Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Way Forward for Animal Advocates Who Would Campaign for a New UU Principle

Guest Author:  Jennifer Greene

Jennifer is lead author of the new food education curriculum, Demonstrating Our Values through Eating (DOVE). She has served as RE director at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freeport, NY; interim RE consultant for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Great South Bay; and board member for the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry. Jennifer is part of the Food Justice Ministry team, and she assists Dr. Melanie Joy with her international speaking tours.

Gratitude for the vision of this project

I appreciate the invitation to share my ideas about how this project could move forward. In her invitation, Rev. Joyner refers to "the essence of the change" that is the purpose of this project. I thank her for this reminder (if I'm understanding her correctly) that the intention which unites us is not mere bylaw amendment, but of course personal and institutional transformation. 

I am terribly excited about getting UUs to hold discussions about widening our moral circle. These discussions are so challenging, but so important.

Let me begin this post by focusing on some of the questions currently posed by the First Principle Project (FPP).

Two different questions—one easier than the other

In its second sentence, the sidebar at the FPP blog poses a profound question: do species besides humans have worth and dignity? 

Most UUs could surely name some non-human species that they believe to be endowed with worth and dignity. Just a single example is all that's needed to collapse the "humans are the only ones" belief. For example, if the worth and dignity of Coco the gorilla and her kin is evident to us, we need look no further than her species in order to answer the question in the affirmative: yes, species besides humans have worth and dignity.

The sidebar continues, explaining in the very next sentence that the blog's essays will relate to the question, "Does every being have worth and dignity?"

This question, whether every being has worth and dignity, is quite a different question than the previous one. 

This question is not about collapsing the "humans are the only ones" belief. This question is asking if we can draw the circle representing those-with-worth-and-dignity so wide that it includes not just Coco, not just your dog or my cat, but every being. This question raises more challenging questions. Is a sponge a being? What does it mean for a tapeworm to have worth and dignity? And so on.

Is it clear, I hope, why these are very different questions? On more than one occasion, I have observed the conflation of the two; as if the proposed revision of the first principle is about collapsing the "humans are the only ones" belief, when in actuality the proposed revision is about asserting a far more expansive claim: "the worth and dignity of every being."

Another hard question; a common intuition versus bodhisattva-consciousness

Elsewhere, the FPP materials pose this question: are you comfortable with this statement, "…[humans] merit the same moral consideration as all [other species]." 

If you are a Buddhist, or Hindu, or Jain, you might indeed be comfortable with this statement, since Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain teachings promote this. (If my understanding about this is wrong, I hope someone will correct me on this point.)

But even ethicists known for challenging the hard line between humans and other-than-humans have held that in lifeboat-dilemma scenarios, it's possible (some of them say it's required) to give preference to a human's life over a non-human's life. [1] In other words, even prominent pro-animal ethicists seem prone to the intuition that humans may merit greater moral consideration than other species. 

I do not know if this intuition of unequal interspecies moral consideration will ever be eradicated from human cultures in general. I wonder what kind of spiritual evolution it will to take for most people to agree that it's as wrong to kill a turkey, as a human; and that it's as wrong to kill an ant, as a turkey. There are religions other than Unitarian Universalism which already teach this, and there are individuals within the Unitarian Universalist denomination who believe this. Am I one of them? Do I believe it's as wrong to kill an ant, as a human? No, I believe it's far more wrong to kill a human than an ant. I won't rule out the possibility of feeling differently someday, but that's my present view.

While I don't believe that killing an ant or turkey is as wrong as killing a human, my day-to-day behavior toward ants and turkeys and other animals is the very same as Norm Phelps' behavior toward them, and Norm maintains that it's as wrong to kill an insect as a human.  How can this be, that Norm and I do not hold the same beliefs about moral considerability across animal species, yet our behavior is the same? What lessons does this hold for UUs who would campaign to widen our moral circle? 

The "mere considerability premise" is enough

Philosophy professor Mylan Engel, Jr. explores the differences between the equal considerability premise (Norm's position) and the "mere" (non-zero) considerability premise (my position) in his essay,"The Mere Considerability of Animals." Engel demonstrates that belief in the equal considerability premise (EC) is "a stronger and more contentious premise than is needed" to take a principled stand against animals' exploitation and oppression. Engel shows that it's not necessary to hold EC, in order to make an argument from consistency for the wrongness of even the most entrenched form of animal exploitation (i.e., the use of animals for food).[2]

Needless harm is inflicted on, for instance, more than 8.8 billion birds by the United States' poultry industry each year. If you think what explains this is people's lack of belief in "moral equality" between birds and humans, then it makes sense that you might see a need to push for adoption of the EC. But there's another possibility: it could be that people don't need new belief in EC. Instead, it could be that what's needed is for people to close the gap between their presently-held belief (in the non-zero considerability of birds), and their actions, which are not consistent with their own belief. This is the essence of Engel's consistency argument.

