Friday, March 13, 2015

Engaging Jennifer

Guest Author: Meredith Garmon
Minister, Community Unitarian Church at White Plains

Editor's Note:
Thank you Jennifer and Meredith for engaging in this important and life saving conversation, and helping the rest of us think about this, and then act upon it.
Rev. LoraKim Joyner - First Principle Project Facilitator

My claims: Every being has inherent worth and dignity. Not every being has equal claim to our resources of care.

The principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person does not mean that I am obligated to expend as much of my time and resources of care on my neighbors as on my family. (I do, in fact, take seriously our fourth source’s call “to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves,” but this doesn’t mean I generally spend as much time with them as I do with my family.)

Likewise, the worth and dignity of every being does not require equal distribution of my resources of care to each individual being. Dustmites have inherent worth and dignity, but I am not obligated to expend as much of my resources of care protecting individual dustmites as on pigs, cows, dogs, cats, chimps, dolphins, and blue and gold macaws.

In her post, “A Way Forward for Animal Advocates Who Would Campaign for a New UU Principle” (2014 Oct 28 - CLICK HERE), Jennifer Greene expresses doubts about the inherent worth and dignity of every being.

“As Wrong”

Part of Jennifer's position presents in terms of a dispute about “as wrong.”
“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.”
And she mentions, by way of contrast, Norm Phelps, who, “maintains that it's as wrong to kill an insect as a human.”

But disagreements about what is “as wrong” as what shed no light on the issue. “As wrong” is unnecessary – it doesn’t help the case for the principle of worth/dignity of every being. And “as wrong” is hopelessly ambiguous. When someone says "A is as wrong as B," they might mean
"The punishment for A should be the same as the punishment for B."
Or they might mean,
"A and B call for similar voicings of denunciation -- in the same way that we denounce stealing a candy bar as firmly as we denounce stealing a car -- though of course the punishments should differ, and the resources of law enforcement to prevent them should differ."
Or they might mean,
"It is true that A is wrong, and it is just as much true that B is wrong -- in the way that "$1 is money" is just as much true as "$10 is money.' Though $10 is certainly not equal to $1, the truth of the two statements is equal."
In the end, this "as wrong" talk should be regarded as merely a rhetorical flourish. We can affirm that all beings have worth and dignity without needing to advance any claims about equality of wrongness.


Jennifer helpfully mentions Mylan Engel’s distinction between “equal” and “mere” (or “nonzero”) considerability. “Equal considerability,” (EC) defended by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, says “we owe humans and sentient nonhumans exactly the same degree of moral consideration.” “Mere considerability” says “animals deserve some moral consideration, although not as much consideration as that owed to humans.” Mylan Engel, Jennifer, and I all agree that, as Jennifer puts it,
“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).”
While “inherent worth and dignity of every being” does not imply EC, notions of equality have sometimes entered the conversation. Jennifer references Mark Causey’s “Inherent Worth” (2014 Feb 20 -- CLICK HERE). Here’s Mark’s relevant paragraph:
“One of the most common objections I hear when presenting or talking about the First Principle Project is the objection that replacing the word ‘person’ with the word ‘being’ now means that we are all the same. ‘Does that mean that a tapeworm or a cockroach has exactly the same inherent value as a human being?!’ What I believe has happened here is that the objector has subconsciously inserted the word ‘equal’ into the formulation of the revised principle. What we are saying is that we are ‘called to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all beings.’ What the objector is hearing is that we are ‘called to affirm and promote the equal inherent worth and dignity of all beings.’ If every being has equal inherent worth, does that mean I can no longer swat a mosquito? But the First Principle project is not proposing to insert the word ‘equal’ into the principle. It is quite natural for us to hear the word ‘equal’ here because it is implied (although not explicitly stated) in the current wording of the principle. What we hear in the current first principle is that all persons, regardless of race, sex, ability, identification, etc., have equal worth and dignity. We are so used to fighting for the principle of equality amongst humans, as we should, that we automatically transfer this notion to the proposed changed wording including all beings.”
It’s true that the progress of morality among humans has been tied up with conceptions of “equality.” The language that emerged in Europe’s feudal period asserted that the landed classes were “betters” and “superiors.” Dismantling the lingering assumptions of that time were helped by insisting, “we’re all equal.” The work of ending discrimination continues to have a great need to invoke “equal protection of the law.” Whatever equality has meant – as a value and an ideal for human-human relations and for human institutions -- it has never meant that we expected anyone to devote the resources of their care just the same to everyone. We have always understood that people will be more devoted to their friends and family than to others. Equality has never meant the complete obliteration of loyalty.

