Monday, May 18, 2009

Animal Rights

Progress and the Liberal Impulse

As I was getting started Thursday morning, watching the morning news on Cable TV, I surfed onto The 700 Club, Pat Robertson’s vehicle of news, commentary, and proselytizing on the Christian Broadcast Network. He was opining about the passage of a same sex marriage bill in Maine, the most recent of several similar state laws enacted in just a few weeks. (I’m frankly astonished and pleased that there has been so much activity in favor of same sex marriage—a veritable greening of American society.) Of course, Rev. Robertson is against same sex marriage and he declared that it runs counter to the Jewish and Christian, Bible based values that founded this nation; and are we in trouble for straying so far from the will of God!

I generally have lively arguments in my mind against such pronouncements. This time I thought about slavery, that curious institution that in the early years of the Republic was passionately justified by many religious on the grounds that it was sanctioned by the Bible.

Progress, the notion of better and better through time as knowledge/understanding advances, is at the very center of the liberal impulse. Just over the horizon new worlds are waiting to be discovered and lived.

Not so many centuries ago it was generally believed that the earth was the center of the Universe, that the Sun , other stars, and planets twirled around earth. Then in the 16th and 17th centuries, Copernicus and Galileo, upset the Western worldview of the most learned astronomers and philosophers by positing that the earth twirled around the Sun. The story of the Roman Church’s opposition has mythic proportions. First, in 1616, the Church called heliocentricism “false and contrary to Scripture.” In 1632 after Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, he was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", forced to recant, placed under house arrest until death.

Galileo’s travails marked the beginning of a Scientific Revolution that looked to observation and experiment, free from Biblical myth. In the relative eye blink of a few centuries, from a geocentric worldview and an Old Testament view of creation, we now recognize the origins of the Universe is the inflationary expansion of a so-called Big Bang occurring some 13.5 billion of years ago. The Sun and its rings of planets, is a speck in a galaxy that is one of a multitude of galaxies—a hundred billion or so in the observable universe.

Add to this the even more recent, but equally admonishing, understanding of human life. A hundred and fifty years ago, again based on Scripture, creation of living things was seen as episodic with Human Beings created last and given “dominion” over the creatures of the earth. Now, thanks to the Darwinian revolution, we recognize an orderly evolution of life in multitudinous forms, over a span of some 3.5 billion years on an earth some 5 billion years old. In the great chain of life, our human species, is a part, but not the focus or the goal.

For a moment imagine how our world view, including the meaning and purpose of our human species, has changed from an egotistical center of creation, to being part and parcel with the origin and evolution of a Universe that continues to expand and evolve.

We are still coming to terms with such monumental advancements of understanding, especially as they impact how we understand the human condition. But I know in my few decades of pondering and processing, such things have given me entry into new worlds of understanding that send me soaring.

One of our UU principles cites “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This principle, a relatively recent addition circa 1985, reflects the impact of the environmental or ecological movement of the last half century. It has resulted in a denomination wide initiative known as “Green Sanctuary” and caused many of us to change how we use the resources of earth—consuming and discarding in ways more responsible and sustainable. So we think more ethically and act more morally than before.

Once again take a moment to consider how “being green” has impacted you—how you see the world and how you act from day to day. For those who have longevity, who remember the early or even pre-environmental days, think of the radical shift in seeing and doing that you’ve experienced.

An Ethical Frontier

There’s a similar radical shift taking place. It has aspects of what I’ve already spoken to. It departs from the traditional Jewish and Christian Scriptural perspective that our kind was given dominion over the creatures of the earth. It displaces our human species from the center of existence, as it recognizes that evolution is a process of which our kind is part and parcel. It presents us with a new ethical model along with reformed ways of right and good behavior. And at first it will result in scoffing and ridiculing, for what’s called “animal rights.”

Last summer, on June 25, the Spanish Parliament took a giant step toward granting the so-called great apes certain rights (life and freedom) heretofore exclusively human. The environmental committee passed resolutions that echoed scientists and philosophers of the Great Ape Project, who advocate for humane treatment of our species closest animal kin.

The Great Ape Project's website declares: "The idea is founded upon undeniable scientific proof that non-human great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts. They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded. The Great Ape Project seeks to end the unconscionable treatment of our nearest living relatives by obtaining for non-human great apes the fundamental moral and legal protections of the right to life, the freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and protection from torture."

In my estimation animal rights is an ethical frontier that illuminates our human relationship with Nature--the great web of life or the interdependent web of existence. Compiling my quote collection In Praise of Animals (Skinner House, 2007), convinced me that we are just beginning to appreciate animals as kindred and that a once assumed dominion over animals is a fallacy.

