Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Nonhuman Rights Project and the Unitarian Universalist Principles

Guest author:  Steven M. Wise
Nonhuman Rights Project

On December 2, 2013, I filed a habeas corpus lawsuit in the Fulton County, New York, Supreme Court demanding the immediate release of a person who had been imprisoned for years, alone, in a cage in a warehouse on a used trailer lot in rural Gloversville with nothing but a small television for comfort and company. The next day I filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of another person who, for many years, had been imprisoned in a cage in the back of a cement storefront in Niagara Falls. Two days later I filed a third lawsuit on behalf of two persons who had been held for five years in the basement of a Stony Brook University computer building. There wires had been thrust into their muscles and they were forced to undergo general anesthesia every few weeks. 

I filed those three suits as an attorney for the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of chimpanzees. Attached to our habeas corpus petitions were nearly a hundred pages of affidavits from some of the most experienced and respected chimpanzee scientists in the world, from Japan, Sweden, Germany, Scotland, England, and the United States. They demonstrated that chimpanzees have capacities for autonomy and self-determination, that they possess an autobiographical self, episodic memory, self-consciousness, self-knowingness, self-agency, referential and intentional communication, empathy, a working memory, language, metacognition, numerosity, and material, social, and symbolic culture, that they have the ability to plan, engage in mental time-travel, act intentionally, engage in sequential learning, mediational learning, mental state modeling, visual perspective-taking, cross-modal perception, that they can understand cause-and-effect and the experiences of others, that they can imagine, imitate, engage in deferred imitation, emulate, innovate, and use and make tools. Our arguments were explicitly grounded in scientific fact, justice as it has long been understood in the Anglo-American tradition, as well as the liberty, dignity, equity, and equality of each prisoner. In subsequent cases, we filed seven more affidavits that showed that chimpanzees routinely bear duties and responsibilities both within chimpanzee communities and within human/chimpanzee communities.

In short, contrary to a species solipsism that permits us humans to pretend that only humans had minds, chimpanzees live intellectually rich, emotional, and sophisticated individual, family and community lives. They recall their past and anticipate their future and, when their future is imprisonment, they suffer the enduring pain of isolation and the inability to fulfill their life’s goals or even move about as they wish, as we humans do. In short they are, or ought to be, persons, at least to the extent of being able to demand freedom from imprisonment.

The First Principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every “person.” The word “person” has multiple senses. In the legal world I inhabit it is not a synonym for “human being”; it is a protean concept. A legal “person” is an entity that evolving ideas of justice, equality, liberty, policy, and morality demand we ought to treat as if he or she possesses inherent worth and dignity. “Person,” we show, is not restricted to humans; it is not even a biological category.

In its legal memoranda, the Nonhuman Rights Project walked the judges through an Anglo-American legal history in which, over the last quarter millennium, women, blacks, Native Americans, children, and others who were once treated as “things” - those who lack the capacity for any legal rights - and not “persons” - those who possess the capacity for legal rights. We demonstrated how even such entitles as corporations, ships, Sikh Holy Books, a Hindu idol, and a New Zealand river came to be treated as “persons” for some purpose in parts of the English-speaking world, and argued that, as a result of new scientific discoveries about chimpanzee minds, advances in public morality, and the accretion of human experience, the time had come for chimpanzees to be treated as “persons,” at least to the extent of preventing their confinement and exploitation. Oppressing a chimpanzee who suffers oppression in a way similar to how we suffer oppressions is morally wrong and is inconsistent with the vision of the First Principle. Their thinghood strips chimpanzees of their inherent worth and dignity and relegates them to the status of a nonperson, a slave; it entirely undermines their ability to exercise their autonomy, as it would undermine yours.