So if people are, as Mark suggests, “subconsciously insert[ing] the word ‘equal’ into the formulation of the revised principle,” the problem isn’t that they are assuming the same kind of equality among animals that the current first principle now indicates among humans. Rather, the problem is that people may be – bizarrely -- inserting into the formulation of the revised principle a much stronger notion of equality than any kind of equality we affirm among humans.

Jennifer then says,
“But not everyone shares Mark's view. To others, ‘inherent worth and dignity of every being’ does imply equality.”
If there are, indeed, “others” who think this way, then let us endeavor to disabuse of them of their obvious mistake. I have already indicated the basic strategy: Almost certainly these “others” do not imagine that the inherent worth and dignity of every person requires equal energy of care to every person. So they cannot reasonably imagine that total equality of energy of care suddenly appears when we expand the circle of some care from “every person” to “every being.”

Speaking of Expanding the Circle…

Jennifer cites Rev. Karen Brammer’s post (2014 Oct 11 -- CLICK HERE). Karen says:
"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."
When we expand the circle of our care – expand the circle of those to whom we extend some care – it never damages those who were already in the circle. I don’t spend as much of my resources of care on my neighbors as on my family, but I nevertheless care about my neighbor. Doing so doesn’t harm my care of my family – in fact, I am better able to be present and loving to my family when I’m a generally kind person to my neighbors. Caring about, and building bridges of connection to people of a different human culture don’t harm my own culture, but strengthen it. In similar manner, caring about animals doesn’t detract from caring about people. Just the opposite. Whenever we expand the circle of care, the total “regime of care” is strengthened.

LoraKim Joyner’s post (2014 Dec 4 -- CLICK HERE) explained in some detail how helping nonhuman animals helps humans. Empathy and concern for nonhumans expands our capacity for empathy and concern for humans too. Karen’s concern for human bridge-building would rationally lead her toward, rather than away from, care for nonhuman animals.

The Prescriptive/Descriptive Thing

I made some of the above points to Jennifer in comments on Facebook. She said,
It is certainly a fact that we spend our time and resources of care more on certain individuals than on others. But when it comes to humans, we don't accept that as an argument against the idea of our "equal worth." "Equal worth" and "equality" are usually understood to be prescriptive, as opposed to descriptive. We say that humans are equal under the law—and the current first principle is widely understood to be a declaration of this egalitarian view. So I am worried that you are citing the descriptive fact of unequal allocation of time and resources of care (i.e., how things are), as if to disprove that which is prescriptive—i.e., how we think things should be, or the legal protections we agree should be applied to kin and strangers alike.
I replied by asking how she navigates the prescriptive/descriptive thing when it comes to humans -- while at the same time spending more resources of care on her own family. Whatever it is that is prescriptive about our notions of equality of all humans, it does not interfere with our sense that it is perfectly right and just to devote more of one's resources of care on one's own family than on one's neighbors. Jennifer replied,
"Well, I think we try to do that by building fairness and equality into our laws (in recognition of our instincts for things like preferential treatment and revenge)."
At issue here is, what difference does affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every being really make? What does it ask us to do differently? The answer is: we don't know. And it's just fine that we don't know. In the mid-1980s, when UUs adopted our principles, including the first one, we didn't know where affirming the inherent worth and dignity would take us -- but it was worthwhile to make that affirmation and see.

It's important that we start with description. The human rights community has broad consensus that the thing to say is the descriptive assertion, "people have rights" -- not "people should have rights." We assert a description of the moral landscape as the first move. Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, affirmed that all are created equal, endowed with inalienable rights. That was a moral description. Thirteen years later came the Constitution, where we sketched one of the many possible ways we might have understood ourselves as accommodating the moral reality. The Declaration inspired the Constitution, but didn't dictate any of it.

And that's the function of a descriptive moral principle -- to inspire. Out of that inspiration we may eventually come to agreement on some prescriptions. If, as Jennifer suggests, our present first principle leads us to try to build fairness and equality into our laws, that is just one of many directions we might have gone to accommodate the reality that all persons have inherent worth and dignity. That moral truth itself stipulates nothing about fairness or equality. (That's the 2nd principle -- and there's a reason these are two different principles rather than one.)

