History Has Passed Us By
We Unitarian-Universalists (UUs) take well-earned pride in our long history
of being in the vanguard of social progress. In a
pamphlet posted on
the website of the Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA), Mark W. Harris,
minister of First Parish in Watertown, Massachusetts and a respected UU scholar,
tells us "Growing out of this inclusive [Universalist] theology was a lasting
impetus in both denominations to create a more just society. Both Unitarians and
Universalists became active participants in many social justice movements in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. . . . For the last two centuries, Unitarians
and Universalists have been at the forefront of movements working to free people
from whatever bonds may oppress them."
UUs were advocating for the rights of slaves, women, racial and ethnic
minorities, LGBTQ people and other oppressed and exploited groups long before
the justness of their cause was recognized by the wider society. Our spiritual
forebears pushed the boundaries of compassion and respect. We marched--literally
and metaphorically--in opposition to the conventional wisdom and took up the
cause of those who needed allies in their struggle for justice and equality.
Because we support the same causes that the UU pioneers of abolition, civil
rights, feminism, immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights supported, we believe that
we embody their spirit and carry on their work. We do not. The spirit of
Unitarian-Universalism in its social expression as described by Doctor Harris
does not reside in advocacy for the rights of any specific group. That spirit is
to be found instead in the moving of boundaries. It is to be found, in a term
popularized by Albert Schweitzer, in the unending urge to "expand the circle."
The spirit of old-time Unitarian-Universalism was forward motion, progress,
expansion. It was a restless spirit, unquiet, never satisfied, always looking
ahead, always outraged by injustice, exploitation and oppression, always looking
for the next battle that needed to be fought on behalf of the victims of those
who wielded power selfishly or cruelly. It was a spirit of forward movement that
abhorred social stasis.
The great souls of the 19th and 20th centuries moved the frontier of social
justice past the barriers of race, ethnicity and national origin, past the
barrier of poverty, past the barrier of gender, past the barrier of gender
conformity to where it now rests--at the barrier of species. I once heard Captain
Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd
Conservation Society say that if you want to know where you would have stood
on slavery had you lived before the Civil War, don't look at where you stand on
slavery today. Look at where you stand on animal liberation.
Twenty-first Century Science Calls for 21st Century Ethics
Recent progress in the field of cognitive ethology has provided scientific
support for what common sense has told us all along: Nonhuman animals--most
especially the mammals, birds, and fish who are the common victims of our
appetites--are sentient; they experience suffering and joy, pain and pleasure
that are as urgent to them as ours are to us. They are aware of themselves and
their surroundings, and they pursue their lives and their interests with
intention and understanding. To use a term that is popular among philosophers,
they are autonomous. In their natural state, they make decisions about their own
lives and act upon them. And in doing so, the beings that we enslave, slaughter
and devour demonstrate a high degree of intelligence; they create complex
languages and sophisticated cultures. They are capable of love and compassion.
And they have individual personalities, just as we do. If qualities such as
these--in whatever species they may appear--do not earn the beings who possess
them the right to be considered "persons," the word is meaningless, nothing more
than a mask to disguise the brand of racism that psychologist Richard Ryder
In an Appendix to this essay, I provide a short introductory reading list on the
sentience, intelligence, and emotions of animals. The works listed are only a
small part of a growing literature that is being created by scientists,
philosophers, and knowledgeable science writers that demonstrates beyond any
reasonable doubt that animals have rich, interior lives and complex social
lives, that they long for happiness and abhor suffering, that they love life and
dread death. This is now established scientific fact that can be denied only in
the way that tobacco companies long denied that smoking causes cancer and the
fossil fuel industry denies that carbon emissions contribute to global warming.
I am surprised and saddened by the negative and visceral reaction of so many of
my fellow UUs to the notion of moral equality for nonhuman animals. The liberal
religious community that has marched in the front rank of so many of the great
social justice movements of the past has suddenly planted its feet and shouted,
"Stop! This is going too far!"
Our concept of social justice is frozen in time a half-century ago. We have
turned the dynamic, forward-moving, constantly evolving causes of the 1840s and
1960s into a revealed scripture, a closed canon of beliefs that defines for
everyone and for all time the limits of social justice, equality, and liberal
thought. We are so absorbed in celebrating our history of progressive leadership
that we fail to notice that we have refused to open our minds and our hearts to
the cause that is the 21st century counterpart to abolition and civil rights.
