Sadism, Involuntary Nativistic (Albert Schweitzer)

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”[1] 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.

[1] 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).

2 thoughts on “Sadism, Involuntary Nativistic (Albert Schweitzer)

  1. Karim, how do you think he might have gotten enclosed in that unremitting positivity ? Fear of his own agression, or revulsion, possibly, at imperialistic culture?

    • I think that most peoples’ perdurable positivity is an outcome of self-preservation. As living beings we want to persist. Therefore, interrupting the persistance of living beings must be bad. Schweitzer falls prey to a mistake of category, though. Since species do not want to persist in time. And then, of course there were the insinuations of his environment and of his profession: It is good to render living beings persist – to see to it that there is life. Life in abundance.

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