"All beings have inherent worth and dignity," is a moral truth, not a moral rule. The new, revised first principle would tell us to simply notice. In and of itself, all it prescribes is: notice that all beings have worth and dignity. The question will arise (at least, we hope it will), "OK, what do I do about this truth once I've noticed it?" The fact calls for some response, but in itself dictates no particular response. I think it will probably tend to encourage a greater conscientiousness and mindfulness in all our relations -- but different people will go different ways with it. When a community of people commits to observe (notice) a moral reality, as time goes by, particular action ideas begin to gain popular support. Animal cruelty laws might be strengthened -- and slowly expanded to more species. Or more efforts to preserve habitats may emerge. Consumer choices might gradually shift -- not because the revised first principle will tell people to shift them, but as a natural (and naturally highly variable) result of noticing, of having in mind the moral truth that all beings have worth and dignity. Some people might merely say a little prayer for the dustmites before turning on the air purifier that will kill many of them -- even that is at least a start. Some kind of start is better than none. And where that start might lead is anybody's guess.

However we respond, collectively recognizing the truth that all beings have inherent worth and dignity helps shift us toward life, connection, and greater joy in all we do -- whatever we do.


  1. Meredith, thank you so much for this conversation. I truly value your efforts at gaining a better understanding of my perspective, as well as the time you have spent to provide a window on your own, in this and previous posts and sermons.

    One thing you wrote above, though, has me confused. I don't understand this: "Rather, the problem is that people may be – bizarrely -- inserting into the formulation of the revised principle a much stronger notion of equality than any kind of equality we affirm among humans." Can you clarify?

    Perhaps if we could speak in terms of "negative duty" and "positive duty," it would help me understand your point?

    I'm also wondering if it would help to provide some concrete examples. You frequently refer to "energy of care," and I am wondering how you are translating that into everyday living.

    Here's the analogy I have in mind, in concrete terms: we can recognize our obligation (legal as well as moral) *not* to commit homicide. Philosophers would call this a "negative duty." But then there is the question whether we have a "positive duty" to donate much or all of our income and wealth, to save other people from misery and death. I am guessing that your comments about "energy of care" represent your answer to this question about positive duty. But it seems to me that you have skipped over the critical matter of our *negative* duty with respect to other humans and, more to the point, other non-humans.

    UUAM President Mark Causey, a philosopher himself, recently contributed a helpful comment on this matter: "We have a 'negative' duty not to interfere with the basic interests (or 'rights'—although Singer would never use that term) of others without very good and compelling reason.... Negative duties like 'do no unnecessary harm' are easier to delineate and deal with. Positive duties get much harder. Singer’s examples of helping the drowning child or giving to charity are examples for him of positive duties. Philosophers don’t all agree on how far our positive duties extend."

    (In 1971, Peter Singer wrote his "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" essay ( in which he challenged the distinction traditionally made between charity and duty, arguing that we actually have a duty to prevent something bad from happening, if it is within our power to do so and it wouldn't require us to sacrifice anything nearly as important. The point I want to make is that even if we don't share Singer's view of positive duties, can't we find some agreement about our obligation to refrain from actions that cause unnecessary harm? Or are you actually arguing that this negative/positive distinction is arbitrary, and that's why we may as well continue, for instance, paying farmers to breed and kill cows and goats, so we can consume their milk?)

    In summary, I don't think anyone is bizarrely inserting a stronger notion of equality than the kind of equality we affirm among humans into "the inherent worth and dignity of every being." Rather, I am worried that you are conflating positive and negative duties, and have thus neglected to recognize the negative duties we do indeed owe other species?

  2. Meredith, I also want to try to explain why this paragraph concerns me: "At issue here is, what difference does affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every being really make? What does it ask us to do differently? The answer is: we don't know. And it's just fine that we don't know. In the mid-1980s, when UUs adopted our principles, including the first one, we didn't know where affirming the inherent worth and dignity would take us -- but it was worthwhile to make that affirmation and see."

    I grant you that every single day reminds us, of course, that the work to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every human being is not finished. The struggle continues, in so many ways.

