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Ethics and Values

The natural world displays values, but it is without ethics; ethics is an application of reason. But has ethics a foundation in the facts of experience?

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Ethics and Nature-Philosophy

Preface: I began this page years ago when I was only just beginning my study of Albert Schweitzer's thought. And so it is a bit more than a bit green. Also, what I wrote here must now be qualified by the ethics of Socrates. Apart from logic of language, my philosophical thinking only coalesced in my fifty-third year. (I must say, I think that neither Schweitzer nor Wittgenstein had much appreciation for the classical Greeks.)

World-view and Wandering

Albert Schweitzer believed that each of us was by nature intended to create a world-view [view of the world] for himself ([p. 57]) through "reflection about final and elemental [elementary] things" ([p. 61]). He saw evidence for this in that a "fundamental impulse to reflect about the universe [Welt, also translated as "world"] stirs us during those years in which we begin to think independently" ([p. 56]).

My willing and doing have real meaning and value only in proportion as the aims which action sets before itself can be justified as being in direct accord with my interpretation of my own and of other life. (The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization, Part I of The Philosophy of Civilization (The Dale Memorial Lectures, Oxford University, 1922), tr. C.T. Campion, 2nd rev. ed. (Adam & Charles Black, 1932), Chapter 5, p. 100)

By 'world-view' Schweitzer seems to have meant: a unified view [or, way of looking at or understanding or interpretation] of the nature and purpose of man (Life-philosophy) and of the natural world (Nature-philosophy). And he seems to have meant a rational world-view (which is different from the religious world-view of e.g. Catholic Christianity, although that is a unified picture of man and nature).

It seems that, although Socrates had a Life-philosophy -- the good for man is to live in accord with the excellence that is proper to his nature ("Know thyself"), which is something that thoroughgoing reason is able to discover -- he did not have a Nature-philosophy, and therefore in Schweitzer's sense, I believe, he did not have a [complete] world-view.

Schweitzer's use of language

It is often impossible for me to determine what Schweitzer is saying because of the way he uses language: he often mixes up verbal and real definitions and, in Part One of his Philosophy of Civilization, he seemed to share Kant's attitude that examples and illustrations are not necessary to understanding, thus making it difficult for me to clarify Schweitzer's ideas to myself -- as becomes apparent when I try to restate his ideas in my own words, to give an account of them to others. For Schweitzer world-view means -- i.e. not the word 'world-view' means ...

I wonder if many human beings could say that their life [their every action or even only the main current of their life] is directed by a world-view, or indeed that they even have developed a world-view. If I turn to myself, I find that I appear to be a wanderer through life's practical demands; I have -- or say I have -- ideals (which would be what Jesus' picture of belonging to the kingdom of God is for me ('God' as synonymous with 'the true [truth] and the good'), as well of course as Socrates' philosophy of thoroughgoing reason as the guide to how man should live his life; and there is a connection between these two ideas), as well as likes and dislikes (or cares and lack of cares) ... Hume wrote in his autobiography: "... I found an unsurmountable Aversion to every thing but the pursuits of Philosophy and general Learning" (18 April 1776). That is not a world-view, is it.

[But maybe that is the source of my wandering, that for me, as for Hume, our life is a pilgrimage in philosophy? Or has it scant to do with that, and very much to do with the second part of Know thyself? Of course in that form the question is impossible to answer.]

If we can discover no answer to the moral riddle of the natural world and are therefore forced to live in the midst of this mystery -- i.e. confusing world-picture -- must it also be the case that the meaning of our life has an essential relationship to the natural world, and that if the one makes no sense then neither can the other? But one can live a purposeful life without a world-view, for did Schweitzer have a world-view? He spoke of the ethic [ethics] of Reverence for Life, but I do not recall his referring to that idea as a world-view, but quite the contrary, and he speaks of the tragic "spectacle of life at war with itself": Man may revere life, but it seems that nature itself does not.

To understand the meaning of the whole -- and that is what a world-view demands -- is for us an impossibility. The last fact which knowledge can discover is that the world is a manifestation in every way puzzling, of the universal will to live. (Civilization and Ethics, Part II of The Philosophy of Civilization, tr. C.T. Campion, 2nd rev. ed. (A. & C. Black, 1929), Preface, p. x)

However, Schweitzer did not therefore resign himself to becoming a wander through life.

Resignation as to knowledge of the world is for me not a hopeless fall into skepticism which leaves us to drift about in life like a derelict vessel. (ibid. p. xi) [ibid.]

Not in that sense of 'wander'. But there is another sense.

May we, as blessed people, become blessings for others and continue as blessings as long as God allows us to wander down here. (Albert Schweitzer, Letters 1905-1965, ed. Bähr [1987], tr. Neugroschel (1992), Lambaréné, 10 October 1950, p. 215)

That is of course a statement using "the language of traditional religious idioms", and maybe it is also a statement of Schweitzer's religion (about that I simply can't figure out). An example of an unequivocal religious statement is this by Pope Francis: "Our life is not a pointless wandering. We have a sure goal: the house of the Father."

