Here is a tug-of-war.
On one end of the rope is the common conviction that life—our life, other lives, life in general—is a good thing. For some this conviction is passionate and spiritual, for others it doesn’t get beyond the cliché. In either case, if only because we are alive ourselves and value our survival, we instinctively lean towards life, away from the inanimate state of dust and stones. Death is essentially sad, rarely wished for, and most people assess misery as the failure of life’s promise, not as the nature of life itself. So we ally ourselves with being alive and therefore, in the abstract at least, with all things that are alive.
But pulling hard at the other end of the rope are the distinctions that we make every day between lives that we value and those we value less or not at all. We favor people who are similar to us, we belittle other people for making our world a worse place to live in, and we are indifferent to many others. As for animals, we cuddle with some, save others from extinction, eat a few, exterminate others. We value plants only when they provide us with food, a healthy environment and beauty; the life of a plant in and of itself has no status for us. When it comes to actual lives, we have favorites and losers, with life and death consequences.
In this tug-of-war between reverence for all life and differentiation among lives, it’s the drawing of differences that usually wins. This isn’t surprising: we must make distinctions each day in order to stay alive, deciding who to align with and who to oppose, what to eat and what to cut down, spray or ignore. Most people go through most days with no thought of revering life universally. We toast our health and long life and then eat our chicken dinner. We wake up in the morning feeling glad to be alive, we write an email opposing abortion, we call the exterminator, and we pull dandelions. None of that seems contradictory.
Perhaps the tug-of-war metaphor breaks down. Compartmentalization might be a better label. We seem to keep reverence and preference in separate compartments. For one thing, a constant and strict reverence towards all living things would be impossibly demanding. If we took it literally, we would starve from trying to survive on fallen fruit and dead animals.
What we do instead is to take reverence for all life out of its compartment every so often when the time seems right and try to move society a step in its direction. We join forces to extend a better life to those of other races or ethnicities, or genders, or sexual orientation—and even to some animals, to fetuses, to endangered plants. Reverence for all life may be an attitude usually beyond our reach, but we put it to powerful use when we are able.
Still, in the long run, I think that instead of compartmentalizing too comfortably, we are better off putting up with some tugging, acknowledging life and livingness as the greatest good, staying a little uneasy about our lapses, and advancing the cause when we can.