Today's Guest Author: Charlie Talbert
Charlie is a former board member of the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry. He is currently board president of Alliance For Animals and the Environment, a Wisconsin education and animal advocacy group, and serves on the organizing Committee for Mad City Vegan Fest, an annual event in Madison, WI.
Sermon description: Who has worth and dignity and who doesn’t? Why has the answer to this question expanded over time, with Unitarians and Universalists often at the forefront of the struggle for greater inclusion? This sermon suggests how our heritage of advancing moral progress can help us discern a moral imperative of our day, to recognize that humans are not the only beings whose worth and dignity are inherent.
Animals, Empathy, & Moral Progress
Unitarian Universalist Church of The Lakes – Elkhorn, WI
March 23, 2014
Good Morning. I’m Charlie Talbert. Thank you for inviting me to speak here this Sunday. Although I’ve been to Elkhorn many times and have seen your church from the outside, it’s good to be inside with you today.
I’ve been a UU for 21 years, most of that time in Kenosha. I fondly recall the exciting milestone year that our churches share, 1993, when both Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lakes and Bradford Community Church UU were able to purchase our own buildings.
Three years ago when I retired my wife Vicky and I returned to Madison, where we now belong to First Unitarian Society.
I’m a former board member and still active in Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry, a national organization of ministers and lay people who seek to bring compassion for animals onto the moral agenda of our denomination. You may have seen some of our ads in the UU World or our exhibit at General Assemblies, this year in Providence.
We advocate for companion animals, wildlife, animals in entertainment and others, but my short talk today is mostly about farmed animals. They’re the ones who suffer in the greatest numbers, and also the ones whom people are most empowered to help.
I’m currently board president of Alliance For Animals and the Environment, a statewide education and advocacy organization based in Madison.
Your theme for March’s sermons, empathy, is a timely one to consider at this critical point in our history, when the sustainability of our life on the planet is in such peril. If ever we needed clearer understanding of those around us, and more insightful connections to others, it’s now.
Over the last fifteen years or so I’ve come to see that the individuals of other species are much like us in the ways that matter. Every one of us – not just humans – either against the most improbable odds, or with some cosmic design, have found ourselves plopped here, alive and kicking, on this outpost in the cosmos that is the planet Earth.
While we’re here, many of us – and in my experience, that’s a great number of UUs – make what seems like a modest request of life: that it make sense and that it be fair, at least on the big things.
But one morning in 2002 while leisurely reading the Sunday paper I came across a report of routine operating procedures in the animal agriculture industry – all legal, all approved by the care guidelines of the industry’s veterinarians – that seemed to me like a big thing … that made no sense, at least no moral sense to anyone with a conventional view of decency and mercy.
And fairness hardly seemed a serious question. The story was An Animal’s Place, in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and this was one of its troubling passages:
From everything I've read, egg and hog operations are the worst.
The American laying hen passes her brief span piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage whose floor a single page of this magazine could carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral "vices" that can include cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until [she] is featherless and bleeding. Pain? Suffering? Madness? The operative suspension of disbelief depends on more neutral [industry] descriptors, like "vices" and "stress."
Whatever you want to call what's going on in those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can't bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production. And when the output of the others begins to ebb, the hens will be "force-molted"—[they are] starved of food and water and light for several days in order to stimulate a final bout of egg laying before their life's work is done.
For many of us, this is an alarming description. It quickens our pulse a little with a desire to somehow help alleviate the systematic suffering it describes. It may anger us at whomever or whatever is causing it. It’s an emotional connection, not an intellectual one. It springs from empathy.
This feeling of connection is like the one you may have experienced in the springtime or early summer when a fledgling has fallen from his nest, with his frantic parents crying out, hopping and winging branch-to-branch nearby. Usually we can’t help, but strong feelings make us want to.
And “nearby” proximity is not required to trigger our emotional connections to other animals. The internet’s social media are awash in heartrending stories from afar of animals in distress, and we’re touched to see individuals, sometimes from other species, coming to their aid:
a baby goat goes in too deep and bleats for help, and a baby pig swims in and nudges him to shore;
or the hippo who protects an injured impala,
or the lioness who saves a human from a lion’s attack.