Human and Non-human Values

... aye, and if the beasts had any sense, they would deride those who thought much of anything but fodder! (Epictetus, Discourses ii, 14, tr. Crossley)

What is amoral cannot teach us morality. Nor should we assume that our morals will be consistent with the values displayed by the natural world; it may be, and is I think, that a moral human being will live his life in rebellion against the indifference of nature, against the values of the natural world, i.e. the values shown by its bloodlust, its "one reptile will devour another". Who will natural law theology attract who does not already believe in a benevolent God? although such a God of Nature is not consistent with our experience [empirical knowledge] of the natural world, where one animal does indeed devour another, and where natural disasters are matched in the harm they cause only by human cruelty, and not only cruelty in warfare. [Cf. Schweitzer's statement that God in nature appears very different from God as we find Him within our heart, where there is love. The God of Nature is not the God of our ethical expectations of Him.]

Then the path of our life must be to resist evil without doing evil. Although there are limits to what man can do to defend what is good and battle against what is not, because man must eat, shelter and clothe himself, but also he must live as man, e.g. printing books, doing things for the mind. That is his situation in this world, which is not the kingdom of God where "the lion shall eat straw and lie down with the lamb" (cf. Isaiah 11.6-7).

Rebellion versus Acceptance (Western Man)

To war with God isn't to war; it's to despair. | War with God isn't war; it's despair. (cf. Ovid's "Daphne")

But rebellion ("war with God", as Prometheus) is characteristic of Western man, rebellion against disease and every natural evil, rebellion against the limits of technology, rebellion against authority ("tyrannies over the mind of man"), in contrast, for example, to the thought-world of Islam that is characterized by acceptance, even of the evils of nature (which is a puppet of God): "for believers it is a test; for unbelievers it is a punishment": there is no place for rebellion rather than conformity to the will of God (However things are, is the way they should be). [The role of limits in Western thought.]

But as religion (whether Christianity, Islam or Buddhism) imposes resignation, philosophy imposes rebellion: the spirit of criticism, the spirit of questioning all things -- a burning faith in the power of human reason to understand and sort things out. In other words, it is to the thought-world of philosophy, of the light of natural reason alone, that Western man owes his condition, the thought-world of the Greek philosophers.

[Wittgenstein's religion: the good for man is submission to whatever God orders, i.e. the good for man is to conform himself to that order; rebellion would show that one was not living right. Wittgenstein's view of life was religious rather than philosophical. If Islam's advance into Europe had not been stopped, or if Buddhism or a Christianity that rejected natural reason (Catholic Christianity's theology is philosophical reason seeking understanding), Europe would be in all ways as backward as the nations of North Africa are today.]

Without this fundamental rebellion against unexamined, unquestioned limits, there would be no Western Civilization. And so it is not only to the philosophers of Greece and the Enlightenment that we owe everything worth having in life, but also to the humanists of the Renaissance who rediscovered the Greeks. (Obviously "everything" is an overstatement. Because to both the Roman Stoics and Christianity we owe something else characteristic of Western civilization: "disinterested, unselfish generosity ... responsibility towards our fellow-men" (A. Schweitzer). And without that excellence, that is proper to man, our life would be less than "everything worth having".)

[It's a curious fact that all the accomplishments of Western man are treated as if they belonged to human nature ("in the public domain"), from natural science and medicine and the industrial revolution to freedom of speech and conscience to equality before the law, human rights (the liberty of the individual), and common humanity, as if these were the common possession of all mankind, whereas they were and are in origin anything but that.(Sociological remarks are not philosophy.)]

But Christianity's God ≠ Nature, and it is Nature we are at war with

Note: in his sermons of 16 and 23 February 1919 in the collection edited by Neuenschwander and titled in English Reverence for Life, tr. Fuller (1969), I find that Schweitzer expresses the same thoughts as I have here, and therefore I think my account is correct (if sketchy).

In the first of these two sermons Schweitzer also explains the relationship between "reverence for life" and Jesus's riddle -- and riddle it is, for it is not at all clear how one is to obey these commandments -- that the greatest commandment is to love God with all ones strength and to love one's neighbor the same as oneself (Mark 12.28-24). The answer to the riddle, Schweitzer claims, is found in reverence for life in all its forms. "God is infinite life", he says, and therefore to revere life is to act with reverence toward God.

What he calls ethical mysticism ... "admits how absolutely mysterious and unfathomable are the world and life. It is knowledge in so far as it does know the one thing which we can and must know in the sphere of this mystery, namely, that all Being is life, and that in loving self-devotion to other life we realize our spiritual union with infinite being." (Anderson, Exman, The World of Albert Schweitzer, 1955, p. 102; the quotation is from Indian Thought and its Development [1935], p. 263-64.)

The statement "all Being is life" is puzzling, because stones are not life; most of "Being" is not alive, surely. One cannot say that "all nature is life" or that "all the world is life". On the other hand, "God is infinite life" may not be nonsense; but "Being is infinite life" surely is. (I do not see a way for Schweitzer to make the transit from theism to pantheism which he told Oskar Kraus he desired to make.) "God is infinite life and therefore to revere life is to act with reverence toward God" is a very different proposition from "God is infinite love and therefore ..."

