If we apply the same ethical standard to both sentient and insentient life, as Schweitzer tried to do, we either treat insentient life in a way that renders living all but impossible—we don’t harvest grain or pick vegetables and fruit—or we engage in unnecessary cruelty to sentient beings—we kill them for food, conduct medical experiments on them and the like.2 Ethical standards that are appropriate to sentient beings are inappropriate to insentient beings and vice versa. It is entirely proper to treat insentient beings as a class, without showing great concern for individuals—to protect forests, for example, but not individual trees (except, as I noted above, for the indirect harm that may be done to the insects and birds who live in the tree). But because the ability to suffer and the love of life reside in the individual, we must protect sentient beings as individuals, not as aggregates. Schweitzer’s will-to-live as formulated in The Philosophy of Civilization ignores a crucial element, perhaps the crucial element, in the ethical equation.
Like water, people follow the path of least resistance, and given a choice between treating plants as if they were sentient and treating animals as if they were insentient, most of us will choose the latter every time. Even Schweitzer—who went to extraordinary lengths to practice his boundless ethic in his daily life—illustrates the point. For most of his life, he continued to eat meat, becoming vegetarian only in his final years (Free 40). Better late than never. I was in my forties before I became a vegan. But what is troubling here is that Schweitzer arrived at his ethic of reverence for life at the age of 40 and for another four decades was able to justify to himself continuing to eat meat. Another example is vivisection, which Schweitzer, the medical doctor, defended to the end of his life, arguing only that it should be conducted as seldom as possible and then with every effort to minimize the animals’ suffering (Free 36-37).
Here, however, we have to admit that a semblance of a case can be made for vivisection on the basis of “reverence for life” that cannot be made for meat eating. It is, in essence, the case made by Utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer. Vivisectors balance one set of lives against another set of lives. And it can be argued—as Singer and Schweitzer do, although from different philosophical premises—that a scientist could in good conscience decide that the suffering that his experiments will alleviate outweighs the suffering that they will cause, as in the case of the polio vaccine, where the suffering and death of millions of primates led to a vaccine that saved even more millions of human children (Singer 67).
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that ultimately, however you formulate it, it depends on a utilitarian calculus that presumes it is acceptable to cause suffering to one being for the sake of alleviating the suffering of another. Except in cases of warding off direct and immediate attack, I think that this is a very problematic premise on which to base public policy or societal behavior—and Schweitzer was attempting to construct an ethic that would undergird all of civilization—because ultimately it is the excuse behind which all tyranny, oppression and cruelty hide. It is a premise that has loosed far more suffering on the world than it has ever assuaged. Nearly everyone who promotes evil as public policy does so on the grounds that it will lead to a greater good. “The greater good” is the most destructive force ever unleashed upon the world.
The second problem—of which Singer is aware, but Schweitzer was not—arises from the fact that vivisection of unwilling or uninformed human subjects is practiced only rarely and usually behind a veil of lies and secrecy; when it comes to light, it is invariably the subject of universal condemnation.3 Vivisection upon unwilling and uninformed nonhuman animals, however, is business as usual and widely approved by the global public as important to human health and longevity. In today’s terminology, vivisection is speciesist (Singer 67-68). In the context of “reverence for life,” this systematic infliction of suffering and death upon a class of beings with which the vivisector does not identify in order to benefit a class with which he does identify undercuts Schweitzer’s cardinal rule of showing “to all will-to-live the same reverence that I show my own.” Vivisection devalues the will-to-live of animals in favor of the will-to-live of human beings. And when the case-by-case balancing that Schweitzer talks about can result in the consistent devaluation of another category of living beings for the benefit of one’s own category, reverence for life becomes an empty phrase.
Schweitzer was, however, acutely aware of the larger problem that living beings regularly come into mortal conflict with other living beings in ways that sometimes require us to destroy one life in order to preserve or support another. No ethical system yet devised has been able to cope successfully with this moral flaw built into the structure of the universe. Most ethical systems presume that it is always possible to act ethically, no matter what situation we may find ourselves in. We may not always do so, we may not always see clearly what the ethical course of action is, but there always is an ethical course of action open to us, however unpleasant it may be. And so, traditional ethical systems tend to be guidelines for deciding which of the available options in any given situation is the ethical option.
