Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Golden Rule and Our Seventh Principle: a Scientific Perspective

This is a sermon that was delivered and includes opening and closing words at the end.

Today's Guest Author:  John Laurence Kelland
Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of South County
Retired Life Sciences Reference Librarian

I believe I can use a scientific perspective to shed new light on some of our ethical principles.  During this talk I will be referring on occasion, to vast stretches of time. Millions, and even billions, of years.. Our seventh principle points to our being a part of the all-encompassing web. But just how intertwined are we humans with the rest of the animal world, with other species? Profoundly. I want to first discuss evolutionary relationships, and then something about the origins of our conscious mind, and the ethical implications.

I have a book at home, “The Last Human”,  (eight authors). It covers 22 species in the family Hominidae – that is our family, in terms of biological classification. The early species were rather apelike, and the later ones looked a lot like us. Some evolved into others, some went extinct, but they are all gone except for Homo sapiens. We are the last human. Each of these earlier species probably numbered into the thousands, nothing like our huge population.  About thirty thousand years ago, there were apparently FOUR species in the genus Homo, that is, four kinds of PEOPLE on the earth, side by side Our species, the Neanderthals, the Denisovans in Siberia, (once thought to be Neanderthals) and Homo floresiensis, a very small recently discovered species. If they were all here today, would the Golden Rule apply to them, or just Homo sapiens? Who does it apply to? They are all gone, and we may not have good evidence why they went extinct. To me, this all has implications for our understanding of the conscious mind, and this has profound implications for our ethical principles.  There are some traits which distinguish us as humans from all other animals, now that all the intermediates are gone. We have language, abstract thought,  ability to plan, a spectacular ability to build.  And intelligence and reasoning ability.

But some of these human traits have precursors among animals, even though  they are far, far simpler. There are some traits we share with other animals though, not the advanced aspects of the conscious mind. But I am convinced that the basic aspects of our own conscious mind, sensory perception, memory, some kinds of planning and strategizing, exist in many species. I believe consciousness has existed in other species for many millions of years, far, far predating our species, and that we inherited the basics of consciousness from prior species.

There are certainly other species who can experience positive sensations and can suffer. You have pets and you know this, but I wanted to provide a kind of background context for discussion. I note that when people talk about the Golden Rule they just focus on humans. This almost makes it seem that a fundamental aspect of the Golden Rule is that it applies to just to humans. I think we need to place the Golden Rule on a firmer logical foundation. I think the ability of a person or animal to have positive and negative experiences, and our actions to promote their wellbeing, IS the underlying basis FOR the Golden Rule. So we should broaden the Golden Rule to apply to other sentient species, or at least some sort of compassion, and that this broadening ought to be built into our religion.  We could also extend our first principle: Inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the inherent worth of other species as well.

When I worked at URI Library, I was on a committee – the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which managed the treatment of animals in laboratories. I was the Information Officer, charged with helping scientists find alternative treatments to surgery for example, if such existed. This is all based on compassion for animals, and governed by the Animal Welfare Act, and overseen by the USDA. It seems to me that UU can embrace compassion to animals who are conscious.


I see a problem with our seven principles.  The first six deal only with human issues, and then suddenly the seventh, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of witch we are a part”.  In an article on the web, May 16, 2004 (1) Don Southworth, reporting on a meeting at the General Assembly, said: “One of the ministers present, Paul L’Herrou, offered an amendment to the floor. He suggested we replace the proposed language of the seventh principle,  ‘respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems’ with the new words, ‘respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.’ It was with those words the eternal breath of life, the spirit of guidance, of wisdom inherent in our human condition spoke out once again to the world of a new possibility, of a new hope, of a new Unitarianism and a new Universalism.” We might interpret that to mean life on the earth, or the whole universe (technically the latter).  My readings indicate that Unitarians writing about the seventh principle interpret it sometimes one way, sometimes the other.  We could even keep both wordings, as two different principles. I do see a lot of variation, since people are reading into it much more than it says. Let’s get some precision and clarity into it. I think, especially for nonunitarians, we should make explicit three levels BETWEEN Homo sapiens alone, and the whole web:
1 – nonhuman species;
2 – the great ecosystems of the world, such as forests and coral reefs;
3 – the great life support systems: air, soil, freshwater, the oceans, all of which we depend on for our very existence. Here I would include the great cycles, such as carbon and calcium and nitrogen. More, of course.