Reverence for Life

Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben. "Its English translation, "Reverence for Life", loses a nuance of awe carried by the German original." (The World of Albert Schweitzer p. 137)

... the principle of reverence-for-life, a phrase which in the original German, Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, has a nuance of fear which is lacking from its English equivalent. (Jacques Feschotte, Albert Schweitzer: an introduction, tr. John Russell (1955), p. 72)

Among the lectures Schweitzer attended at the University of Berlin in 1899 were those of "Friedrich Paulsen, the philosopher-educationalist who had defined the soul as "will to live" ..." (Marshall, Poling, Schweitzer: A Biography, 1971, p. 24)

Schweitzer's own "mystical insight" was that it follows from "I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live" that reverence for all forms of life is the meaning of our life [I have tried to trace a logical path from the one principle, which is a very general fact of nature, to the other principle, which is an ethics derived from that principle]. This Schweitzer called "the philosophy of reverence for life". He wrote of

struggling to find the elementary [Descartes had said it is "I think, therefore ..."; however, one must think something, and Schweitzer said the first thought is that "I am a will to live in the midst of other wills to live" (p. 157)] and universal conception [concept] of the ethical which I had not discovered in any philosophy.... Late in the third day [of the river journey in September 1915], at the very moment when at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase "Reverence for Life".... Now I had found my way to the idea [principle] in which affirmation of the world and ethics are contained side by side [are joined together]! (Out of my Life and Thought, tr. Campion (1949), Chapter 13, p. 156-7 [ibid. tr. A.B. Lemke (1990), p. 155])

Thus Schweitzer had seen the connection between two concepts: the reason the world is not to be shunned [or, turned away from or deprecated, but instead to be embraced and worked in] is because the world is full of life.

The two autobiographical works, Memoirs of Childhood and Youth and Out of My Life and Thought, are very dear to my heart, for they present the philosophy of humanitarianism in a popular way. The idea of spiritual solidarity with the world through reverence for life is the goal of everything I write and do.... Through these efforts [at developing a spiritual civilization] we will move from the road of darkness to the road of life. (Letters 1905-1965, Lambaréné, 15 October 1958, p. 282)

The ethic of reverence for life ... allows to rank as good only the maintenance and promotion of life. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances they take place, it condemns as evil. (Civilization and Ethics, Chapter 21, p. 255)

Let me give you a definition of ethics: It is good to maintain life and further life; it is bad to damage and destroy life. [Comment: is that not exactly the ethics Plato argues for in Republic 335e: The good man doesn't harm but benefits others, making even his enemies better; harming others is what the bad man does?] However much it struggles against it, ethics arrives at the religion of Jesus. It must recognize that it can discover no other relationship to other beings as full of sense as the relationship of love. [Comment: this is friendship, which the Greek philosophers placed among the highest goods, as universalized by the later Stoics. Schweitzer says in this lecture that St. Francis of Assisi extended that friendship beyond mankind, to all life.] Ethics is the maintaining of life at the highest point of development -- my own life and other life -- by devoting myself to it in help and love, and both these things are connected. (Schweitzer, "Religion in Modern Civilization", tr. unnamed, October 1934, reprinted in Seaver (1947), p. 342)

A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. He does not ask how far this or that life deserves one's interest as being valuable, nor, beyond that, whether and how far it can appreciate such interest. Life as such is sacred to him. (Civilization and Ethics, Chapter 21, p. 247)

Even if it's a little thing, do something for those who have need of man's help ... For remember, you don't live in a world all your own. Your brothers are here, too. (From a press interview Schweitzer gave, about what one can do to further reverence for life, quoted by Marshall in An Understanding of Albert Schweitzer (1966), p. 93)

Knowing love for others and for all creation, knowing the Beatitude, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will achieve mercy" -- that is the goal to which my idea of reverence for life is meant to call ... (Letters 1905-1965, 25 February 1959, p. 287) ... I hope you can induce many people to view animals as creatures that have a right to human kindness ... (ibid., Letter from Lambaréné, 1961, p. 309)

As the most universal expression of the ethical, the only thing I can still posit (despite its vagueness and coldness) is reverence for life. Life, of course, is the most universal and yet the most immediately determined phenomenon.

Oh, what confusion was caused by the poet [sc. Friedrich Schiller] when he sententiously said, "Life is not the supreme [our highest] good". I can apply this aphorism to myself, but I cannot apply it to someone else's life ... I must regard his life as his supreme good. (ibid., 19 December 1926, p. 92-93; I can demand heroic sacrifice of myself, but not of anyone else)

I knew [that my thought] had an importance, because it is elementary, and the result of reflection; it goes to the bottom of things, and establishes immovable values. (Music in the Life of Albert Schweitzer, tr. Joy (1951), p. x-xi)

"An idea that gives life meaning and beauty"

Truth is the most convincing when it comes forth simply and straightforward. I think the idea of Reverence for Life is a simple idea. It is a workable and realistic way of facing life and gives it meaning and beauty. (Schweitzer spoke these words to doctor Louise Jilek-Aall in 1961, Working with Dr. Schweitzer (1990), p. 196-7)

But we see that many, perhaps most, human beings draw a quite different conclusion: that I am a will to live in the midst of a struggle for survival: I have, not to revere other life, but to compete against it and exploit it for the sake of my own [alleged] well-being. In a word, nature demands that I enslave or be enslaved. But is that really the nature of things? It is certainly not their entire nature [It is not the whole story], because the existence of altruism -- i.e. of self-sacrifice that neither aims nor results in benefit to the one who makes the sacrifice [cf. Aristotle's definition of 'kindness'] -- is as undeniable a fact as any other fact of nature, and its existence must be taken into account just as much as the existence of egoism [selfishness] must. It presents us with the riddle of what is really the good for man (which is what determines his ethics). Although altruism in non-human life is confined [with rare exceptions] within individual species [and even there is quite limited], the spirit of altruism in man can extend to universal benevolence toward all life. [In theology, Schweitzer argued that it cannot be that the love Jesus taught should go forth only to other human beings and not also to all other life forms.]