    But Meredith, I think the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person was less ambiguous in 1985 than you suggest. For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948, begins this way: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world..." and proceeds to declare the implications of this premise in the 30 articles which follow. Article 1 begins thus: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Article 3 is: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." Article 4 says, "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

    In contrast, what I'm getting from you (correct me if I'm wrong?) is that "the inherent worth and dignity of every being" is wide open to interpretation. What I'm getting (again, please correct me if I'm wrong) is that there's not necessarily any conflict between supporting this reformulated principle, and also supporting the practice of breeding and killing sentient beings for reasons no more compelling than taste, tradition, or convenience.

    "The inherent worth and dignity of every person" was simply not that ambiguous, as a new UUA principle in 1985 or at any time since.

    So I don't think it works to defend the FPP's ambiguity by likening it to the current first principle that way.

    (And I think the FPP's ambiguity should give animal advocates pause, as I attempted to explain to UUAM listmembers today in a post entitled, "What If the FPP Is Too 'Open to Interpretation' to Be Much Help to Animals?")

  3. Finally (this is it, I promise! :)—since you brought up Karen Brammer, I want to say that I agree with you. I was not citing her post to defend her remarks, but because her post points out our need, as animal advocates, to keep the door open to inter-movement solidarity.

    Here are some additional thoughts about how to approach Karen or others who protest that for them, "humans come first":

    Justice activists need a broad social analysis. We need to understand the ways that different forms of oppression mirror and interact with one another. I don't believe it's a contradiction to put humans first, and still act in solidarity with the justice movement on behalf of animals (see Mylan Engel's essay: After all, as some advocates like to say, if you don't believe in causing unnecessary harm to animals, then you already believe in veganism.

    There is pattrice jones, for example, who explains that eating meat is something we do to someone else's body without their consent (, and A. Breeze Harper (, and Jasmin Singer (, and 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.

  4. Hello, Jennifer. Good to be engaged!

    RE: Clarification of statement: "Rather, the problem is that people may be – bizarrely -- inserting into the formulation of the revised principle a much stronger notion of equality than any kind of equality we affirm among humans."

    Let's back up to some sentences in the previous paragraph, where I said: "Whatever equality has meant – as a value and an ideal for human-human relations and for human institutions -- it has never meant that we expected anyone to devote the resources of their care just the same to everyone. We have always understood that people will be more devoted to their friends and family than to others. Equality has never meant the complete obliteration of loyalty."

    In other words, it would be a bizarrely strong notion of human equality that required us to care no more for our own family and friends than for any other human. Someone who thought that equality did require the complete obliteration of loyalty would have a bizarrely strong notion of equality.

    When I (or you or anyone) speak of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, no one supposes that I intend such a bizarrely strong notion of equality. Yet, when I mention inherent worth and dignity of every being, suddenly the thought occurs (fleetingly, for anyone who thinks about it much) that perhaps I do intend just such a bizarrely strong notion of equality. "I couldn't possibly care about mosquitoes as much as I care about people!" they might blurt. To which I say, in soothing pastoral tones, "Of course you couldn't. Of course you care more about people than you do about bugs. No one would seriously want you not to." And then I might add, somewhat less pastorally, "And of course you also care more about your father than you do about that guy in the leisure suit you walked past at the mall yesterday." It would be very bizarre if the current first principle were thought to require us to care equally about all 7 billion of us. It is equally bizarre to think the proposed first principle would require us to care equally for all the many-more-billions of animals.

    In another context I would be happy to take up the question of what negative or positive duties we owe to other species. I do have some opinions about that, and, tempting as it is to go into them, I shall resist that temptation. I decline because I don't see that as relevant to the FPP. I want to defend the FPP as acceptable and desirable REGARDLESS of what one's opinion might be about what duties are owed to other species. Agreeing with me about the FPP does not require agreeing with my opinion of what those duties are.

  5. Turning now to Jennifer's 2nd comment (Sat Mar 14, 1:22p).

    Yes, "inherent worth and dignity of every person" allows for a great deal of interpretive wiggle room. The UU first principle as it now stands has that interpretive wiggle room and the parallel language of the UN Declaration of Human Rights allows similar wiggle room. Perhaps the UN Declaration is a little more clear simply because it explains itself at greater length. (Our first principle doesn't even say "equal", as the UN document does.) The US Bill of Rights has a more definitive meaning -- not because the language of the Bill of Rights is any more specific in itself, but because we have had over 200 years of enforceable legal decisions declaring that the Bill of Rights does mean this and doesn't mean that. We UUs are not about to set up our own denominational court to make rulings on whose interpretation of any given principle prevails in any given interpretive conflict. All we UUs can do is invite each other to see where the inspirations and aspirations of the principles might take us -- knowing that different UUs are taken on different paths.

