» “Reverence for Life and Eating” by Timothy Johnson

I eat, therefore I am. Eating involves the taking of life to prolong one’s own life, and it is a proven fact that those who do not eat waste away and die. If Reverence for Life is simply the revering of life, there would be no problem. I could just be mindful and grateful for each morsel of food I consume, either thanking the Lord/Great Spirit or the animal itself or both.

"I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live" (Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization, 309). This statement is pure reality. There is nothing hidden or esoteric in it; it simply states the fundamental element of life and its nature. Jesus said, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matt. 7:12). Since the ethic of Jesus and Schweitzer are one and the same (at least Schweitzer thought so) – that is, Reverence for Life – the command would be "show the same reverence for life to others that you would have them show unto you."

Schweitzer did not even soften his ethic and write it in the Mahayana Buddhist vein of "take no unnecessary life." His is strictly "take no life," plain Jain. "Ethics are responsibility without limits towards all that lives" (Schweitzer, 311). This makes his ethic an absolute, yet no "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" are involved.

Book CoverIf we are to live, we must break this simple and straightforward commandment and not show Reverence for Life to some unfortunate sentient being. Every day, about three meals and maybe a snack or two are eaten by the average person. Everything on the plate before a person is a leg, arm, or some other portion of sentient life. The meals usually have unnecessarily large portions, and the snacks generally are the result of boredom or indulgence. Scavengers who go about collecting dead creatures from here and there are excluded from this issue.

The dilemma is between being a truly ethical person who reveres all life and is dying from starvation as well as having bacteria infect every pore on his or her body, or being someone who eats. The former's bacteria tell their friends to come on over, since their host will not take life. So, we may call this person a saint, but most people would not be able to subscribe to this extremely ascetic way of life. Even Albert Schweitzer himself did not do so; evidently this is not the correct solution to the great ethical dilemma of eating.

Vegetarianism abstains from the eating of animal meat, and certain adherents further abstain from all animal products such as milk, honey, and eggs. At first this appears to be an answer, a solution that does not involve taking the life of animals. However, this approach really only partially solves the problem. Although vegetarians do not eat meat, they do eat vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts. Life is still being taken, albeit green life. Their refusal to support and fund the inhumane treatment and slaughter of animals makes vegetarians seem nobler than their carnivorous counterparts.

Since Albert Schweitzer does not set up a hierarchy, saying, "Humans-apes-lions-cows-chickens-fish-clams-spiders-insects-celery-potatoes-bacteria and so on," being a vegetarian will not resolve the dilemma. Since all life is life, to be revered and regarded as equal, good is not done by choosing to devour one form of life over another. For example, I could eat my younger brother, or I could drink a glass of gutter water, and both cases would involve taking life.

Vegetarianism really does not solve the problem, and eternal fasting is not an option. As I attempt to think clearly, I have concluded that "take no unnecessary life" should be my guide. This means that at buffets I must eat only what I need to satisfy my hunger instead of trying to get my money’s worth. In America, a restaurant meal is not considered good unless one can get another meal out of it. That styrofoam box sits in the refrigerator wasting away, hosting new forms of life, until it is forgotten about and later thrown away. At home, I must take only what will sustain my own being, showing an indebtedness to the Christ figures in miso soup, shrimp tempura, rice, seaweed, and green tea who died so that I may live. Truly, the only solution is to eat simply and not to excess.

Albert Schweitzer did not want to make this universal ethic a dogmatic, legalistic doctrine. Rather, he wanted each human being to find the right balance, to find the way for himself or herself. If I am indeed life that wills to live, my life must be sustained by disregarding another’s will to live. This is where the dilemma begins and ends.

Although Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life is an absolute, it is an impossible absolute. Finding the way in this ethic only comes through clear thinking, and through clear thinking comes rational judgment. Schweitzer’s universal ethic does not provide ways around it, for it is simply "take no life." People must expound upon this ethical system with their own clear thinking, which usually results in a hierarchy and a system of "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots." As long as this legalistic doctrine of ethical action is the result of a love affair with clear thinking, Schweitzer would have no complaints. So we must, as Gandhi said, "Live simply that others may simply live," or even "Eat simply that others may simply live."


In Marvin Meyer and Kurt Bergel, eds., Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century (Syracuse:  Syracuse University Press, 2002).

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