When I read Schweitzer's Civilization and Ethics (2nd ed. (1929)), I don't remember seeing that anyone tried to found ethics simply on the human sense of fairness, of something like natural but transcendent justice that is felt even by the smallest child. Schweitzer says that ethics springs from compassion (ibid. xv, p. 169), but I don't see why it shouldn't be said with equal fairness that the source of ethics is man's inborn sense of fairness. (This apropos of the discussion of selfishness and altruism (ibid. xiv, p. 152).) According to Schweitzer the ancient Chinese thinkers [Lao Tse, Confucius, Mencius, Chuang Tzu] "proclaimed" the foundation of ethics ["root of all virtue"] to be "goodwill towards all fellow men" (Address titled "The Problem of Ethics in the Evolution of Human Thought" (20 October 1952), appended to Feschotte's Albert Schweitzer, tr. Russell, p. 115, 122).

"The brotherhood (fellowship) of those who bear the mark of pain"

Empathy is not sentimentality -- i.e. those are different concepts, and these particular concepts indicate different forms of life. If I come to the aid of a suffering animal, e.g. of a worm trapped high and dry in the burning sunlight (Civilization and Ethics, Chapter 21, p. 247) [or of a pig that has caught its head in the railings of a fence (A. Lincoln)], I recognize in it, not only another life that wills to live, but also a fellow member of "the brotherhood of those who bear the mark of pain" (Out of my Life and Thought, tr. Lemke, Chapter 17, p. 195-196; cf. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest & More from the Primeval Forest, tr. Campion (1947), "Results and Conclusions", p. 116-118: "The Fellowship of those who bear the Mark of Pain", by which he meant that those who have had their suffering eased by medical help have an obligation to ease the suffering of others; Schweitzer had in mind here the funding of doctors to work in primitive places (ca. 1920), but of course his idea has far greater extension to all life.)

There is always mystery; we move within the midst of a great mystery: the mystery of pain. (The Schweitzer Album (1965), p. 162)

... the world is inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering ... (Out of my Life and Thought, tr. Campion (1949), Chapter 21, p. 219, quoted in Marshall, Poling, p. 262)

Pain, not only death, is the great frustrater of the will to live. ("Pain is a more terrible lord of mankind than even death himself." (On the Edge ..., "January to June, 1914", p. 62)) Schweitzer himself had passed through a filthy transit camp during WW1 and needed two operations to be cured of the disease he contracted there: he had not only been a physician (one who eases pain) but also a patient (one who has known pain).

As to sentimentality, "Once it was considered folly to assume that men of color were really men and ought to be treated as such" (Civilization and Ethics, Chapter 21, p. 248). I have often killed kitchen ants; -- why? Is it because I am so well acquainted with an ant's soul (PI § 357)? I know nothing whatever of an ant's soul. At some point the accusation of sentimentality begins to look like horrendous arrogance.

Reverence also for plant life

Schweitzer wrote on a photograph of the place on the Ogowe where it had first occurred to him that "... the idea of reverence for life is the basic principle of ethical and true humanity." (Dr. L. Ostergaard-Christensen, At Work with Albert Schweitzer, tr. F.H. Lyon (1962), p. 100)

Schweitzer's peculiar view of living creature extends to plants as well: he demands, in fact, that everything that grows on earth shall be treated tenderly, and here some may find it difficult to follow him. According to the accepted, and I think incontrovertible view plants have nothing corresponding to animals' feelings or sensation of pain. It is hard, therefore, to regard Schweitzer's view of plants as the owners of inviolable life as anything but an abstract extension of the value he attaches to animals.... Of course this idea of men's relation to plants is in conflict with cool reason, but yet is a consistent development of a profoundly feeling thinker's view of life. (ibid. p. 64-65)

Are plants alive? According to the biologist they are not alive in the sense that [many] animals are: plants are without thought and feeling. Biologists say that by analogy, of course: they compare the physiology of the animal they know with the plant that so little resembles the human being (PI § 360). According to the author there is no biological justification -- and therefore there is no justification -- for including plants in Schweitzer's "brotherhood of suffering". Why should I have "an attitude toward a soul" (ibid. II, iv, p. 178d) toward something that, so biology proclaims, has no soul?

Why doesn't the biologist's argument convince you? Why do you still say, "What do I know about a plant's soul!" Isn't that anti-rational? Wittgenstein: "And here one says, But in a deeper sense." Well, is this an example of "thinking you can see beyond the limits"? Because, after all, once the biologist has spoken -- is there anything more to say?

