sentient beings are valid objects of love and compassion. Comparing the crushing of an insect to pulling a leaf from a tree or picking a flower trivializes the crushing of the insect by negating the insect’s consciousness, and it is in that regard that reverence for life, as Schweitzer originally conceived it, falls short of an ethic based on love and compassion by trying to reach beyond it.