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Albert Schweitzer’s ethics of reverence for life is more complex and interesting than first appears. It contains themes relevant to contemporary environmental ethics, including a virtue-ethics approach that emphasizes personal responsibility and tolerance, empathy for living organisms, and the fundamental unity of life. Not surprising, then, Schweitzer has recently been acknowledged for pioneering a biocentric (life-centered) ethical theory.

At the same time, Schweitzer’s ethic has four unpalatable features: pantheism, anthropomorphism, excessive subjectivity, and guilt mongering. I trace these features to the metaphysical framework in which Schweitzer develops his ideal of reverence for life. I also show how the framework can be set aside while retaining much of the spirit and substance of his ethics. My aim is not to defend his ethics, but to interpret it and show its contemporary relevance.


This article was originally published in Between the Species, volume 9, issue 4, in 1993.

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Philosophy Department, California Polytechnic State University



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