... in so far as people think they can see the "limits of human understanding", they believe of course that they can see beyond them. (CV p. 15, a remark from 1931)

Is that what we do here? This is again our grammatical question of whether or not there are "questions without answers" [riddles of existence, "eternal questions", existential conundrums]. "The biologist has spoken -- what more is there to say? Nothing?" How is the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to be understood here? [Ah, the question I would like to have asked Wittgenstein: did 6.5 ff. continue to express your views to the very end?]

For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer ... We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been not been touched at all. (TLP 6.51b-6.52, tr. Ogden)

[Schweitzer] cannot consent to living creatures being injured or killed through human thoughtlessness or callousness. ... I have often seen him most carefully remove small insects from the open Bible at evening prayers [after supper]. (Ostergaard-Christensen, p. 63)

... to Albert Schweitzer every creature, even the smallest, contains something of the profound mystery of life and is entitled to a fellow-feeling which must find expression in gentleness and kindness. (ibid. p. 64)

... I'll be damned if I recognize any objectively valid quality distinctions in life. Every life is sacred! And 'sacred' means that there is nothing else ... Value judgments are made out of subjective necessity, but they have no validity beyond that. The proposition that every life is sacred is absolute. In this respect I will always remain a heretic. It is a question of principle, one that reaches deep into the foundation of my outlook on life. (Letters 1905-1965, Lambaréné, 7 November 1931, p. 124)

If Schweitzer kills a fish to feed his pelican, it is not because he regards the life of the fish [or, of a fish] as being of intrinsically less worth than the life of the pelican [or, of a pelican]. My life is not intrinsically of any more value than the life of a fly or of a dandelion. That is Schweitzer's "heretical" proposition: "Every life is [equally] sacred!"

Soon after I wrote the above I read the following in a letter Schweitzer wrote in Lambaréné in 1951:

In Europe I wouldn't kill [a mosquito] even if it were bothering me, but here, where mosquitoes spread the most dangerous form of malaria, I take the liberty of killing them, although I don't like doing it. The important thing is for all of us to properly mull over the question of when damaging and killing are permissible.... Most people are not truly acquainted with this issue.... I try to make all such people think about their actions. Much will be achieved once people become reflective and wisely realize that they should damage [life] and kill only when necessary. That is the essence [of the practice of reverence for life]. The rationalization of individual cases is a different matter. (Letters 1905-1965, p. 218)

And indeed in that letter Schweitzer gives the very example of killing a fish in order to feed a pelican, and he says: "... but I have to choose between killing the fish or the four [injured] pelicans who would surely starve to death. I do not know whether I am doing the right thing in deciding one way instead of the other."

My comment: Other life forms have as much natural right to exist as man has -- as much, but not more. Were it otherwise, self-defense could not be justified. And if self-defense is justifiable, then it is not wrong for you to kill a mosquito if it aims to bite you. Geese in the park have no natural right to befoul the grounds with muck if doing that creates a heath hazard for man and destroys a place man has long ago made for his refreshment (for such outdoor refreshment is a human need).

Schweitzer's ethics is criticised by Oskar Kraus for its lack of a table or scale of values. He rejects the notion that what amounts to Schweitzer's "subjective ethics" of reverence for life is philosophical.

If we are life that wills to live in the midst of other life that wills to live, then we must respect this other life, whatever its nature, just as we demand respect for our own life. (Charles R. Joy, in Music in the Life of Albert Schweitzer (1951), p. 192)

My life is full of meaning to me. The life around me must be full of significance to itself. (Joy's paraphrase, The Animal World of Albert Schweitzer (1950), p. 30)

"A village of the kingdom of God"

[Schweitzer] said to his granddaughter Christiane, when she wanted to go there to help, "You can have your Lambaréné anywhere." (Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer, 2nd ed. (2000), p. 500)

Which is to say that it is not necessary to go off to a primitive place to -- in religious terms -- practice Jesus' ethic of love, or -- in philosophical terms -- practice reverence for life. You can create about yourself a village of the kingdom of God wherever you are, however limited it may be. -- (What I don't think you can say is that "You can have your Athens anywhere". Because, although there is life everywhere, even if only your own, it is not everywhere that we find serious, philosophically-minded companions. Although one can critically read books of ideas in many places, and one can hold discourse with oneself in most places, both are very far from philosophy as Socrates practiced it.) -- Here "your Lambaréné" is a metaphor for: your own outpost of the kingdom of God. [But what is "the kingdom of God" a metaphor for? Maybe for Schweitzer, a place where all life is revered.]

... I do not see my work as maintaining religion as an enthusiasm [as "religious feeling"] that is given to some and not given to others; rather, I feel I have to blaze a trail from thought to religion. It is my conviction that thinking leads to all profound truths of religion and that people become religious once they start thinking. The ethics of reverence for life is nothing but Jesus' great commandment to love -- a commandment that is reached by thinking ... (Letters 1905-1965, [1931], p. 123)

Relation to St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi made a deep impact on me, and I have dealt extensively with the history of the order that he founded. He was a force in the development of Christian piety. When I came to formulate the idea of reverence for life as the fundamental idea of ethics, I felt I was enunciating, as a philosophical and religious idea, something intrinsic to St. Francis but in a new revelation of his thinking.