The purpose here is to more clearly show our  appreciation of the great moral problems relating to environmental crises, because these are becoming more and more to the forefront. Also to our green commitment.How would you assess the value of the principle ecosystems, such as forests and coral reefs? The huge biodiversity and beauty of them hints at their value.  The earth is 4.6 billion years old, and we know that life on the Earth originated at least 3.8 billion years ago, if not earlier.  During the first 3.2 billion years, there were only single celled microbes, principally bacteria. About 600 million years ago or more, an event took place which gave us multicellular life, and it developed with some major extinction events, into the world we know of today.  It took a vast stretch of time to build life on this Earth as we see it now. Most of that time we did not exist. I think that this means Life on Earth has its own inherent worth, regardless of us, Forests and coral reefs existing for such a vast stretch of time ought to make us understand why they are precious. We also should consider a principle or two which give, not just respect, but inherent worth (and dignity, even!) to other species, our beautifully interconnected ecosystems, and to the Earth’s life support systems. Why? To make it clearer that this church means to deal with the really major environmental issues of our time, incorporate them into our theology, and BE the religion for our time, which only WE can be!

Yet I am indebted to Dave Hurdis, who brought out another principle in his sermon last year. I recently read a book: “Alone in the Universe” by John Gribbin, an astrophysicist. He covers many factors which indicate that it is rare for a planet, like the Earth to have an uninterrupted 4.6 billion years which has allowed life to evolve to the point where there are intelligent beings who have a technological civilization.  After reading it, I think we are indeed very rare in the universe. SETI has so far not heard from anyone out there. Gribbin thinks we are alone, and I think we are at least rare, although there may be many planets, around other stars, with life at the level of bacteria or other beings which can withstand harsh conditions. What Dave pointed out is the rarer, the more precious! That to me is a profound and fundamental principle. We can call it the rarity principle. What if the Earth were absolutely unique in the Universe in having life or intelligence? Among all these galaxies? What a shame if we ran it down or ruined it.  I look at the rarity principle as the basis – the foundation – of all our environmental moral principles, giving the Earth and its life inherent worth.  And, sustainability is the principle criterion by which to judge all our major activities in the world.
Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, quotes a letter attributed to  Chief Seattle to the President in 1852. Campbell refers to this as the Paleolithic Moral Order:

“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.  Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow,  every humming insect.  All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests,  the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people.  The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give to any brother.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares the spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web,  he does to himself.
One thing we know: our god is also your god. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
When the last Red Man has vanished with his wilderness and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shore and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?
We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it.  Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.
As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all.” (2).

Opening Words  - Larry Kelland

Native Americans had an ethic which respects the land and all its creatures as sacred. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell referred to it as the Paleolithic Moral Order. Our roots in the West have a different moral order, different from that of our great prophets. In Genesis 1:28 we are told to be fruitful and multiply, and have dominion over the fowl, beasts and fish.
In 1493 Pope Alexander the 6th wrote the Doctrine of Discovery which gave European colonists rights to the lands of the indigenous peoples and to enslave them. In the United States we had the Manifest Destiny, to take over the whole continent.
Where is the Golden Rule? There is no compassion or respect in all of this. However, we have come a long way, as our seven principles clearly show. Maybe even full circle!

Closing Words

The realm of inherent worth is vast. I consider it to have inherent worth, the Native Americans consider it all sacred. And it is.


1.      Southworth, Don. The Interdependent Web .

2.      Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Pp. 34-35.

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