Friday, October 26, 2012

Schweitzer: Self-Devotion as Self-Abnegation

In his paper, “Reverence For Life”, Schweitzer presents several ideas concerning a particular type of disposition that he labels as an ethic. This disposition is unique in that it does not appeal to traditional discourses in logic, nor in any type of pragmatism. What we get is a set of ideas meant to depict a passion driven attitude that is also burdened by a self-imposed responsibility. Those who experience this passionate responsibility partake in, what Schweitzer calls, a “reverence for life”. This is complimented by a “will-to-live”, what makes the experience of such passion possible because it is the creative force behind it. Many see these notions as confounding and vague. Despite such popular ridicule, I do not intend to challenge Schweitzer's notions, rather I will seek to provide a bit of clarity on the matter, and I will defend his ideas against direct criticisms offered by Peter Singer.

I accept that my defense may not satisfy those who are logically disposed, but I do not intend to discredit Schweitzer's ideas by contorting them to fit into a system that he seemly opposed to some degree. Instead, I will present a defense that attempts at an honest depiction of what Schweitzer may have had in mind, and in doing so, a lingering sense of vagueness may remain for those seeking an argument that disambiguates matters to the degree that normative claims are in clear sight.

Two terms are key in Schweitzer's framework: the “will-to-live” and “reverence for life”. Both leave much to be desired in terms of clarity, so let's begin with the will-to-live. Schweitzer starts by focusing on his own human condition: he is a life, and that life wills to continue living. Afterward, there is an immediate move to extend the same analysis to all entities that seemly express the same will. This will consists of both a creative faculty as well as destructive. The former holds in the sense that one is disposed toward life in such a manner that new relationships are established between oneself and others that involve assistance in enabling the will-to-live of others to flourish. While the thought of such relations may be inspired by entities and phenomena external to oneself, the activity one engages in to substantiate such relationships is purely an inward struggle, and one cannot rely on external entities to initiate such a constructive force. The will-to-live is destructive in the sense that it is utterly individualistic, and in the struggle to express itself, it overpowers and nullifies other entities that are also trying to express a will-to-live. This is basically the survival aspect of the duality.

While the will-to-live is a motivating drive featuring what appears to be two opposing faculties, having a reverence for life is to view this opposition as an unfortunate enigma in which the destructive aspect is seemingly unavoidable and quite unfavorable. The latter is even more so the case given that the reverence interprets all those with a will-to-live as having equal value. One of Singer's criticisms is that Schweitzer's life itself is nonsensical in that he advocates a reverence for life while being involved in practices that both assist life and take it. Schweitzer is quite aware of this problem and Singer completely misses the point. The framework of the reverence for life is hardly logical, and thus seems problematic as an ethical disposition. The reverence is unique not so much in its nature, which it is, but more so in how uncommon it is. The far more popular notion is to involve oneself in affairs that are practical, and often survivalist. This is not completely problematic for Schweitzer, but becomes an issue when one's concern towards others conflicts with practical discourse.

Since such a disposition is to offer active care in regards to others on the grounds that they posses a will-to-live, such devotion must be made also in regards to oneself. In this sense, it is a kind of self-devotion that initiates an ethical concern toward others. The reverence for life views all with the will-to-live as beautiful and worthy of generous enterprise. Anyone who has such reverence is also in a state in which one views oneself as beautiful and worthy of generosity, and the latter is expressed in a way that answers to one's personal calling. Ethics, in Schweitzer's view, is thus a type of self-devotion that involves a reverence to life by acknowledging one's concerns regarding the will-to-live of others. Seeing as the reverence is a self-observing state, one cannot depend on the external world to provide the means to act accordingly, and instead one must rely on oneself to enact the creative faculty of the will-to-live. Given this, one is condemned to be aware of whether or not one is answering one's calling.

Self-devotion places one in an ethical state in that one is aware of sharing circumstances and aspirations with other entities, and that one has an enthusiastic drive to help others and must creatively act in order for it to reach out and engage with the world in a way that seeks to aid others and allows for the will-to-live of others to flourish. From this we get self-abnegation in that through the creative faculty, self-devotion answers the call of reverence by attempting to maneuver around the unfortunate enigma of the will-to-live, an attempt to evade it's own survivalist faculty. The paradox to this theory is that by attempting to stamp out the destructive faculty in oneself when possible, to aid in the capacity of expression of others silences any intention of interfering with their own inward struggle. To do otherwise would be to nullify the creative faculty of the other. Thus, Schweitzer's view is presenting readers with a type of existential challenge in which one asks oneself whether or not you're being honest with yourself in regards to how your thoughts and feelings are matching up with your actions. The reverence imposes on oneself, by oneself, a responsibility to attempt at a successful match up. Unethical conduct arises out of a negligence of self, either by slacking off in regards to personal commitments, or disregarding them completely.