Yes, ... it's comforting to know that one's mind communes with the minds of other human beings who, together with us, seek the truth of truths, the most spiritual truth, which gives us the strength to live. (Letters 1905-1965, Lambaréné, 27 July 1950, to a Franciscan sister in Umbria, p. 212)

... around 1894, during my student days, I was absolutely shaken when I got to know St. Francis. Since childhood I have taken the same road and reached the same spirit, but I have never been able to speak or write about him and me together. I never refer to him. I am very reluctant to do so. He is a famous saint, I am an ordinary man. He possessed an intimacy of speech that is his alone. None of us should try to imitate that speech; no one should adopt it for himself. It was granted only to him. The rest of us must speak in ordinary words. (ibid., 29 June 1955, p. 262)

... my correspondence keeps growing and growing. I am unable to cope with it ... And I receive such dear letters from people to whom the ethics of reverence for life means something. I simply cannot grasp the fact that I was privileged to take this step. St. Francis took it, but he expressed it in splendid poetry. People viewed it as poetry that belonged to history. I was privileged to announce it in ordinary words, as a demand made on thinking. (ibid., 10 December 1962, p. 326)

The idea of reverence for life is a late bloomer on a branch of what our Lord Jesus teaches us about love. I was profoundly shaken by the fact that I was found worthy to express that teaching. (ibid. Lambaréné, 9 August 1961, p. 310)

Schweitzer referred to himself as "a country doctor who has written a few books" (ibid., Lambaréné, 20 February 1961, p. 306).

[Albert Schweitzer in Africa, his views and their background.]

Ethics versus Values

Values and ethics are different concepts -- i.e. we use the words 'values' and 'ethics' differently. (By 'concept' I mean a word with a use in our language: 'values' and 'ethics' have different uses or "grammars".) We may regard the behavior of non-human life as expressing values, as e.g. self-preservation, territoriality. However, we do not characterize the behavior of non-human life as moral or immoral; instead we call such behavior 'amoral', 'instinctive', "wanting discourse of reason". This is the way we regard plants and animals and very young human children: we do not hold them morally responsible for their acts. In short, non-human life expresses values, but it does not display morality -- and it does not have ethics.

Human behavior, on the other hand, both expresses values and has morality. Human behavior may be either moral or immoral -- but it is never amoral -- unless 'amoral' is used to mean 'instinctive' or 'unreflective'. In other words, it is not possible, as some scoundrels claim, for a human being to choose to act in an amoral way. Such claims are an example of the harm it is possible to do by distorting our concepts. It is instead the case that a human being who claims to be acting amorally is in fact acting immorally: a human being does not have the option of setting ethics to one side. The claim that a man may act amorally is a deceitful variation of the value expressed by: "The end justifies the use of any and all means." [This is the insight expressed by the Garden of Eden story: that the knowledge of good and evil is what divides human life from non-human life. The authors of that story, contra Aristotle, would have "defined Man" as a Moral Animal.]

However, 'moral values' and 'ethics' are also different concepts. Because by 'ethics' we mean moral values that have remained after reflection -- that is, that have been reviewed by the individual, as best he is able, in a philosophical way [i.e. that have been subjected to criticism]. On the other hand, "teaching ethics" to children means training children to judge human behavior according to a set of moral values (as in the saying "So-and-so merely inherited his moral values", meaning that he has never thought about them for himself, not judged them in the light of his own reason and experience).

In making these distinctions, in trying to give an account of our concepts -- i.e. of the common [held-in-common, publicly shared] meaning or "grammar" of certain words in our language -- I am, perhaps unavoidably, limiting their application, defining them with more care than is our normal practice (Conceptual Fluidity). In other words, to some extent this is my jargon -- however, only to some extent. I have tried to give a true account of how we use these words; I have not tried to say how we ought to use them or claimed to have "discovered their true meaning" (as in "True morality is really ...").

Ethics must be the result of reflection, not of responding to impulses. To say that is to "further determine" our concept 'ethics' (i.e. the rules for applying a word). This reflection takes the form of critical evaluation -- i.e. acceptance only after reflection -- of one's moral values. That is the only meaning 'justification' has in ethics -- with respect to the fundamental [basic] values (principles, axioms, point of view) of anyone's ethical "system". (The word 'system' is misleading here, because it suggests a well-ordered [highly orderly] model like deduced from axioms geometry, whereas few human beings use that model when evaluating ethical questions. And in ethics a person's fundamental values tend to compete as often as co-operate with one another; nothing like this balancing of competing values is to be found in geometry. So that 'system' here simply means 'set' [or 'collection'] as in a 'set of values' or 'set of axioms' which are not necessarily always consistent with one another. On the one hand, one must; but on the other hand -- one mustn't.)

[Logic without examples is logic unverified.]