One of the things I appreciate about the consistency argument is that it promotes a profound optimism about people's goodness. It expresses a confidence in the beliefs people already have, in their core values of kindness, justice, mercy and compassion. This strikes me as theologically very UU. 

Does the FPP promote EC, or not?

Mark Causey has argued that the proposed revision to the First Principle is not attempting to posit EC.[3]  But not everyone shares Mark's view. To others, "inherent worth and dignity of every being" does imply equality. It's easy to understand why they think it does.[4]

I recognize that some of us cherish the "inherent worth and dignity of every being" phrase. I know that it's a personal credo for some. But to the extent that it's interpreted as promoting EC, it triggers resistance in many UUs.

Let's reframe the project

I'm sure that at this point, I have not persuaded every last FPP supporter to abandon the dream of changing the first principle. That's fine; I didn't expect to. I am simply hoping to persuade you that a reframingof the project could be a productive way forward. 

Here's what I mean: we could reframe this project as the New Principle Project, taking the position that to keep up with the times, our principles ought to include acknowledgment that sentience endows other-than-humans with moral interests, and that our moral community ought to extend beyond our own species. We therefore need a new principle. And then, rather than ask UUs whether they support revising the first principle, yes or no, the question could be this: given our need for a new principle, which do you favor—a revised first, a revised second, an augmented seventh, or a new eighth? 

If we ask a different question, might we achieve our purpose better?

Rev. Brammer, in her recent guest post to the FPP blog, wrote, "I have difficulty increasing the reach of the first principle to non-human individuals when we have so much more intentional human bridge-building to do."  If we asked her to tell us which approach to a new principle she would favor, might we get a different answer? We might discover that a differently-framed question would keep the door open to inter-movement solidarity.[5]

This project could decide to seek the answer to this question: 

     In light of our need for a new principle, which do you favor?
     The inherent worth and dignity of every being (a revised first)
     Justice, equity, and compassion in all our relations (a revised second)
     Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, 
          and for the interests of individual beings as well (an augmented seventh)
     Respect for the sentient creatures, great and small, who dwell with us on Earth. (a new eighth)

What would be the practical implications of turning the FPP into the NPP? The essays in favor of revising the first principle would still be relevant resources, but the conversation going forward would not be limited to the question of revising the first. If I understand the conversation Rev. Joyner had recently with Jim Key, fifteen congregations must all pass the same resolution concerning the bylaw amendment. The NPP I'm proposing is compatible with that requirement.[6] 

The risk of lost opportunities, the cost to animals

I'm urging the collaboratory to embrace this course adjustment because of the reactions I've observed to the proposed first principle revision. I've seen non-vegans (and we know the vast majority of UUs are still in this category) react negatively, in part I think because the proposal seems too extreme—because "every being" makes them think about tapeworms and dust mites, rather than the chickens on their plates or the cows on their feet. 

I know you've been doing your best to address this, with thoughtful writings about the meaning of being, and about the meaning of worth and dignity—but I'm afraid the current wording will remain a stumbling block for many. The proposed first principle revision reinforces their impression that those of us who are animal advocates are rather different from them. It adds to their perception that we're pushing an "extreme" agenda (possibly even an EC premise, which, as I discussed above, runs counter to common intuitions about the moral permissibility of giving human life preference over non-human life in cases of true conflict). 

If the only proposal you continue to put forward is this first principle revision, there is a real danger you will be contributing to this unfortunate notion that to be an animal advocate requires profoundly different beliefs than the ones most people hold. The impression some people have already taken away from their encounter with the first principle proposal is that there's a considerable distance between where they are and where FPP wants them to be, a chasm which may be so wide they cannot picture themselves crossing it.[7] But if you reframe this project now by also putting forward some possibilities which are more clearly compatible with the mere-considerability position (which, I want to reiterate, is the position held by myself, by prominent pro-animal ethicists, and by at least some members of this collaboratory too), you'll mitigate the risk of making such a counterproductive impression, going forward.