    It may be worth noticing that the ambiguities at issue (of the current 1st principle and of the proposed revision) are necessary functions of unenforceability. Language in a national constitution gets clarified through the legal system of that nation making clear what interpretations it will and won't enforce. Language of the UU principles is unenforceable. We don't have the coercive powers of the state -- which means we have no means for nailing it down. I do occasionally find (it seems to happen rather less often these days, but maybe that's just because I've been in healthier congregations lately) congregants who make some attempt at enforcing a particular interpretation of one of our principles. They might, for instance, accuse a fellow congregant of violating their worth and dignity, or failing to affirm justice, equity, and compassion. I have always sought to discourage using the principles as a bludgeon against people we disagree with. I see the principles as purely inspirational and aspirational -- and only each individual can decide (or, better, discern) how the principles call to them.

    Thus, I will offer no corrections at either of the two points at which you invited me to correct you. You and I are arriving on about the same page, then, when you suggest that the FPP is too 'open to interpretation' to be much help to animals. I think that's right. The FPP isn't MUCH help to animals. But it is SOME help to animals. I would like to hope, however, that its ambiguity (i.e., unenforceability of any particular interpretation) would not give animal advocates pause. Approving the FPP would be MORE help to animals than not approving it.

    If you are looking for a way to force people to stop eating meat "for reasons no more compelling than taste, tradition, or convenience," then the FPP isn't it. For that, you'll need the coercive powers of the state, so I can only suggest you have a chat with the US Congress. Good luck with that.

    In the meantime, merely passing something as weak as the FPP would be progress. In the current climate, though, it HAS to be weak. Anything stronger would have even less chance of adoption.

    So, Jennifer, allow me to plead. Please don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This ain't much, but it's the best we can do for now -- and it begins to pave a way for better later. For the sake of the animals we both love, get on board.

  6. Great conversation Jennifer and Meredith! I continue to support the FPP because I do think it has tremendous *potential* to help UU animal advocates. I understand the pragmatic political necessities of taking the "open to diverse interpretations" stance, but I think Jennifer has a point that we need not shy away from the implications here. It didn't take long at all for members of my congregation to spot a vegan implication here (which sadly from my perspective was not a selling point for them). Having a changed 1st Principle would allow UU animal advocates to make the case with support from our guiding principles that using animals as a resource for food, clothing, etc... IS a violation of their inherent worth and dignity (precisely because it reduces them to instrumental value for us humans) and is thus inconsistent with our core principles. I see the FPP as a step away from the anthropocentrism still embedded in our principles. [Speciesism is the last remaining prejudice still acceptable amongst us liberals]. Yes, it will be up to us animal advocates to draw the conclusions and interpretive work to make this apparent. But, Jennifer, I think that changing the 2nd principle as you have suggested (which I think is a great idea as well and should be done also) is still going to require the same sort of interpretive and educational work on our part. We would still need to help people draw the (blindingly obvious to us) conclusion that exploiting animals is not in keeping with justice, equity, and compassion. There would still be those who insist that it is possible to treat animals justly and compassionately while still eating them, The equity piece, implied or stated, is going to still be a problem with either a changed 1st or 2nd principle. I don't think (and she can correct me if I am wrong here) that Jennifer is looking for "legal enforcement" but she is, correctly in my view, asking whether the FPP gives animal advocates any new tools to work with. I continue to think it does. I think it would make it easier to make the theological case that reducing other beings to instrumental value is not in keeping with our core values. I do think, perhaps unlike Meredith, that our principles are intended to be normative--not legally enforceable--but morally normative. Not everything legal is moral and vice versa; we shouldn't conflate the two. I think Jennifer is right that we undersell the FPP if we try to pretend that we don't mean this as morally normative. In other words, I don't think I should be free to interpret the current principles in racist, sexist, etc... ways. My hope is that with the changed FP I shouldn't be able to interpret them in speciesist ways either.


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