Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer on ethical choices

The basic principle of the moral, which is a necessity of thought, means, however, not only an ordering and deepening but also a widening of the current views of good and evil. A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life that 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 sympathy as being valuable nor, beyond that, whether and to what degree it is capable of feeling. Life as such is sacred to him. He tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower, and takes care to crush no insect. If in summer he is working by lamplight, he prefers to keep his windows shut and breathe a stuffy atmosphere rather than see one insect after another fall with singed wings upon his table.

If he walks on the road after a shower and sees an earthworm that has strayed on it, he bethinks himself that it must get dried up in the sun if it does not return soon enough to ground into which it can burrow, so he lifts it from the deadly stone surface and puts it on the grass. If he comes across an insect that has fallen into a puddle, he stops a moment in order to hold out a leaf or stalk on which it can save itself.

He is not afraid of being laughed at as sentimental. It is the fate of every truth to be a subject for laughter until it is generally recognized. Once, it was considered folly to assume that men of color were really men and ought to be treated as such, but the folly has become an accepted truth. Nowadays it is thought to be going too far to declare that constant regard for everything that lives, down to the lowest manifestations of life, is a demand made by rational ethics. The time is coming, however, when people will be astonished that mankind needed so long a time to learn to regard thoughtless injury to life as incompatible with ethics.

Ethics is responsibility without limit toward all that lives.
Albert Schweitzer, in Albert Schweitzer’s Ethical Vision: a sourcebook, (U.S.: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 138. Originally spoken as part of The Dale Memorial Lectures (1922), delivered in French at Mansfield College, Oxford. Originally published in Philosophy of Civilization, Part II: Civilization and Ethics, (A. & C. Black, Ltd., 1923), p. 27(?). Translated from the author’s German typescript by John Paull Naish.

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"The basic principle of the moral"