Let me cite two important examples of our denomination standing on the wrong
side of social justice in the second decade of the 21st century.
In 2011, the Unitarian-Universalist Association adopted a Statement of
Conscience (SOC) on
Ethical Eating that is still the official position of the UUA on ethics and
food. Despite pleas from animal liberation advocates (including, but in no way
me), the SOC explicitly accepts enslaving and slaughtering innocent sentient
beings to satisfy human appetites. (I will return to the SOC in a moment.)
The UUA encourages, and many congregations promote, donations to The Heifer
Project International (HPI) as a means of alleviating human hunger in the
developing world. HPI encourages animal agriculture by providing animals,
including cows, pigs, and goats to communities in the developing world, thus
encouraging people to adopt a meat-based diet that depends on the slavery and
slaughter of innocent sentient beings and promotes climate change and resource
Pleas that the UUA and individual congregations withdraw their support from
Heifer and contribute instead to a vegan charity dedicated to feeding the
hungry, such as A Well Fed World or
Food, Not Bombs, have generally fallen
on deaf ears. Others are way ahead of us.
All Creatures.Org, a Christian-based
website in support of justice for humans, animals and the earth contains a
number of resources
explaining why the Heifer Project is morally and environmentally objectionable,
including an informative and eloquent
by UU minister and author Gary Kowalski.
We think of ourselves as keepers of the flame of the abolitionists, the civil
rights workers, the second wave feminists and the founders of the LGBTQ movement
when in fact we are the curators of their museum; our vision is of the past,
where theirs was of the future. And because we look backward where they looked
forward, we have become fundamentally unlike them. We have turned liberal
religion and social progressivism into a fundamentalism that uses a progressive
vocabulary to define a conservative spirit. When they flew their early
airplanes, Orville and Wilbur Wright were pioneers. Today, the pioneers are
astronauts, not airline pilots.
I am not for a moment suggesting that we should abandon the causes of racial and
ethnic minorities, women, gender nonconforming people, the poor, migrant
workers, undocumented residents, or any other group oppressed or abandoned by
society. These causes need and deserve our support. But they are not the outer
limit of social justice, and we must extend the reach of our compassion across
today's frontier--animal liberation. Social justice is not justice at all unless
it includes everyone. As Barley Scott Blair (played by Sean Connery) said in the
film version of John LeCarre's The Russia House, "All victims are equal, and
none is more equal than others."
Why We Look Backward and Build Walls
There are, I think, four primary reasons why we prefer to espouse positions that
have become the conventional wisdom in the liberal community rather than opening
up new moral territory.
Organizations, like individuals, enter the arena filled with visions of the
future coupled with the determination and energy to bring them to reality. But
as our past extends, as we create a history, we all tend to look more and more
backward, to revel in the past and lose our orientation toward the future. It is
always tempting to believe that the campaigns of our youth were the causes worth
fighting for and that more recent campaigns take things too far. Deep in our
gut, we all believe that the best songs were those that were popular when we
were young and the songs of today's youth are not really music at all.
The Hardest Battle Ever Fought
Animal liberation is the most difficult social justice challenge that human
beings have ever taken on. In my book Changing the Game, I discuss the reasons
for this in some detail, and I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say that
animal liberation is the most universal, most deeply entrenched form of
oppression that has ever existed, both in our society and in our individual
psyches. Moral equality for animals challenges our pride in ourselves as the
crown of creation (or the acme of evolution, if you prefer), in a way that no
other social justice movement ever has. It would deny nearly the entire human
population pleasures of appetite that are among the most primitive and powerful
that we experience. And the animal liberation movement is working to drive out
of business an industry that takes in trillions of dollars every year and
provides hundreds of thousands of jobs. We all enter the discussion with a
strong bias against animal liberation that can only be overcome by drawing upon
the deepest wells of our compassion.
The world is always moving on. And, at least in modern times, our empirical
knowledge is always increasing. If we do not advance our moral awareness to keep
pace, we fall behind. Humanism began its career as a progressive impulse. It
moved human thought forward from a theocentric to an anthropocentric
orientation. But the passage of time, with its attendant changes in circumstance
and the expansion of our factual knowledge, have rendered it obsolete. Today, a
humanist is a racist who defends the despotism of a larger race. That s/he is
unaware of being racist and might, in fact, be horrified at the thought, does
not change the fact: it simply adds self-deception to racism.
