As a doctor and a friend to animals the great merits of Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) seem impossible to contest. Schweitzer’s writings, however, tend to be reduced, nowadays, to just two ideas. “Reverence before life” is the most universally known of them; but often cited also is his formulation: “I am life that wishes to live and that finds itself in the midst of life that wishes to live.” But, as is so often the case, Schweitzer’s ideas repay a second and closer look, and an examination of whether these fine-sounding ideas do in fact concord with other statements of Schweitzer’s and whether they do in fact promote the welfare of animals.
I am life that wishes to live and that finds itself in the midst of life that wishes to live.
Schweitzer calls this proposition “the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness” and thus the proposition from which all philosophy must necessarily proceed. What he overlooks here is that the following proposition also holds true:
I am life in the midst of life that HAS to live.
No human being and no animal was ever in a position to say “yes” or “no” to the beginning of its own life. Each was obliged to live because his or her parents wanted it so or, in the case of animals, because these latter are simply driven by Nature to procreate. Whereas human beings who have become unwilling to go on living have, in principle, the option to put an end to their own existence, an animal, even if it is gravely ill or seriously injured, must go on existing until the bitter end, since an animal has no free will and is unable to distance itself from itself sufficiently to commit an act of suicide. This diktat of life applies particularly to our farm and working animals. Above all in a livestock compound it would be entirely reprehensible to raise such a claim as “I am life that wishes to live and that finds itself in the midst of life that wishes to live”. The only appropriate thing to say in such a place would be: “I am a human being in the midst of creatures that must live because they have been bred and raised to live in order that someone can make money from their living.” Here one might object that, in speaking of “life that wants to live”, Schweitzer had not been thinking of livestock animals but rather of animals living in that oft-evoked “freedom of the wild”. Schweitzer, however, himself makes mention of the fact, in his publication Culture and Ethics, that the lives of countless animals “in the wild” is likewise plagued by distress, sickness and pain. Schweitzer wishes, nonetheless, that as many living beings as possible should come to exist. He mounts a plea in favour of “there being as many wills-to-life as possible upon the earth” and writes that “it is a good thing to preserve and promote life and an evil thing to destroy or to hinder it.” (Schweitzer, Kultur und Ethik) This is Albert Schweitzer’s imperative to “go forth and multiply”.
On the topic of “reverence for life” Schweitzer says: “This reverence bids us to look out, together, for opportunities to bring succour to animals in the midst of all the suffering that human beings inflict upon them, in order that, even if only for a moment, they might step outside of the incomprehensible horror of existence.” He himself cared, as a doctor, not only for human beings but also for sick animals. Schweitzer, then, recognizes both: an imperative for all creatures to “go forth and multiply” and the horror of creaturely existence. It is for this reasons that his ethics are deeply problematical. On the one hand, he wishes that as many new living beings as possible should come to exist. To hinder this counts, for him, as “evil”. On the other hand, however, his ethics of reverence for life is required so as to mitigate the horror of creaturely existence. By affirming the numerical increase of all living beings he also affirms, as its unconscious accomplice, that very horror which he wishes, through his ethics of reverence for life, to limit and oppose. First to wish that a maximum possible number of animals, be they living in the wild or kept as livestock, should enter into a horrific existence, and then to offer succour and support to them on the specious basis of an “ethics of reverence for life” – this is an unconscious and involuntary sadism.
 The expression “reverence for life” was not coined by Schweitzer but rather, already in 1902, by the important animal rights activist Magnus Schwantje (1877–1959).
In response to the question of how God could have set about the work of creation at all, W. D. Schnurre said: “Creation can only arise out of guilt. Because the creator must be ruthless.” (Der Schattenfotograf) “Generative ruthlessness” designates the fact that the huge majority of human beings tend to welcome the creation of new human beings quite regardless of the conditions under which these latter are going to have to live. In everyday life this “generative ruthlessness” is confirmed by such placatory pronouncements as “Children cry, it’s natural!”, uttered in response to any worried enquiry from another adult about what has upset a child. To the child, meanwhile, there are directed such >paternihilistic dicta as “Just put up with it!”
