Ipseistic Ethics Beyond Moralism: Rooting the “Will to Serve” in “The Reverence for Life”

  • Chris Doude van TroostwijkEmail author


What kind of ethical justification, beyond sheer charity, can be given to the “will to serve” in philosophical reflection? This chapter endeavors to point out a possible answer. Oscillating between a Kantian “will to obey” (to the categorical moral law) and a Darwinian-Nietzschean “will to live”, it follows the footsteps of the servant leader avant la lettre: Albert Schweitzer. After offering a description of Schweitzer’s personal engagement with the poor in Lambarene, his work is analyzed from a philosophical angle. I argue that with his concept of Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, Schweitzer invented a kind of spiritual realism. It functions as a complement to an over-formalistic Kantian ethics of obligation—such an ethics is combined by Schweitzer with the energy of compassion, while avoiding the pitfall of a naturalistic, ethical vitalism. Obligation needs vocation, and vocation is nurtured, not steered, from within nature itself. After outlining Schweitzer’s spiritual realism, I bring it into conversation with Paul Ricoeur, especially with the distinction made by him between idem and ipse. I conclude the chapter by outlining a philosophical basis for the servant leadership model: an altruism without sacrificial idealism that takes into account the reality of self-interested action. I argue that servant leadership demands more than obedience to a categorical imperative, as well as more than simply following one’s natural feelings of compassion. In contrast, it is a deliberately chosen, practical and existential ethics in which the life of a person enters into dialogical connection with his or her fellow creatures.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Luxembourg School of Religion & SocietyLuxembourgLuxembourg
  2. 2.Chair for Liberal Theology, Mennonite Seminary Free University AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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