A more inclusive, more productive way forward

If this project has been conceived in order to foster personal and institutional transformations, to lift up our obligation to recognize the interests of non-human beings, and to expand our circle of compassion, then it seems to me a New Principle Project as I've described here offers a way forward that could, possibly, be more inclusive while not losing the original purpose of, or existing contributions to, the First Principle Project. 

[1] Schweitzer, Singer, Regan, and Francione all hold that under the "equal moral significance" premise, it's still possible (some of them would say required) to give preference to a human's life over a non-human's life, in lifeboat-dilemma scenarios.

[2] Argument from consistency is the same approach presented by Gary Francione and Anna Charlton in Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals

[3] Mark writes: "There is a fairly standard philosophical distinction that I think might be helpful here. Moral philosopher, Kenneth Goodpaster, back in 1978 made a helpful distinction between "moral considerability" and "moral significance." Moral considerability is the question of whether an entity should be taken into account morally *at all.* Moral significance is about *how much* that entity is to be taken into account, It seems to me that what we are asking here in terms of inherent worth and dignity is that we expand our notion of moral considerability to include all beings. If we humans could just take that first step it would be amazing and completely transformational! After we take that first step, then can worry about the harder issues of moral significance in light of the sorts of conflicting interest claims that inevitably occur in life. It may be that we legitimately consider some entities as having more moral significance than some others, but that should be predicated upon the recognition that all possess moral considerability at least. It seems to me that we sometimes get hung up in our discussions by wanting to rush ahead into the thorny issues of moral significance before we have even taken the first step of expanding our conception of moral considerability to all. To me, inherent worth and dignity means at the very least having moral considerability. I see no reason why moral considerability should be limited to just humans, and I don't believe that in our heart of hearts we really believe it is that limited."

[4] As Mark notes in his "Inherent Worth" blogpost, it's natural that many UUs will understand an implication of EC in the inherent worth and dignity of every being.  They hear "equal" because the First Principle as it exists now intends exactly that message of EC among humans.

[5] As justice activists, we need to ask ourselves: does it matter, the ways that different forms of oppression mirror and interact with one another? Many of us think so, and we've appreciated the perspective of pattrice jones, for example, who explains that eating meat is something we do to someone else's body without their consent, of  A. Breeze Harper, of Jasmin Singer, of others who are making connections in justice work, explaining why, for instance, dairy is not just an issue of animal exploitation—it's an environmental issue, an issue for feminists, an issue of race and ethnocentrism, too.

These activists say that people doing various kinds of anti-oppression work need to be allies, and inter-movement solidarity is important. Part of that work is unpacking our own privilege(s), be that white or straight or male or cisgender or economic or able-bodied or another form of privilege. Does being human in a multispecies world call for some unpacking, too? Without a doubt. 

[6] Congregations could decide which of the following they want to pass:

a) We the (insert congregation name) do hereby call on the General Assembly of the UUA to omit "every person" and replace with "every being" in Article II Principles and Purposes, Section c-2.1 Principles, Line 12, UUA bylaws.

b) We the (insert congregation name) do hereby call on the General Assembly of the UUA to omit "human" and replace with "all our" in Article II Principles and Purposes, Section c-2.1 Principles, Line 13, UUA bylaws.

c) We the (insert congregation name) do hereby call on the General Assembly of the UUA to append ", and for the interests of individual beings as well" in Article II Principles and Purposes, Section c-2.1 Principles, Line 21, UUA bylaws.

d) We the (insert congregation name) do hereby call on the General Assembly of the UUA to insert "• Respect for the sentient creatures, great and small, who dwell with us on Earth." in Article II Principles and Purposes, Section c-2.1 Principles, after Line 21, UUA bylaws.

Just as FPP supplied the precise wording for congregations to pass in support of the first principle revision, the expanded NPP would supply the precise wording for congregations to pass in support of the other possibilities (a second principle revision, a seventh principle augmentation, or a new eighth principle). And it's conceivable that more than one change could be passed by fifteen congregations. This process would offer congregations more pathways to participation in the conversation, and could stimulate more attention than the binary, yes-or-no question regarding the first principle.

