Some have reservations about expanding their circle of compassion to include other species, for it might detract from the very important work humans have left to do in caring for our own species at both the individual and societal level. As far as I know, there are no studies suggesting that helping one demographic or species causes a human person to diminish their compassion for another. Many in fact argue that as we increase our compassion for any other, we increase the chances that our capacity of compassion for all others will also increase. We don't know this to be absolutely true, but recent studies suggest, as do many faith traditions, that it is so.
One scientific study showed that vegetarians and vegans had higher activation in brain areas associated with empathy than did omnivores when viewing scenes of either humans or nonhumans suffering. This might suggest that empathy is associated across species lines, and those with higher empathy for nonhumans have higher empathy for humans. Similarly, a study with children given humane education showed that empathy towards nonhuman animals is correlated with empathy towards humans.
What does our Unitarian Universalist faith have to say about the connection between caring for humans and nonhumans? The First Principle Project's goal is to involve many in this question, with the hope of deepening faith, and increasing healing, wholeness, and compassionate action in the world towards all others.
Here is as story of one Unitarian who exemplified how caring across species lines is related.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded by Unitarian Henry Bergh. He urged the New York legislature to pass the charter incorporating the ASPCA -- which it did, on April 10, 1866. Nine days later, an anti-cruelty law was passed, and the ASPCA granted the right to enforce it.
This step toward animal protection occurred before there were any protections against child abuse on the books. Eight years later in 1874 when Etta Wheeler sought to take action against the abuses to 10-yr-old Mary Ellen McCormack, she was frustrated by the lack of anti-cruelty to children legislation. So she turned to the ASPCA and the anti-cruelty laws they were charged with enforcing. Henry Bergh saw the girl, like the horses he routinely saved from violent stable owners, as a vulnerable member of the animal kingdom needing the protection of the state. He arranged for the case to be argued, and it went to the NY Supreme Court, which ordered Mary Ellen removed from her abusive mother.
Bergh also prompted the formation, in 1874, of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC).
Here is a clear case where better treatment of animals helped humans get better treatment, and how one man did all he could not just for nonhuman animals, but for humans as well.
Can you think of other instances? If so, please post them here in the comment section.
The First Principle Project is about sharing our stories, experiences, feelings, and thoughts so that together we can care for the many, including our beautiful human selves.
May it be so.
Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM
First Principle Project Facilitator
For the obituary of Henry Berg, click here.