On the other hand, the word “person” is often understood outside the courtroom as being synonymous with “human.” To the extent this sense is enshrined in the First Principle, the “First Principle Project” seeks to widen the circle of those individuals entitled to be treated as if they have intrinsic worth and dignity to all beings. That is why the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry initiated the First Principle Project, which is now a collaboration of sponsoring congregations and organizations. The First Principle Project proposes that the First Principle be amended to substitute “being” for “person.” Its purpose is to emphasize that individual worth and dignity go beyond just human beings to bring all the individuals who comprise the interdependent web of existence to which the Seventh Principle speaks within the circle of moral concern. It is fully within this spirit that the Nonhuman Rights Project works to assure fundamental legal rights to those beings for whom real legal rights, as well as moral rights, are most appropriate.

The Second Principle of Unitarian Universalism is a call for justice, equity, and compassion to human beings. But in the first quarter of the 21st Century, in light of the ongoing scientific inquiries into the nature of so many nonhumans, it would be unjust and inequitable to limit the ideals of justice, equity, and compassion to human beings. The Seven Principles derive from the Six Principles that accompanied the 1961 formation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which were revised and extended to the Seven Principles in 1985. Both the First And Second Principles were drafted and discussed at a time before the explosion of scientific knowledge began that has allowed us to begin to understand how remarkably autonomous chimpanzees are. A more equitable, humane, and just reading of the Second Principle would take into account the evolution of scientific knowledge, morals, and human experience, and ask that justice, equity, and compassion be extended to those who can understand they are benefitting from it,

The Sixth Principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms and promotes the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Again the question is “who is encompassed by the word ‘all.’” An appropriate response might be that  “all” should embrace those who can flourish in the medium of peace, liberty, and justice. Whomever else may be a part of that “all,” science has left us with no doubt that the chimpanzees the Nonhuman Rights Project has chosen as its first plaintiffs should. But the science is not limited to chimpanzees. Our knowledge about the minds of nonhuman animals from great apes to elephants to whales to parrots and corvids, dogs, and others continues rapidly to expand.

The Seventh Principle, introduced in 1985, suggests respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part: as early as 1985, the Unitarian Universalists were beginning to look past the ancient prejudice that only one species, out of the more than ten million who share the earth, should count. However, the Seventh Principle is vague about the degree to which humans might respect the many individuals who comprise this web, and how.

Not only are apes, whales, elephants, and many others part of the interdependent web of all existence, they are nearly the same part. The cognitively complex qualities we share should surprise no one who knows that we also share a substantial portion of our DNA, have brains that are similarly plastic, flexible, and heavily dependent upon learning. As Mark Causey, President of the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry, reminds us: “we are all made of the same star-stuff and all share a common destiny. We all share the same hopes of a life free from harm and suffering and the same aspirations of happiness, love, and flourishing—being able to express our own unique natures and capacities as best we may.” Not only is the Seventh Principle a call to embrace something greater than oneself, but to embrace something greater than one’s species.

Principles of equity and equality suggest that the Seventh Principle should cause us to embrace any one of our fellow species consonant with the nature of that species. As James Russell Lowell wrote: “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.” The respect to which our fellow beings should be entitled should harmonize with who they are, and we learning more every now who they are.

If you wish to learn more about the ongoing work of the Nonhuman Rights Project, please visit our webpage at www.nonhumanrights.org, look us up on Facebook, or follow us on twitter.

Steven M. Wise, Esq.

March 30, 2016

Friday, July 8, 2016

Vows and Bows for Black Lives

July 7, 2016

Today was the day I had scheduled to write  how changing the Unitarian Universalist First Principle from the inherent worth and dignity of" every person" to "every being" can aid human beings, not just in terms of spirituality, wholeness, and becoming fully who we are, but specifically in terms of alleviating the multiple oppressions facing humans.  As an advocate for humans and other animals (wildlife veterinarian and Unitarian Universalist minister) I believe that my perspective and experiences can help clarify the moral morass of how we live in a world where harm and benefit are interwoven into the very fabric of all life on this planet.  In light of this week's shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana by police, the shooting of Philando Castille in Minnesota by police, and the targeted shooting of Dallas police officers by one or more gunmen during a peaceful protest, I don't know how to write through the pain, or how that writing could be of help to anyone.  So I write for myself, to make sense of something that cannot be undone, this unraveling of human community that shreds families and lives without end.  

