Engaging Jennifer

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 Principle 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.)

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. "All beings have inherent worth and dignity," is a moral truth, not a moral rule. The question will arise (as 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 get 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 -- 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.

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.

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This post has been cross-posted at the "Worth and Dignity of Every Being" blog, where additional comments have also been posted. CLICK HERE.

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