Most of us are humanists. We have closed our minds to the innocent suffering,
terror and death that we inflict on sensitive, sentient beings outside the human
species. We enjoy thinking of ourselves as the elite of the animal kingdom in
precisely the same way that whites and men have enjoyed thinking of themselves
as the elites of the human race. And we do not want to give that up any more
than we want to give up our steaks, eggs, and ice cream. Our compassion runs
head up against our pride and our appetites. And within the UUA, compassion is
Nonhuman animals need to be liberated from oppression and exploitation in the
same ways and for the same reasons that blacks, women, LGBTQ people needed to
gain freedom from oppression and exploitation. We should be carrying the
animals' banner, not eating their dead bodies.
If you are sitting on a train looking out the window, when the train begins to
move, so slowly at first that you don't feel it start up, it looks as though the
train is sitting still and the world outside is moving past you. Our situation
is just the opposite. Since the mid-1970s, with the Thatcher and Reagan
"revolutions," the world has been moving backwards. We watch the world go by us
in reverse and we think that we are moving forward, when in reality we are
sitting still. But even in a reactionary world, sitting still is not progress.
Sitting still has never changed the world, never even stopped it from moving
backward. Those who sit still when the world is moving--in whatever
direction--tend to think of themselves as bold heroes swimming courageously
against the current. But they are not; they are simply choosing irrelevance and
Compassionate Communication and Freedom of Conscience
The Compassionate Communication movement (also known as nonviolent
communication), which has many adherents within the UU community, has, I
believe, in some instances been distorted into a de facto defense of the
status-quo in regard to meat-eating, even if that is not the intent. Before I go
any farther, I want to make clear that I agree with much of the theory (and even
more of the practice) of Compassionate Communication. I think it has a great
deal to offer in many situations and is a genuine contribution to the creation
of a better world. But it is not a panacea for all the world's ills--which is not
Marshall Rosenberg's fault; there is no panacea for all the world's ills. Like
all ideologies, Compassionate Communication has its limitations and
susceptibilities to misuse.
On contested moral issues, compassionate communication is not communication that
offends no one. To refrain from condemning evil out of concern for bruising the
feelings of those who are contributing unnecessarily to the suffering and death
in the world is to become an accomplice to wrongdoing. Silence lends consent.
And so do artful ambiguities and vaporous generalities. When we hide our
authentic moral beliefs behind a veil of generality and ambiguity, we are not
being compassionate; we are being disingenuous. And we are patronizing those to
whom we are speaking by acting as though we think they are too unintelligent to
perceive our real agenda. Most people who will not respond positively to clear,
direct communication will also not respond to more roundabout forms of
communication. They will instead read these as permission to continue eating
animal products with a clear conscience. The old-time abolitionists, the civil
rights workers, the second-wave feminists, the LGBTQ advocates of the ‘70s and
‘80s--all of whom we claim to admire--did not hesitate to condemn slavery, racial
segregation, the subaltern status of women and the demonization of gender
Compassionate communication is speech that states clearly and honestly what we
stand for, while recognizing that the people who do evil are, in reality, good
people who have a moral blind spot--one that has been inculcated in them by their
families, their schools, the media, government, commerce, all the institutions
of our society. All of us harbor such blind spots in one regard or another and
nearly all of us at one time harbored the same moral blind spot in regard to
animals that we are now trying to eliminate in others. I ate meat, eggs, and
dairy until I was in my mid-forties.
There is no room here for self-righteousness or pride. Taking a morally superior
position is not a reason to feel superior; it is a summons to get to work. But
we must be honest and candid about the nature of the most brutal, most
widespread crime ever committed by human beings. Otherwise, we will get nowhere.