Ethics has no foundation

Every effort to provide a justification (foundation) for fundamental values results in undermining rather than in more firmly establishing those values -- precisely because it suggests that it is logically possible to provide a foundation for them -- and then offers a "foundation" that is easily demonstrated to be non-necessary; -- and indeed, how could it be otherwise: if it were necessary it would not be an empirical foundation [and in Empiricism one can go on indefinitely asking for [demanding] the "foundation" of the "foundation": why stop asking why here?], and counter reasons can always be brought forward against any suggested rational foundation [Empiricism and Rationalism]. The following applies to Rationalism:

A foundation does not stand on the same level as other propositions

When one says that such and such a proposition can't be proved, of course that does not mean that it can't be derived from other propositions; any proposition can be derived from other ones. But they may be no more certain than it is itself. (OC § 1; cf. PI § 485, OC § 250)

What we can justify -- i.e. we can because 'justify' is defined in this case -- in ethics -- from a practical point of view -- are the means we select to accomplish an end; and we can justify, in the light of our fundamental values, the selection of this-or-that end or the use or prohibition of this-or-that means to accomplish it. But that is all. From that point of view, Jefferson was quite correct to write: "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..." -- i.e. unjustifiable; the rest of the Declaration is subject to dispute [justification] (Did the King in fact do such-and-such, and if so, is such-and-such a violation of the "self-evident truths"?), but not the Declaration's preamble.

"A science [i.e. a particular body of knowledge or a particular discipline] does not prove [justify] its own principles," (Thomas Aquinas), and how could it be otherwise? Justification, logically, must come to an end somewhere -- otherwise, it would not be justification (cf. PI § 485). [Consider as an example the foundation of Wittgenstein's philosophy (logic); cf. PI § 124.] There is no such subject as "Foundations of Ethics" or "Philosophy of Ethics" [no more than there is a "Philosophy of Philosophy"] -- unless by those expressions is merely meant remarks of the type I have been making here.

Prudence before revising moral values

Descartes wrote that until he had finished his philosophical reflections about the nature of things -- the reflections that finally resulted in his philosophical system -- he intended to hold fast to the customs and moral values he had held before beginning his philosophical reflections, not allowing himself to be, in effect, a leaf in the wind. (cf. Discourse on Method, Part III)

It is especially important that young people -- the best of whom are stirred by a noble enthusiasm to self-sacrifice, and the worst by a crude cynicism to selfishness -- be warned to approach their first critical examination of the moral rules they have been trained to follow with the caution of Descartes. Many young people have caused profound harm to themselves and to others by ignoring Alexander Pope's warning: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not ...", because leaning has just the opposite effect of alcohol: it is intoxicating in small drafts, but sobering in large. In no other area of philosophy is it more important to remember: "This is how philosophers should salute each other: Take your time!" (CV p. 80; cf. ibid. p. 34) It takes a long time to learn humility -- i.e. to learn to distinguish what you know from what you only think that you know but do not [Socratic ignorance].

What is needed in ethics is what Plato called "the reflections inspired by a thoughtful philosophy". This is not the "raw material of philosophy", what suggests itself to us at first blush or even in the "early days" of our investigations; it is, rather, what Wittgenstein referred to as "considered opinions", the result of reflections long subjected to criticism and other points of view.

Of course even with an ethics -- i.e. even if one holds moral values which one has judged to be sound -- one may still cause a lot of harm. Because ethics does not exist to sit on the shelf but to be applied in our life. And here, even when we do not set ourselves mistaken objectives [ends], we often chose erroneous means [instruments] to achieve our objectives -- through ignorance, through our lack of knowledge of the world. But so long as we do not act through willful [reckless] ignorance, then we have not committed a moral fault -- and that is the best that any of us can hope for.

"... or taste not of the Pierian spring." Question: would "a little learning is dangerous" mean the same as that "a little learning is ignorance" -- in the sense of thinking oneself wise when one is not, thinking one knows what one does not know (which Plato calls the "spirit of conceit", which I named "conceited ignorance", in Sophist 230b)?

Query: the theory that says people are the most ignorant after they learned a little.

We don't say that the child who has learned a little arithmetic ("adding and take-away") has become more ignorant for their having learned that small bit. But if the child then thinks it knows more about maths then it does, that may be dangerous of course (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1), but maybe the query is an allusion to Alexander Pope's "A Little Learning".

Why "theory" -- is that correct? The poet's "A little learning is a dangerous thing ..." is not an hypothesis offered to sociology for testing, only, if it is a proposition, something one might confirm by observing the few cases one might come across in one's life or experience in oneself. What would 'theory' mean here? For example, 'I often find that ...', or, 'Generally speaking ...' with no defined method of verification? What is the role in our language of that form of expression?

But "A little learning is a dangerous thing" isn't a theory but an admonition, because it continues: "Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." Why? Because: "There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again." The sobriety comes from recognizing how much more there is to learn (to know, to understand); it is the modesty Plato speaks of in Theaetetus 187c. A little learning in some subjects may make one think one knows or understands far, far more than one does about that subject (Religion is a good example of this, history another, psychology as well).

[The Dominicans classify three degrees of ignorance of things that can be known or discovered as always morally culpable: (1) "simple invincible", (2) "crass" and (3) "affected", according as: (1) some although not sufficient effort has been made to know, or whether (2) little or no effort at all has been made, or whether someone has (3) deliberately chosen to remain ignorant in order to avoid acknowledging moral obligations.]

Again, this is a further determination of the concept 'ethics' -- i.e. what we mean by that word.

