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Ethics of Reverence for Life

Updated: Sep 7, 2023


Albert Schweitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize (1952) awardee, was a missionary, theologian, humanitarian and philosopher who believed in “ethics of reverence for life.”

Schweitzer reasoned that the morality of man should extend to the entire creation of the universe and those relationships should be both deepened and widened. He also believed that all humans should live a portion of their lives for others. His ethics embraced not only humans but also all living creatures.

Schweitzer summarized reverence of life ethic:

Man’s ethics must not end with man, but should extend to the universe. He must regain the consciousness of the great chain of life from which he cannot be separated. He must understand that all creation has its value. Life should only be negated when it is for a higher value and purpose- not merely for selfish or thoughtless actions. What then results for man is not only a deepening of relationships, but a widening of relationships.”

Schweitzer recognised reverence for life as an absolute ethic and this doesn’t mean that this has to be applied absolutely in every situation. He saw the reverence for life ethic as a goal, an ideal, for which we humans must work to.

“It [reverence for life] cannot be completely achieved; but that fact does not really matter. In this sense, reverence for life is an absolute ethic. It does not lay down specific rules for each possible situation. It simply tells us that we are responsible for the lives about us.”

He further stated:

“True, in practice we are forced to choose. At times we have to decide arbitrarily which forms of life, and even which particular individuals, we shall save, and which we shall destroy. But the principle of reverence of life is universal.”

Reverence for life means that all life is valuable and important, and that no life should be sacrificed without compassionate consideration of the life lost compared to the greater good that sacrifice may yield. Further, reverence of life implies that though life may be lost, it should never be sacrificed in a callous manner, and that an act of potential harm should be committed only after determining that the potential greater good exceeds the harm that occurs from loss of life.

Some defining characteristics of ethics of reverence for life:

  1. This ethics is rational because it is developed as a result of thinking about life

  2. This ethics is absolute

  3. The ethics of reverence for life is universal insofar as it applies to all living beings: “In no instance we can say of life: ‘This has no value’.”

To conclude in Schweitzer’s own words:“Once man begins to think about the mystery of his life and the links connecting him with the life that fills the world, he cannot but accept, for his own life and all other that surrounds him, the principle of reverence for life. He will act according to this principle of the ethical affirmation of life in everything he does…. It [Life] will become, instead of mere living, a genuine experience in life.”

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