Last year researchers discovered that lab rats – at least some lab rats: it’s best not to stereotype individuals – would free a fellow rat trapped in a cage with no expectation of reward from the researchers; and some of those rescuer rats even saved some of their own chocolate stash to give to their fellows whom they had freed.
And recently a heartwarming story making the rounds was of a baby chicken who’d been rescued after two young skateboarders purposely ran over her.
In the endearing post-op picture, her tiny legs are in splints and she is a napping feather ball in the palm of a caring attendant. The text tells us that after her orthopedic procedure at a clinic, she was taken to the Humane Society for extra care, and there she was named Nan. The Humane Society director explained, “Our mission is to render aid to those who need it the most, and there is nothing more vulnerable than a baby bird.”
Yet these empathetic connections that weave through the web of life – the experiences of others that trigger feelings of recognition in us – are not present either all the time or in every place.
This is not because some of us are empathetic and others of us are not. Rather, it’s because most all off us are selectively empathetic. And selectively so – sometimes – for good reason. Try to grasp the feelings of too many individuals and you’re unlikely to connect meaningfully with any of them. Or as Mother Theresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act.”
Of course, empathy by itself, in its basic definition, does not require us to act at all, but merely to understand the emotions and feelings of others.
Cognitive empathy is our intellectual ability to identify and understand others’ emotional states. Affective empathy is our own sensations and feelings that we experience, like eyes tearing up, in response to another’s emotions.
It’s this latter one, affective empathy, the kind we sometimes feel as if it were an emotional contagion, that often stirs people to act, or to want to act.
That response – more like a reflex, to act from empathy – is so hardwired in us that psychologist and author Paul Ekman identifies action as a third type of empathy. He terms it “compassionate empathy” and with it we not only understand and experience another’s feelings, we are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.
Help like that given by so many to the baby chicken, Nan, run over by skateboarders.
Others are not so fortunate. Elsewhere here in the U.S., baby chickens, on a massive scale, are suffocated in plastic bags, gassed, or tossed alive into grinders, about 200 million of them every year. In other words, 11,400 in the time it takes for my talk this morning. Their fate normally tugs at no one’s heartstrings, nor warrants a single post to Facebook.
The magnitude of this suffering is incomprehensible, even if we wanted to comprehend it. Understandably, though, many people don’t want to think about, let alone comprehend, what’s done to these victims.
They are the “waste products” of the egg industry, in other words, the babies unfortunate enough to be born male at the hatcheries that supply virtually all egg operations in the U.S. – big and small, organic and conventional, caged and cage-free, the ones that call themselves humane and the ones that don’t. The gruesome methods may vary, but killing male baby chickens is the common practice across all the market niches that the egg industry uses to sell itself and its products.
This is but one example among many within the animal agriculture industry where economic calculation trumps even the most minimal standards of compassion, where animals are treated only as commodities, in the words of Matthew Scully, to be cramped together until they’ve grown to maturity, and then butchered and disassembled along hellish factory lines where profit counts for everything and suffering for nothing.
Scully is a conservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. And he’s the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. His eloquent book – I recommend it – is one example of many that shows that this concern for compassion and mercy transcends politics and ideology.
And this issue transcends religions, too. Questions and concerns about the treatment of farmed animals are increasingly being raised within many faiths.
That said, our Unitarian Universalist denomination has a uniquely powerful role to play in dismantling this institution of suffering and injustice. This role has been passed to us by our robust heritage of challenging entrenched traditions and cultural group-think that rationalize and institutionalize moral wrongs.
This heritage – which the Sources of Our Living Tradition describe as confronting powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love – flows largely, I believe, from both our discernment, and from our optimistic faith, that a wave of moral progress is radiating through the eras of human history.
Nineteenth century Unitarian Minister and Abolitionist Theodore Parker put it this way, in words adapted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the twentieth century, that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.
This metaphor of a bending arc suggests that as vantage points change from generation to generation, so may conventional views about what is just.
Indeed, in our day, Parker’s push to abolish slavery seems so justifiable that it bears no serious question in our public discourse. Not so in Parker’s day. Then, many of the critics of slavery – most of them, actually – wanted to reform slavery, not abolish it.