[7] I have found no better description of the tragedy of this lost opportunity than the following passage, written by Michael Greger in 2005 (this is an excerpt from his reflection for Satya Magazine in which he questions the wisdom of making a big deal about honey avoidance):

It’s happened to me over and over. Someone will ask me why I’m vegan—it could be a new friend, co-worker, distant family, or a complete stranger. I know I then have but a tiny window of opportunity to indelibly convey their first impression of veganism. I’m either going to open that window for that person, breezing in fresh ideas and sunlight, or slam it shut as the blinds fall. So I talk to them of mercy. Of the cats and dogs with whom they’ve shared their lives. Of birds with a half piece of paper’s worth of space in which to live and die. Of animals sometimes literally suffering to death. I used to eat meat too, I tell them. Lots of meat. And I never knew either.

Slowly but surely the horror dawns on them. You start to see them struggling internally. How can they pet their dog with one hand and stab a piece of pig with the other? They love animals, but they eat animals. Then, just when their conscience seems to be winning out, they learn that we don’t eat honey. And you can see the conflict drain away with an almost visible sigh. They finally think they understand what this whole “vegan” thing is all about. You’re not vegan because you’re trying to be kind or compassionate—you’re just crazy! They smile. They point. You almost had me going for a second, they chuckle. Whew, that was a close one. They almost had to seriously think about the issues. They may have just been considering boycotting eggs, arguably the most concentrated form of animal cruelty, and then the thought hits them that you’re standing up for insect rights. Maybe they imagine us putting out little thimble-sized bowls of food for the cockroaches every night.


  1. It strikes me that there are two problems with denying nonhuman people full moral equality with human people: one theoretical, the other practical. The theoretical problem is that moral consideration makes sense only for sentient beings: i.e., beings who long for happiness and abhor suffering, who love life and dread death. It is precisely and only because we are sentient that human beings need moral standing. Thus, there is no valid reason to deny moral equality to any sentient being. Cognitive ethologists like Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our fellow vertebrates, at least, share our love of life and fear of death, our desire for happiness and abhorrence of suffering. Therefore, they are entitled to full moral equality with us. When traced back to their source, arguments for granting humans moral priority all rest on human tribalism: “I’m a human being and, therefore, I’m going to hold humans in higher esteem than everyone else.” This is a strong human tendency, no doubt, but it is no more valid than the tendency of whites to grant moral priority to other whites, men to grant moral priority to other men, and so on. All are similar strains of unjustified prejudice.

    The practical reason is that viewed historically, equal treatment depends on equal consideration. When a more powerful group holds a less powerful group to be of lesser moral value, the more powerful always end up oppressing the less powerful. This is true even when the dominant group grants some significant degree of moral consideration to the subaltern group. Pick your example: Whites granted blacks a lesser degree of moral consideration—and enslaved and oppressed them. Men granted women a lesser degree of moral consideration and oppressed and abused them. And on and on. We grant dogs and cats a significant level of moral consideration. But that does not stop us from murdering several million homeless dogs and cats in shelters every year or keep horrific puppy mills from thriving. Inequality in theory always leads to oppression in fact.

    Norm Phelps

    1. Norm, thank you for your comments. Here's what I'm now wondering:

      1) Does Mylan's argument not persuade you that MC is enough to establish the ethical need to abstain from using animals for food? I understand that you predict that as a practical matter, MC will fail to eliminate oppression in the long run. But I'd like to know if you accept Mylan's logical argument that even people who don't accept EC still *ought* to be committed to the wrongness of prevalent forms of animal exploitation.

      2) In The Rights of Flies and Fleas, you gave the following advice:

      "I think that for the foreseeable future, we should direct our campaigns toward larger animals, for whom the public has more affinity, and hence greater empathy and sympathy, and who do not present some of the difficulties presented by insects. We must portray animal rights as doable within the context of a personally and socially normal life, not as some kind of iron man triathlon that will take over their lives and subject them to an ascetic discipline that will be all but unendurable.
      At least for the present, devoting scarce time and resources to convincing the public that ants and spiders are morally equivalent to dogs and cows would be counterproductive."

      ["doable within the context of a personally and socially normal life" was emphasized in the original]

      Have you not contradicted yourself somewhat, with the comment above? Perhaps I need to get a better understanding of what you mean by "full moral equality." If it's as wrong to kill an ant as a human (I know you believe that ants are sentient beings), then I don't understand why our legal system shouldn't charge a human with the same crime if she kills an ant as if she kills a human neighbor. I'm not being sarcastic; I really want to understand what the implications of your concept of "full moral equality" are. Because the situation I'm imagining, is one that would contradict your advice that "we must portray animal rights as doable..." "Full moral equality" of insects doesn't seem to me to be doable within the context of a personally and socially normal life.