In the case of animal testing, practitioners should not be able to partake in any comfort of success if the reverence is present in them. Scientists might be acting on a utilitarian principle in which the sacrifice of a few animals is at the benefit of many humans, but whether or not this practice is factually beneficial should not matter in the slightest to those with a reverence for life. Scientists who personally harbor the reverence and do not feel that this honors oneself, and in this way others, are involved in unethical conduct in that their personal expression is insincere. A deed's rational benefits make little difference against the self-imposed notion that one has negated one's creative faculties. The reverence looks to evade the unfortunate enigma, and does not seem to take solace in quantitative consequences of pleasure.

I think it obvious that Singer will consider the reverence impractical, and that personal commitments will not do the trick to provide the greatest amount of pleasure across the board. In “The Place of Nonhumans in Environmental Issues”, Singer makes several direct criticisms at Schweitzer. First off, he finds the position in which the reverence values all life equally as being unjustifiable. Why should the interests of a fly be on par with most other more conscious beings? Next, Singer questions the will-to-live, claiming that it is not possible for certain entities that have no conscious states to have such a will. Singer places great weight on consciousness, or some degree of self-awareness in regards to the conditions of life, as a requisite of a being to have interests, and as such to be included in normative considerations; not all beings will make the cut. For Singer, it does not matter what one's personal disposition may be in regards to what beings are worthy of generous treatment, it's more the case of whether a being meets an objective standard of consciousness to even be considered to have interests.

Another complaint is that Schweitzer provides us with no way to make normative comparisons between valued lives if one life has to go. For Singer, a utilitarian view can easily settle such dilemmas by being able to assess which life in question has more value attached to it by evaluating each in terms of conscious pleasure. If one seems to have more than the other, then the choice is clear. His final criticism was mentioned above concerning Schweitzer himself.

Firstly, Schweitzer does not seek to provide justification in the traditional sense. The equality of life that the reverence holds is not an objective claim that has evaluative properties, rather, it is a creative faculty of the will-to-live. If one interprets a fly as having value, then to discredit that belief on the grounds of popularly conceived notions of objective standards is to commit an unethical negligence. When Singer is confused as to how the fly's demise is regrettable, this is to say that it is not regrettable to him, but the same may not apply to oneself. If one experiences regret, then to deny or suppress it is to commit unethical conduct. As for denying the will-to-live to beings that lack consciousness, whether or not an entity posses a will-to-live or not does not depend on objective factors, but rather it is creatively the case if one interprets oneself and the other as possessing this passionate will. A further objection may be that this is horribly arbitrary, and may potentially restrict many entities from having a will-to-live if one does not stretch out the scope of their creative faculty enough. This is possible, and even seems unavoidable given the destructive faculty of the will, but the nature of the reverence consists of a responsibility to others that is immensely enthusiastic given that it is simultaneously a responsibility toward oneself. Schweitzer expresses a certain faith that an enthusiastic self will do all it can to extend itself to the aid of as many as possible.

The third objection is way off the mark from Schweitzer's notions in that Singer presents a situation as viewed from someone who is not enthused at all, but is “impartial”. The situation calls for one to choose between two entities in which one lives and the other dies. Both entities are in view of the reverence, so the choice comes down to two entities of equal worth. Singer makes this out to be an easy decision that is absent of any “theoretical difficulty”. All that need be done is weight-out which of the two possesses more value. For Schweitzer there need not be any theoretical difficulty, just personal difficulty. This is to return to the internal struggle concerning the opposing faculties of the will-to-live. What normatives are to arise out of such a regrettable situation? To think that one may calculate their way to a “cleaner” outcome is delusional in Schweitzer's framework: the reverence is always trying to dodge the unfortunate enigma. Saying there is no difficulty in choosing begs the question as to whether either of the two entities were thought to be of equal, or any, value in the first place.

Our conclusion consists of Singer's last attack. In his life, Schweitzer did aid many at the expense of other entities (germs, as Singer indicates). If germs make the scope of reverence, just as much as humans do, then this is a regrettable situation. In choosing humans over germs, he is not making explicit that one is more valuable than the other. Rather, a creative engagement with the world always makes some sort of impact, and not all will benefit from it. Utilitarian hands are no cleaner in that it admits of sacrifice. The differentiation that Schweitzer wishes to express is that quantitative justification does not grant any solace in affairs that involve creative aid and destructive consequences. For Schweitzer, justification is an external aspect of culture that one clings onto in order to suppress the angst of the inward struggle. As an onlooker, Singer is in no position to comment on anyone else's angst but his own. For anyone who considers oneself as having a reverence for life, no judgment concerning the expression of the will-to-live can come from without. All those who partake in such judgment exhibit the destructive faculty in the guise of “justification”. On a day-to-day basis one must ask oneself whether or not the call of passionate responsibility was answered or not.