The presumption that there is always an ethical course of action available to us—or to phrase it differently, that necessity can render moral an act that would otherwise be immoral—makes ethics relative to the situation. That is to say, what is unethical in one situation might well be ethical in another. Schweitzer tells us that in an absolute ethic, such as reverence for life, it is never ethical to take life, no matter what the circumstances. Since sometimes you will take a life—whether by action or inaction—no matter what you do, according to Schweitzer, it is sometimes necessary to act unethically, not for the sake of some greater good, but simply because there is no course of action available that does not result in the death of a living being. A variation on an example that is frequently invoked in the animal rights debate will illustrate the point.
Following a shipwreck, you are alone on a life raft in shark infested waters. A human child and a dog are swimming in the water beside you, and a crate of food and water comes floating by. It is a tiny life raft, and you can bring in the dog, the child or the crate. Or you can jump into the water yourself and put the child and the dog into the raft or put the food into the raft with either the child or the dog. But if more than two of the four entities in play are in the raft, it will swamp. The question is, What is the ethical thing for you to do?
The premise of the exercise is that there is an ethical course of action, and that the task of ethics is to help you find it. But this presumes that it is sometimes ethical to sacrifice one life for another, and the only questions to be decided are, Which life? and In what circumstances? And this presumption creates what for Schweitzer is an unacceptable compromise between ethics and reality, and in so doing makes ethics relative to the situation. That is to say, what is unethical in one situation—letting a dog drown, for example—might well be ethical in another.
When we fail to acknowledge this, as most of us do, we avoid responsibility for our actions by pretending that they are ethical, which makes it easier to act more unethically than is absolutely necessary. In order to salve our consciences, we willingly walk out onto a slippery slope. In a case where we have no choice but to act unethically, we must carefully review the specific circumstances and the likely consequences of each possible course of action and then simply do the best we can without any ready-made set of rules to guide us.
“Ordinary ethics seek compromises. . . . they produce experimental, relative ethics. They offer as ethical what is in reality not ethical but a mixture of non-ethical necessity and ethics. . . The ethics of reverence for life know nothing of a relative ethic. They rank only the maintenance and promotion of life as good. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances they take place, they condemn as evil. They do not keep in store adjustments between ethics and necessity all ready for use. . . They do not abolish for [a human being] all ethical conflicts, but compel him to decide in each case how far he can remain ethical and how far he must submit himself to the necessity for destruction of and injury to life, and therewith incur guilt. It is not by receiving instruction about agreement between ethical and necessary that a man makes progress in ethics, but only by coming to hear more and more plainly the voice of the ethical, by becoming ruled more and more by the longing to preserve and promote life, and by becoming more and more obstinate in resistance to the necessity for destroying or injuring life.” (Philosophy 317)
The point that Schweitzer is making here is of crucial importance for believers in an ethic of compassion for the same reason that it was a crucial point for Schweitzer. Sentient beings live in mortal conflict with one another. And try as we might, we cannot make ourselves exceptions to that rule. It is, as I said before, a flaw built into the structure of the universe. Even the vegan food I eat was produced at the cost of the lives of insects, worms, small mammals, and ground nesting birds. We can strive to minimize our participation in the conflict, but we cannot eliminate it. And the only guidance that Schweitzer gives us for resolving our dilemma is that we must become “ruled more and more by the longing to preserve and promote life, and [become] more and more obstinate in resistance to the necessity for destroying or injuring life.” It is not a lot of help. But Schweitzer doesn’t intend it to be. Relying on outside help in the form of codes that lay down specific rules for behavior governing every circumstance leads to confusion about what ethical behavior really is; it makes us morally lazy and irresponsible. It is only by recognizing evil as evil every time we do it that we will be able to reduce over time the evil that we do.