Strong moral framing--while by no means the only strategy that should be
pursued--is essential to the success of any campaign for social justice. The UUs
of the 19th and 20th centuries did not hesitate to create powerful moral frames
through which to view slavery, segregation, the subaltern status of women, and
the marginalization and demonization of LGBTQ people. Why are we so hesitant to
employ equally powerful moral frames through which to view the slavery and
slaughter of nonhuman people? Could one reason be that we derive pleasure and
benefit from the slavery and slaughter of animals, while most UUs in the past
were relatively uninvolved in the social injustices of their day? Could this be
why we have joined those who defend the unjust privileges of the human race for
the sake of preserving our own power and pleasures, just as the old racists
defended the unjust privileges of the white race for the sake of preserving
their own power and pleasures--and using exactly the same kinds of arguments?
When the UU Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating says, "Some of us believe
that it is ethical only to eat plants while others of us believe that it is
ethical to eat both plants and animals. We do not call here for a single dietary
approach," it grants permission for UUs to enjoy the fruits of suffering and
slaughter with a quiet conscience--the same quiet conscience that Albert
Schweitzer called "an instrument of the Devil."
By treating the issue as a matter of "dietary approach," rather than as a matter
of enslaving, torturing and killing innocent sentient beings, the SOC neatly
deflects attention away from the animals who suffer and die by the billions and
redirects it toward the supposed "freedom of conscience" to choose our own
personal lifestyle. This is disingenuous, the same kind of rhetorical
slight-of-hand that is employed to claim that the Civil War was fought over
"states' rights" and not slavery.
Can you imagine our forebears issuing a Statement of Conscience in the 1840s
saying: "Some of us believe that it is ethical to utilize only free labor, while
others of us believe it is ethical to utilize both free and slave labor. We do
not call here for a single approach to labor." Can you imagine our forebears
issuing an SOC in the 1960s saying: "Some of us believe that it is ethical to
grant legal and social equality to African Americans and women while others of
us believe that it is ethical to maintain racial segregation and the subordinate
status of women. We do not call here for a single approach to the treatment of
African Americans and women?" The Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating is
no more a statement of authentic conscience than either of those would have
been. Freedom of conscience is not freedom to engage in the enslavement and
slaughter of sentient, sensitive, intelligent beings. To argue that the powerful
have the right to exercise freedom of conscience by oppressing, exploiting and
killing the weak is to argue that might makes right. It is to align ourselves
The First Principle Project
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 created by Unitarian-Universalist minister and
wildlife veterinarian LoraKim Joyner and known as
The First Principle Project.
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 other animals, as well.
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
clearly 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.
Balcombe, Jonathan, Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good.
New York, Palgrave McMillan, 2006.
-----------------, Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals. New York, Palgrave
Barber, Theodore Xenophon, The Human Nature of Birds: A Scientific Discovery
with Startling Implications. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Bekoff, Marc, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago, University of
Chicago Press, 2009.
----------–, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy,
Sorrow, and Empathy, and Why They Matter. New York, New World Library, 2008.
----------–, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal
Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation. New York, New World
Braithwaite, Victoria, Do Fish Feel Pain? Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010.
Darwin, Charles, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London,
Penguin Classics, 2009. (Originally published 1872)
Davis, Karen, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and
Reality. New York, Lantern Books, 2001.
Griffin, Donald R., Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness. Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional Lives of
Farm Animals. New York, Ballantine Books, 2007.
Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep: The
Emotional Lives of Animals. New York, Delacorte Press, 1995.
McCarthy, Susan, Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild.
New York, HarperCollins, 2004.
Pepperberg, Irene, The Alex Studies: The Cognitive and Communicative Abilities
of Grey Parrots. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, Harvard University Press, 2002.
---------------, Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of
Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. New York, Harper
Rachels, James, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.
Oxford, Oxford University Press, reprint edition, 1999.
Slobodchikoff, Con, "The Language of Prairie Dogs," in Kinship with the Animals,
Michael Tobias and Kate Solisti-Mattelon, editors. Hillsboro, Oregon, USA,
Beyond Words Publishing, 1998.
----------------, Chasing Doctor Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals. New York,
St. Martin's Press, 2012.
de Waal, Franz, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. New
York, Broadway Books, 2010.
White, Thomas E., In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier. Oxford,
Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
 As Richard Oppenlander (Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying
Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won't Work) and others have
pointed out, no animal agriculture is sustainable. All animal agriculture
contributes to climate change and resource depletion. The only significant
variable is the number of animals being raised, not the method (i.e. factory
farming vs. free-range) by which they are raised.