Anima: The Indwelling Self at the Core of Being

Here’s a good passage from my quote collection, In Praise of Animals, that looks to the essence of our relationship with animals. It’s by a 20th century naturalist Alan Devoe, of whom I very fond: “Conversationally and informally, we use the word ‘animal’ for creatures that we mean to distinguish from, say, birds, or fish. We use it to mean warm-blooded beasts that suckle their young. The term we ought to use in that connection is ‘mammal.’ The mammals are but one part of animaldom. Rightly speaking, an animal is any one of our fellow beings that appears, to the spontaneous judgment of a primitive philosopher, to possess an anima. Anima is soul, breath of life, the indwelling self at the core of being. Our sense of our own anima is what Coleridge called a primary intuition. It does not come naturally to most of us to think of a rosebush as a "self," an animated being of this sort . . . We do spontaneously take it, however, that a robin, a coyote, or even the cricket on the hearth, is at least in some degree, after its fashion, akin to us. It looks out on the world, as we do; it moves and seeks; it experiences. Its life is not exactly our life, of course; we are to beware of anthropomorphism, which means reading the human into the not-human. But even a cricket, we take it, in its crickety little way, is a being, a life, a self. Anima glimmers here; and our own responds, in brotherhood.

“Such is the great company of the animals. A little boy who had been asking me questions once summed up the nature of animals perhaps better than a biologist would do it. ‘An animal,’ he said, ‘is something you feel like talking to’"

And I add words attributed to Chief Dan George: “ If you talk to animals they will talk to you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them. And what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys.”

Animal Rights/Liberation

Animal rights is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many attribute its popular appearance to 1975 when the Australian ethicist Peter Singer published a seminal work, aptly titled Animal Liberation. Dr. Singer belongs to the utilitarian school of philosophy, emphasizing the greatest good for the greatest number. And in Animal Liberation, rather than emphasizing inherent rights of animals, he focused on the elimination of suffering. He also introduced the word “speciesism” into the ethics of human relations with animals. Similar to racism where one race claims superiority over another race, speciesism claims superiority of the human species over all other animal species. In application, speciesism supports and sustains a viewpoint that animals are objects or property.

So, in a brief span of thirty years, animal rights/liberation as an ethical area has emerged and rather astonishingly become mainstream. In this regard Europe has led the way, but even in conservative America the basic ethic of not to inflict suffering on animals is gaining momentum. This is progress, not just for other species, but for the human species as we reform our understanding of our place in Nature and as we reform our moral relationship with other species. We acknowledge, at the very least, that suffering is suffering, whether in human being or animal; and it is a moral principle not to inflict suffering.

There is a spiritual dimension to this growing understanding of our human relationship to animals. It relates to earlier remarks regarding the notion of “anima” or soul, that essence of life that you and I experience; and to which we give ultimate value. When we become sensible to that essence in all other sentient beings, a transcendence begins. When we add to the equation a scientific awareness of a great web of life, an interdependence, that transcendence expands. Of course, we must be ever vigilant to anthropomorphizing; and that is good from the spiritual dimension as we transcend the merely human.

Reverence for Life

The best expression of this spiritual dimension, in my understanding, is the Reverence for Life philosophy/ethic that Albert Schweitzer proposed a century ago. Dr. Schweitzer once declared, "True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness, and this may be formulated as follows: 'I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live'."

From this fundamental realization, Dr. Schweitzer proposed an ethic for the post-modern era that simply said it is good to enhance life, and it is evil to detract from life. Suffering and death detract from life, one’s actions, each and every action, then, must be done with awareness of the consequences on self and other life forms.

Practically speaking, our focus is on preserving our own life, often at the expense of other lives. And this ambivalence chastens and humbles us, always pressing us with the sacrifice made, a sacrifice that is unilateral and imposed by us. Always in mind is the value of life. As Dr. Schweitzer emphasized, this rational process brings us into a harmony with life and Life’s Source.

He summarized this spiritual equation in contending that Reverence for Life “…is the nature and origin of ethics. We have dared to say that it is born of physical life, out of the linking of life with life. It is therefore the result of our recognizing the solidarity of life which nature gives us. And as it grows more profound, it teaches us sympathy with all life. Yet, the extremes touch, for this material-born ethic becomes engraved upon our hearts, and culminates in spiritual union and harmony with the Creative Will which is in and through all.”

The 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart expressed this union and harmony in traditional, theistic language.

“Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.

“Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.

“Every creature is a word of God.

"If I spent enough time with the tiniest creatures—even a caterpillar—I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature”

The growing animal rights/liberation movement is a next step in humankind’s spiritual and ethical progress.

May 10, 2009

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