A philosophy of natality is sometimes praised as an antidote to a supposedly death-dominated philosophical existentialism, represented above all by the Heideggerian version of this latter which, so it is said, places life in the shadow of our eventual ceasing-to-be. The way to proceed, so it is argued, is rather to conceive of existence from the perspective of its beginning with a birth, instead of thinking of being as a “being-toward-death”. But a philosophy of natality can only become an antidote to the irrevocable necessity of dying if it questions back before the beginning of a person’s life. Such a flashback to before the start of my own existence serves to make it clear to me that it was not necessary for me to come to be at all. If being-toward-death places life in the shadow of no-longer-being-existent, this flashback to before the start of one’s life illuminates one’s own existence as something that, together with my own having-to-die and that of those near and dear to me, did not necessarily have to be. Every “existence as being-toward-death” appears superfluous and contingent. Because every “existence on the way to death” is at the same time an “existence from the beginning of a life” and this “beginning of life” is something that, with the progressive loosening of the grip of tradition on our culture and the increasing autonomy of women, passes more and more unequivocally into the sphere of what we can either do or leave undone – that is to say, into the sphere of responsibility of freely-choosing persons. The ->egofugal “flashback” before the respective beginning of each person’s life can be considered as a core element of a philosophy of non-natality.
If one understands the philosophy of natality as a thought which “flashes back” before the beginning of a person’s life, the positive character of this thought becomes clear: It is no longer in thrall to death inasmuch as its ethical imperative now runs: do not burden others with having to live a life in the shadow of one’s own having-to-die or of the having-to-die of one’s near and dear ones.
The true homme revolté is not Camus’ anti-hero, who confronts the absurd with a cry of “nonetheless!”, but rather that person who, by means of natal continence, rises up against bionomic and socionomic imperatives and thereby sees to it that no more humans are exposed to the absurdity of being-in-the-world. If there only develops out of Camus’ individual “revolt” a truly all-encompassing revolution, then “the absurd” will vanish with the vanishing of Man himself.
Let us imagine that medicine makes a sudden enormous leap forward in its diagnostic capacities, so that parents are able to receive a diagnostic report on the entire future health of their children as soon as these children are 15 years old. Parents who take advantage of this offer would be informed of the specific organic failings from which their children would eventually die and they would also receive photos of the children in question’s faces as they grew older, at intervals of around 15 years, right up to extreme old age. Would we then see, in these parents, the emergence of something like a nativistic remorse?
In the face of death even a utopian spirit such as Ernst Bloch gives up all hope and formulates the notion of a retrojective devaluation of existence along with all its aspirations: “The jaws of death grind all and the maw of decomposition gulps down all teleology; death is the great dispatcher of the organic world – but to this latter’s catastrophe.” [>Catastrophe of Death] “The grave, darkness, decomposition and worms once had and still have, when the awareness of them is not suppressed, a kind of retrospectively devaluing force.” (Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung) For Bloch “death, considered as the axe of nothingness, is the hardest of all non-utopias.” (Prinzip Hoffnung) The only strange thing here is that Bloch does not trace out further all the consequences of that foundering of the “principle of hope” upon the àHardness of Reality which he here admits does take place.
Expressed succinctly, what a >Perpetrator of Existence retroactively confirms is:
– that it is a good thing to be thrust into the world without one’s consent;
– that the world into which he was thrust is a sufficiently good one that one may, with a good conscience, bring further human beings into it;
– that he himself has turned out sufficiently well mentally and physically, and is sufficiently well suited to the task of raising and educating, that it is a good thing that he should allow parts of his genetic heritage to take on form and substance in a new human being and should set about educationally moulding this new human being with the means at his disposal.
A non-explicit attitude discovered by G. Kohlbecher that, paradoxically, connects the thought of one’s own past non-existence with a threatening prenatal annihilation.
Retrojected (Backward-Facing) Longing for Death
Volker Jehle, the author of a comprehensive history of the work of Wolfgang Hildesheimer, identifies as one of this latter’s most fundamental thoughts that of “never having been born, a backward-facing longing for death…” (Volker Jehle: Wolfgang Hildesheimer. Werkgeschichte. Found by: GK) That this backward-facing wanting-never-to-have-been is classified by a reflective person as “death”, much like a forward-facing wanting-no-longer-to-be, is something that is far from standing to reason; on the contrary, it prompts to serious reflection. That even the longing for never-having-been tends to be judged by the measure of our death – i.e. of our future no-longer-being – is in fact astonishing and leads one to expect that the most basic propositions of antinatalism – “it would have been best if no one had ever come to exist at all” and “it is morally reprehensible to act in such a way that someone begins to exist” – may in fact be interpreted by certain addressees as if their own lives were thereby being placed in question and their deaths demanded.
[>Antinatalist Imposition and Resistance to Antinatalism, >Preconceptive-Retrojective Symbolic Suicide (also: Symbolic Retrojective Suicide)]