Many of those who wanted to replace traditional slavery with a more humane type – with shorter hours in the fields, less severe punishments, fewer families broken up in the commerce of buying and selling – were part of a movement called “Christian Slavery”.
These reformers considered themselves to be – which they were – compassionate, fair-minded, compromising, and reasonable people; and they considered the abolitionists to be radicals in a tiny minority, which they were.
But today, just 16 or 17 decades later, do you know any compassionate or fair-minded people advocating for “Christian Slavery” or anything like it? And although slavery still exists in pockets around the planet, all civilized societies seeks its abolition, not its reform.
What happened? What the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said of the stages of truth can likewise be said of the stages of moral progress: first it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third it is accepted as being self-evident.
Several years ago the magazine The Economist had this to say about humanity’s moral progress:
"Historically, [humans have] expanded the reach of [their] ethical calculations as ignorance and want have receded, first beyond family and tribe, later beyond religion, race, and nation. To bring other species more fully into the range of these decisions may seem unthinkable to moderate opinion now. One day, decades or centuries hence, it may seem no more than [what] 'civilized' behavior requires."
And the L.A. Times, in its critical acclaim of Matthew Scully’s book, said this about the progress of our ethical obligations to other species: “In fifty years, we will look back in shame at what Dominion catalogs.”
“Really?” we might ask. Fifty more years before people realize that brutalizing these other beings is for nothing, when you get right down to it, but custom and a taste preference?
Because we’re most assuredly not eating animals for our health. A growing body of scientific evidence, like that reported by Cornell professor of biochemistry, T. Colin Campbell, in his comprehensive epidemiological book, The China Study, shows the increasing incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and even osteoporosis in groups that increase the amount of meat, dairy, and eggs in their diets.
You can see him along with noted cardiologists and other physicians in the 2011 film, Forks Over Knives, that lays bare the myth that animal products build strong bodies. In fact, not eating them can actually reverse heart disease and Type II diabetes according to studies published by the Physicians’ Committee For Responsible Medicine and other physician groups.
These days, rarely if at all, do physicians, nutritional professionals or others support the claim that animal products are needed for our health; except, that is, those the industry pays or, like the USDA, it lavishly lobbies.
The Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, the nation’s largest, last year announced its recommendation of a plant-based diet, no animal products, for everyone, not just its patients with disease. So does prominent Kenosha cardiologist, Dr. Kevin Fullin, who has made presentations last year and this year in Kenosha County and Milwaukee on the health benefits of this diet.
And we’re not eating animal products for the health of our environment, either. 80% of all the agricultural land in the U.S. – that’s almost half the total land mass of the lower 48 states – is used to raise animals for food and grow crops to feed them.
It takes this much land because animals are not efficient converters of calories, protein, and other nutrients from plants: cows must consume up to 15 calories of grain to provide 1 calorie for human consumption.
The U.S. EPA reports that 1,000 gallons of water are required to produce 1 gallon of cow’s milk – water needed for her to drink, for the crops that feed her, for the water disposal systems that hose away her waste.
Livestock waste pollutes our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. It’s polluted more than 27,000 miles of rivers and contaminated groundwater in dozens of states, including Wisconsin, as has been much reported in the news recently.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO, has reported that animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gasses than all of the planet’s cars, trucks, trains, planes and other forms of transportation combined.
And the 95% or so of all farmed animals – those on factory farms – do not on average eat less, drink less, or poop less than their counterparts in the smaller, so-called sustainable and humane operations that may be closer to home. That explains in part the findings of Carnegie Mellon researchers that we do more for the environment by foregoing animal products, even just one day per week, then by switching to an entirely local diet.
So, why do we allow this harm to us, the environment, and these animals to continue? Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, whom many credit as the founder of the modern animal rights movement, reminds us that it is easy for us to criticize the prejudices of our grandparents, from which our parents freed themselves. But that it is more difficult to distance ourselves from our own views, so that we can dispassionately search for prejudices among the beliefs and values we hold.
Problem is: this dispassionate search that Singer challenges us to make is all too often sidetracked or even blocked.
The animal agriculture industry and those who profit from it spend billions every year on advertising and PR that misinforms and misleads consumers. And when that’s not enough, on lobbying for legislation and regulations that keep its practices hidden from public scrutiny.