Perhaps, if I am honest, I also write to speak to other people of privilege who think that by announcing our take on things we can nullify the anguish.  As a white person, isn't it time, as Black Lives Matter commends, that I make a safe space for black people to come together and then  go  to the back of the room, keep quiet, listen, and have my heart break open?  I don't feel silenced. I am silenced.  There is a longing for wholeness that washes over me when I am given my marching orders on how to be present to the lived experiences of others.  It is no easy task. These events of the last year, and this last week, hit me like a whiplash, my attention ripped from my daily concerns to see more deeply the lives, love, and hurt of others.  May I not return my gaze where it once was directed, but draw on agitation and awareness so that my actions angle my path forward ever more towards reconciliation and justice.

So today I try to hold the anguish in a very specific way for black lives in the United States. I want to know, I want to feel despair and then anger, and then the thrill of action. But let me be so very human, though a privileged one to be sure, I cannot turn from the pain of police officers.  My son, a person of color from Honduras, serves as a police officer in North Carolina. Confusion and anger, his or mine, it's hard to know, seeps into me with every phone call and text between us.  He is on the front lines, battling racism as his job calls him to protect, to be safe, and to control situations   How can any of us protect those whom we love and create safety when it has all gotten so out of control?

I can only imagine how the family members and loved ones of those who have died and been injured might have woken up this morning, petitioning with a heart too broken perhaps to rise out of bed, "Can't we take back the violence and bring my dear beloved back?"  And those of us more removed, did you ask yourself like me this morning, "How can I take back all those years of inaction, of not being completely and soulfully swept up in the beauty and the suffering of the other?" 

It's not that I have been idle. I have dedicated my life towards improving the lives of parrots and people in Central America, including witnessing and being in solidarity with marginalized indigenous groups and those descended from slaves. The trauma of those experiences knows no bounds, nor does the beauty.  I get that there is no hierarchy of pain and suffering, and do not judge my efforts and experiences as inconsequential.   Even so,  I suspect that though I have studied "intersectionality" where the various forms of oppression link to each other, I carry the burden of white supremacist enculturation  that demands, "Look at the suffering of this group, now, in the way that I see it!"  I have not made or had enough room to love, listen, learn, and act all that I could have.

I vow to do so, as I bow down before the agony of our times.  The very act of bowing down low causes to rise up from the body into awareness a sense of humility and interconnection .  These I ache for.  So I bow before you, dear black lives, dear life, dear earth, dear many others of all species, mourning, and longing to really see the beautiful other, and in holding that beauty, be able to hold their suffering.  I want to see the other's point of view, and I want to see it before things get further out of control, before there is any more violence or pain.  I pray that we can really see each other, and in that furnace of beauty and suffering, may we find the strength to start again, and again, until we humans find a way to live in humility, awareness, peace, and love.  

My prayer finishes with this music video, "Could We Start Again Please?" (This is from the musical, JC Superstar.  It was inspired during my time serving as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida, and transmits my hope of how UU congregations can be a place to start again.)

I've been living to see you.
Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this.
This was unexpected,
What do I do now?
Could we start again please?

Now for the first time, I think we're going wrong.
Hurry up and tell me,
This is just a dream.
Oh could we start again please?

I think you've made your point now.
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home.
Before it gets too frightening,
We ought to call a vote,
So could we start again please?



*Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM, combines her experience as wildlife veterinarian and Unitarian Universalist minister  to address the importance of both human and  nonhuman well being in considering conservation and care taking strategies.   She serves as Community Minister affiliated with the Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, NY, Right Relations Consultant for the UU Metro NY District, Facilitator of the First Principle Project, and Co-Director ofOne Earth Conservation. Bringing 29 years of experience working in Latin America, she currently has projects in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. She promotes nurturing human nature through relationships with other species and nature in the Nurture Nature Program offered by One Earth Conservation.