The Foundations of Ethics

Note: In what follows I have described ethics from what I think is the Kantian point of view that conscience ("the categorical imperative") rather than reason is the basis of ethics. I wonder, however, if Kant's view isn't a reflection of religion rather than of philosophy ("The starry sky above and the moral law within"). But thoroughgoing reason is the basis of ethics in the view of the father of ethics (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers i, 14) -- that is, Socrates, who had a very different view from Kant's [and from Wittgenstein's], one where, according to Xenophon, the good is the useful (and the notion "good in itself" has no place): the good for man is what is useful to him in attaining that particular excellence that is proper to him as man (per se) and also as an individual human being, things which reason examining experience (nature) can discover. Above all ethics seeks what is beneficial, i.e. useful rather than harmful, to the "soul" -- i.e. the ethical aspect of man (Xenophon, Memorabilia i, 2, 4), or, to use Schweitzer's expression, to one's "ethical personality".

According to Schweitzer, however, ethics has its foundation in compassion, that is to say in an emotion, that may wax and wane or be lacking in an individual (Hume's "monsters"). It is therefore hard to see how emotion (if emotion is what we mean by 'compassion') of any kind can be the foundation of ethics. An ethics founded in reason, on the other hand, e.g. Socratic ethics, is independent both of feeling and of mysticism (which is what "absolute value" [Wittgenstein] and "absolute imperative" [Kant] are); it is not limited by an empathy that may or may not exist.

Nevertheless, in the following old remarks I look at ethics from the Kantian view.

To come directly to the point, ethics does not have a foundation, nor can it be given one. This should have been Kant's insight when he recognized the unique place in human life of the ethical "must", the categorical imperative. The so-called "hardness of the ethical must" is simply the result of obeying the axioms or principles of a particular "system" -- or set of moral values -- of ethics, which like any other discipline, the particular system does not provide a justification for. When one has reached the fundamental values of a system, one has "reached bedrock". The hardness of the ethical "must" is actually the hardness of the logical "must" (the forcefulness of which comes not from a collection of facts but from a set of rules). What is right must be done, and what is wrong must not be done, regardless of any other consideration (The consideration of instruments, of the best means to use, is a practical, not an ethical consideration). This is a rule, part of the grammar (definition) of the words 'right' and 'wrong' in ethics [or, at least in Kantian ethics].

There are many words which belong to our psychological vocabulary, e.g. 'conscience', 'shame', 'guilt', 'sense of duty', which do not belong to the vocabulary of ethics, where they merely belong to the "regardless of any other consideration" category of irrelevance from the point of view of the foundations of ethics. The statement that a man must obey his conscience is equivalent to that; feelings, emotions or moods that may accompany ethical decisions belong to psychology not to ethics; they bear a similar relation to ethics as external compulsion (state laws, gangsters' bullying) does; a man may be overwhelmed by fear or anger -- that, however, is of no concern to the basic- or fundamental-values of a system of ethics: they do not change what is right and what is wrong.

Ethics is not a branch of psychology. It is not a kind of science -- or even of simple fact collection -- It is not a branch of Nature-philosophy; and every attempt to treat it as such shows a fundamental confusion about the nature of ethics. There have indeed in the history of philosophy been "philosophical theories" put forth about the origin or basis in nature of moral values, e.g. attempts have been made to "explain" altruism as an expression of egoism. These "theories" are an example of mistaking a conceptual for a factual investigation (Z § 458; RPP i § 949). In any case, these theories are unable to do the work they are invented to do -- that is, to provide a foundation [justification] for a particular ethical system ["utilitarianism" e.g.].

Ethics is not founded on emotions -- nor indeed on reason. It has no foundation. (This is of course a remark about the logic of our language [or, at least of Kantian language].)

Again, fundamental moral values have no more (or less) foundation than the axioms or principles of any other independent subject matter [Ethics is not a branch of natural philosophy]: principles serve as justifications, but they are not themselves justifiable. That they "cannot" be justified belongs to logic: the giving of reasons -- i.e. justification -- comes to an end, otherwise it would not be a justification (cf. PI § 485).


Canine versus Human "Forms of Life"

I do not eat grass on the occasions on which dogs do. "It wants to throw up, you see." How do I know in this context what a dog wants, even if the dog does throw up after eating grass?

"I wonder if the geese in the park -- To us they all look the same -- but I wonder if to the individual geese they don't all look as different to one another as human beings look to one another." -- Is this the same question as asking whether geese can be observed, if one takes care, to behave in such-and-such ways? [Bees and the beekeeper's smoke]

[Forms of Life: The Fable of The Born-Blind-People, a counter-factual natural history.]


"Dysfunctional Evolution"

Note: this continues the discussion The Philosophy of Science of M. O'C. Drury.

Why is so much of human nature apparently dysfunctional (self-destructive)? Is self-culling part of "natural selection" in the human? Why shouldn't a species evolve whose members deselect ill-adapted material through self-slaughter [suicide]? "I have judged myself ..." Here you see a theory with no limits: anything and everything can be explained by it.

Or consider the fundamental misunderstanding of trying to reduce structural [i.e. bone] fat: no reduction in eating or amount of exercise will reduce the span of your skeleton. And yet, countless human beings seem to be under the sway of this illusion, to the harm of their health.

[Everything Functional is also Dysfunctional]


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