They present themselves as bearers of benign and pastoral traditions. Factory farm corporations like Smithfield Foods, ConAgra, and Tyson label their products with friendly names like “Clear Run Farms”, “Murphy Family Farms”, and “Happy Valley”, that mask the nature of their industrial realities.
And they deny that any mistreatment occurs at all within their CAFO’s and slaughterhouses, except that is, in those rare instances when, with astounding coincidence, there happens to be undercover footage that shows the staggering scenes of violence and depravity that regularly make their way to the evening news shows.
“Warning”, the newscasters intone, “the scenes you are about to see may be troubling for some viewers.”
But rather than contest that farmed animals are mistreated, the industry prefers not to talk about them at all. Feminist author Carol Adams writes of how dominant cultures marginalize their victims by denying, by what goes unspoken, that they are anything but objects. And she cites as examples the subjugation of women by patriarchal cultures and of farmed animals by speciesist ones.
And you don’t have to travel far to see evidence of this denial. Seven weeks ago, on January 31st, 300,000 egg-laying hens were incinerated, burned alive in a four-alarm fire, just northeast of La Grange, less than 12 miles from this church, at the S&R egg farm.
S&R’s press release doesn’t tell us if any of these 300,000 who perished might have had names like Nan. In fact, it doesn’t mention the chickens at all. Instead, the press release has happier news. Fire claimed only one of the fourteen buildings of this self-described family farm, where 2.4 million chickens are caged.
It tells us there was no damage to the company offices or packaging and shipping operations. And harm to anyone? The press release puts it this way, ”The company is happy to report no injuries occurred as a result of this fire” … by which of course it means no injury to humans, the only individuals endangered by the flames who matter.
Who matters? Who decides who matters? An arc bending towards justice suggests that the answers to these questions become more inclusive over time. And seeking to insure that each of us matters – expanding the circle of compassion, if you will – is a hallmark of our religion.
We celebrate this ideal when we teach our children in RE the examples of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears, in movements with leaders like Susan B. Anthony, William Ellery Channing, Dorthea Dix, Margaret Fuller, William Lloyd Garrison, Horace Mann and others who spoke out against culturally-sanctioned oppression: the injustices of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and the other –isms that justify exploitation for those who have power over those who don’t.
And it’s not a new idea that speciesism belongs with these other “–isms” of oppression that our faith and values call us to challenge. In her book on the U.S. history of organized advocacy for animals, Diane Beers has this to say about Unitarian Henry Bergh, nineteenth century founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals:
“… [Bergh’s] plea for animals arose not from any sentimental attachment to them, but rather from the moral teachings of his religion, Unitarianism … for [him] the ethical recognition of nonhumans involved no emotion, no complex theories, and no extraordinary intellect. It was a simple moral struggle between right and wrong,” she writes.
If you’d like to help, or just to learn more, visit our Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry website. You can subscribe to a listserv there and connect with other UUs from around the country who are talking about these issues.
We brought along some handout bookmarks that show the link to the website as well as some other resources.
A Life Connected, the last resource listed, is a 12-minute, non-graphic video that very effectively summarizes the major issues around animal agriculture that affect our health, our environment, and of course the animals themselves. It’s free to watch online. Its short length makes it a good way to open a discussion group.
And consider eating fewer animal products. Just reducing average consumption by a quarter spares 20 animals per year from needless suffering and slaughter. Take a step, whatever it can be, whenever it can be.
I ask you to consider this because we’ve reached what I think is an irreconcilable dilemma for all of us: that we cannot square the treatment of farmed animals with some key Unitarian Universalist concepts, ones that have helped me, and probably you to identify and articulate our ideals – ideas like “justice and compassion”, “respect for the interdependent web”, and “inherent worth and dignity”.
And yes, our first principle does attribute “inherent worth and dignity” to only “every person”, but the animals whom I’ve been privileged to live with and know have had worth and dignity too, and so have the ones that you have known. And we did not bestow worth and dignity upon them – they have these inherently, just as do the hundreds of millions of beings trapped in the cages and the machinery of our factory farms and slaughterhouses now, at this moment. Out of a connection, a connection of respect and sorrow for them, we will pause a minute in silence.
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