Norman Phelps Speaks on the First Principle Project
Guest Author: Norm Phelps
Animal Rights Activist and Author (The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible (2002), The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights (2004), and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA (2007).
Disclaimer: I have had and continue to have no involvement with the First Principle Project. I am writing strictly as an individual and the views expressed here, as throughout this article, are my own.
For the benefit of readers who are not UUs, Unitarian-Universalism is a non-creedal denomination. There is no specific set of doctrines to which one must swear allegiance. In place of a creed, we have a set of Seven Principles, which outline the commonalities that bind us together. The First Principle, a commitment to “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” is the subject of a pro-animal initiative known as the First Principle Project (FPP). Initially created by Unitarian-Universalist Animal Ministry (UUAM), and facilitated by UU minister and wildlife veterinarian LoraKim Joyner, FPP campaigns to amend the First Principle in order to bring animals as individuals clearly and plainly under its protection.
Let me start by saying that as far as I am concerned, the First Principle—exactly as it is written—should provide the same degree of protection and nurture to animals that it provides to human beings. As I explained earlier, nonhuman animals—especially the mammals, birds, and fish that we enjoy eating—are people in every meaningful sense of the word.
But because the preponderance of UUs view it through the frame of humanism, the First Principle as written protects only human beings. Most UUs interpret “person” as a synonym for “human” and consider our relationship to animals to be governed by the Seventh Principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Thus, most UUs adopt a conventional environmental or ecological attitude toward animals and advocate protecting species and ecosystems, but not individual animals. This is a morally deficient response to the fact of animal sentience and personhood.
The First Principle Project proposes to change the First Principle to read, “the inherent worth and dignity of every being,” so that it expresses a worldview similar to what Albert Schweitzer termed “reverence for life.” Schweitzer viewed all living beings as individuals, not as species or populations, and so does The First Principle Project.
I wholeheartedly support The First Principle Project for reasons that should be clear from what I have said thus far. Because the locus of sentience is the individual, all sentient beings need compassion and respect as individuals. No one would think that so long as homo sapiens was not endangered, the enslavement and slaughter of individual human beings was morally acceptable. The same principle should hold for nonhuman animals, as well. Personally, I would prefer that an amended First Principle refer to “every sentient being,” because I fear that some will insist on interpreting “every being” to include plants and will argue that since even vegans eat plants, the consistency principle permits us to eat animals as well. This would be a misuse of the consistency principle, but I suspect we will nonetheless hear the argument made. But one of the things that makes being a UU so stimulating is that no two of us ever (or hardly ever) agree entirely about anything. And if each of us insists on their own favorite wording, we will never get anywhere. And so, I support amending the First Principle exactly as FPP proposes.
One thing that I find especially interesting about The First Principle Project website, including the Resource Guide, is that it never once states that eating the flesh of enslaved and murdered animals is inconsistent with respecting “the inherent worth and dignity of every being.” In fact, it mentions vegetarianism and veganism only in a worksheet and even there it takes extraordinary care to assure that the language is sterile and value-neutral. “Inherent worth” is quite a different matter from “instrumental worth.” When we eat the flesh of slaughtered animals, we are allotting them only instrumental worth and denying them inherent worth. To respect the inherent worth of any being, you must respect their life, and take it only under the pressure of dire necessity, as in defending yourself or someone else from attack. Enslaving and slaughtering an innocent being for one’s own pleasure—gustatory or otherwise—is a gross insult to that being’s inherent dignity.
Why this tiptoeing around the fundamental moral issue? Why this reticence where the bedrock question of right and wrong, good and evil is concerned? I do not know for certain, but it seems to me likely that the leaders of the FPP fear that a more direct approach would trigger a reflexively negative reaction from so many UUs, clergy and laity alike, that the FPP would be doomed before it ever got started. And based on my experience trying to get ethically unambiguous language inserted into the Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating, this is a legitimate concern. And this sad reality brings us back to the larger question: Why is the UUA—and why are UU congregations and members around the country—defending the enslavement and slaughter of 65 billion innocent sentient beings every year? What has happened to us? Why did we stand still while others were moving the moral agenda forward? And, more importantly, How can we get back on track? How can we reclaim the UU heritage of moving the moral frontier forward? On the answer to that question hangs not only the fate of nonhuman people, but the fate of Unitarian-Universalism as well. If we do not get on the right side of the definitive social justice issue of our time, future generations of UUs will look back at us and see little to be proud of.