      Thank you again for the engagement. My respect for you is immense, and I don't often find myself taking a different position from you, which is why I'm so keen to understand better exactly where our thinking on this differs.


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  3. Jennifer, thanks so much for this very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Thanks also for continuing to push us forward. You wrote, "not everyone shares Mark's view." Alas, truer words were never spoken (and not just about this issue)!

    I think you missed the distinction that I was trying to make in my blog post and in the comment of mine you quoted above. I do actually think, according to the way Goodpaster (not Engel) uses the term, that the FPP does indeed posit the equal considerability of all beings in the sense that all are considerable. I do not, however, think this commits us to the view that to kill an ant or a turkey or a human are all exactly the same, morally speaking. This is why Goodpaster distinguishes between moral consideration and moral significance. Engel does not make this distinction. He conflates consideration and significance. There are likely differences in the moral significance of the act of killing and ant versus killing a human. But both the ant and the human are worthy of consideration. It is the moral significance of the act differs. [No easy answers here].

    I really don't want to lose the language of inherent worth and dignity as it applies to the more than human. If we leave the existing 1st principle alone and simply add to another principle language of "respect" as it applies to nonhumans, we leave in tact the, in my view false, assumption that only humans have inherent worth and dignity. It leaves us in a position of privilege while we choose who else we will respect. It allows us to practice moral extensionism rather than forcing us to acknowledge (acknowledge not grant) the already existing inherent worth and dignity of the more-than-human world.

    I really admire Engel's work and wholeheartedly agree with him that even mere considerability is enough to take animals off our plates. What I understand the FPP to be doing is trying to help us make an even more fundamental paradigm shift in regards to our understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of the more-than-human world which would at the same time also accomplish what Engel is trying to accomplish as well.

    What if we simply add the word "sentient" to the proposed FPP language to change the 1st Principle to "inherent worth and dignity of every *sentient* being"? Do you think this would accomplish what you are after? While I also want to affirm the inhrerent worth of all the natural world (my deep ecology side) I do think sentience is a morally relevant characteristic so I think I could support the acknowledgement of the inherent worth and dignity of every sentient being. This in a way links the struggle for recognition of animals with the same struggles for humans in a nice way.

    I love the fact that we are even having these conversations. These ideas are really stretching us.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Mark. I'm afraid we're talking past each other a bit (and I'm to blame, for not clarifying better in the original post) since Goodpaster and Engel use "considerability" slightly differently. Let me rephrase, using Goodpasters's (and your) terminology: you do not think that the FPP trying to posit equal moral significance.

      I did not miss the distinction; I was just using Engel's terminology instead of Goodpaster's (and yours).

      Let's see if I can convince you that Engel actually does distinguish between consideration and significance.

      Goodpaster's "considerability" is binary—an entity is either not morally considerable, or morally considerable. If considerable, then Goodpaster uses the term "significance" to answer the question "how much considerability."

      Engel presents the same concepts, just without using the term "significance." Engel recognizes, as did Goodpaster, that an entity could be not morally considerable (which Engel calls "zero considerability"), or morally considerable. If considerable, then Engel is interested in distinguishing between "significance that's equal to that of humans" which he calls "equal considerability," or "significance that's less than that of humans" which he calls "mere considerability."

      Have I persuaded you that Engel is not actually conflating consideration and significance?

      And to answer your question about adding the word "sentient" to the proposed FPP language: that would be an improvement, but to the extent that it's interpreted as asserting Engel's "EC," or as you and Goodpaster would say, "equal significance," it will still trigger resistance in many UUs. And in you too, I gather. It sounds like you're not ready to say that killing a turkey is as wrong as killing a human. Why not? Why don't you agree with Norm, that it's as wrong to kill one as the other?

      It's okay if you don't have a good answer. My point is that I don't think we have to make up our minds about this, before we decide to behave with more respect toward other creatures. I'm more interested in behavior than beliefs.


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  5. Update: the link I provided in my blogpost to Norm Phelps' essay, "The Rights of Flies and Fleas" no longer works. Norm died two months after posting the comment above, and in 2015, his website domain expired.

    Thankfully, though, his writings were not lost forever. "The Rights of Flies and Fleas" can now be read here: https://normphelpsdotorg1.wordpress.com/the-rights-of-flies-and-fleas/

    I have written a tribute to Norm here: http://dovecurriculum.blogspot.com/2013/09/session-b2.html#spotlightonUUs — Jennifer Greene


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