What does the principle of the conservation of life demand of us?
First of all it demands that we respect life itself. It is forbidden to man to destroy himself or others. "Thou shalt not kill" is one of the Ten Commandments. There are many ways of killing. Civilization has presented us with more subtle methods of murder than those of our barbaric ancestors and those of the gangsters who flourish today in our towns. The profiteer who sends up the price of necessities, the financier who cheats poor people of their savings, the industrialist who does not protect his workmen against poisonous substances, the woman who has an abortion and the doctor who performs it are all murderers. Murderers, too, are the makers of harmful liquor and the wine growers who conspire with politicians to increase the consumption of drink; the sellers of dangerous drugs; the man who encourages his friend to drink; the employer who forces his workers to work and live in conditions disastrous to their bodies and minds.
It is forbidden not only to destroy life but to hinder it, to stifle it, to make it wretched and to impair its quality. This precept is infringed daily by parents whose egoism, ignorance and laziness deprive their children of moral and physiological education; by husbands who ill-treat or abandon their wives or who exhaust them by too frequent pregnancies; by wives whose bad temper, slovenliness and disorderliness make their husbands' daily life intolerable. It is also infringed by pedagogues who overload the young with a sterile and wearisome curriculum; by children who torture their parents by their ingratitude and spitefulness. All these acts are embryonic forms of murder. There are many other ways of doing violence to people's lives. Incessant mockery and backbiting, sly slandering, hate, contempt - all these deeply wound their victims, destroy their peace of mind and often permanently lessen the value of life for them. Though modern society underestimates the gravity of such offenses they are just as odious as stabbing one's brother in the back. The principle of preserving life discountenances suicide as much as murder. It condemns not only the brutal destruction of the self by the self, but all those thoughts, acts and habits which tend to lower our vitality, to disturb the balance of our nervous systems or our minds, to cause disease or to diminish the quality and the length of our lives. Pride and anger, for example, are harmful because they derange mental and nervous balance and falsify judgment. Egoism, avarice and envy contract the personality, obscure the moral sense and dwarf the intelligence. Sloth prevents the development of our inherited powers and brings ignorance, disorder and misery in its train. It is, together with intemperance, the principal enemy of modern man. Both are a form of protracted suicide. It is to these vices that the great nations partly owe their decline. In the years before the war they were the greatest consumers of alcoholic drink in the world. Alcoholism, nicotine poisoning, sexual excesses, the drug habit, mental dissipation and low morals all constitute extremely dangerous breaches of the law of self-preservation. These vices weaken the individual and mark him with a special stamp. The young Frenchman of the defeat: rude, slovenly, unshaven, douching about with his hands in his pockets and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, was all too representative of the anemic barbarism on which the France of those years prided herself. She had destroyed her own ability and strength. Her fate was inevitable, for she had committed the unforgivable sin. Nature annihilates those who abandon themselves. Suicide often takes a subtle and pleasent form such as abundance of food, soft living, complete economic security and absence of responsibilty. No one realized the dangers of the comfort we enjoyed in the years before the world war. Neither did they realize the dangers of the excessive eating and drinking to which everyone was addicted from infancy to old age. To have a safe position, exempt from responsibility, in some government department seemed to most people highly desirable. Yet this sort of existence is as dangerous as the drug habit both for the individual and the nation. There are also habits, apparently almost innocuous, which nevertheless diminish vital power. Such negative attitudes of mind as self-pity, jealousy, the habit of criticizing everyone and everything, unconstructive pessimism, react on the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine glands. They can thus originate functional and even organic disorders. In the Middle Ages the Church considered acedia (or apathy) as sinful. On the same grounds as it forbids suicide, the principle of conserving life forbids any thoughts and moral attitudes which weaken our organs and our nervous systems.