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UU History with Nonhuman Animals
The phrase "animal rights" didn't enter public discourse until the 1973, when
philosopher Peter Singer introduced the term in an article in The New York
Review of Books. But the concept that other species are worthy of moral
consideration is much older, and Unitarian Universalists were among the
intellectual pioneers who first pondered our ethical obligations toward other
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of utilitarianism, held that right and
wrong could be determined through a calculation of the greatest good for the
greatest number. The well-being of animals, as well as people, must be weighed
in any balancing equation. In a letter dated 1789, he compared the status of
animals to the unjust bondage of African slaves: "the blackness of the skin is
no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a
tormentor," he observed, and the possession of four legs or other superficial
characteristics should not deprive other creatures of legal protection,
either. "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can
Another English Unitarian, Mary Wollstonecraft, made the connection between
women's rights and animal rights. When her Vindication of the Rights of
Woman was published in 1792, it drew a satirical response from the classicist
Thomas Taylor, who countered with a pamphlet titled Vindication of the Rights of
Brutes, ridiculing women's liberation as comparable to advocating a meatless
diet. But Wollstonecraft found nothing absurd in the comparing women's
condition to that of beasts. "Humanity to animals should be particularly
inculcated as a part of national education," particularly among boys, she urged.
"The transition, as they grow up, from barbarity to brutes to domestic tyranny
over wives, children, and servants is very easy. Justice, or even benevolence,
will not be a powerful spring of action unless it extend[s] to the whole
In the nineteenth century, many associated with our movement advocated complete
or partial vegetarianism, including Henry Thoreau, Clara Barton, Bronson Alcott,
and publisher Horace Greeley, who joined suffragist Susan B. Anthony at a
banquet in 1853 to toast "Vegetarianism and Women's Rights." Universalist
social reformer Frances Dana Gage was at that same Vegetarian Festival held in
Manhattan's Metropolitan Hall, along with Lucy Stone, another Unitarian women's
In 1866, Henry Bergh, a member of what is now the All Souls Unitarian Church in
New York, founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,
campaigning against dog and cock fights, inhumane slaughterhouse practices, the
use of live birds in "pigeon shoots" and other forms of neglect and abuse. By
the time of Bergh's death twenty-two years later, nearly every state in the
union had enacted anti-cruelty statutes.
During these same years, another Unitarian, Charles Darwin, revolutionized our
understanding of nature, arguing in books like The Origin of the Emotions in Man
and Animals that "the difference in mind between man and the higher animals,
great as it is, certain is one of degree and not of kind." Such insights led
Darwin to question the ethics of vivisection and forced the
scientifically-minded to a new estimation of our obligations to creatures who
are our biological and psychological kin.
In the twentieth century, humanitarians like Albert Schweitzer and theologians
like Charles Hartshorne continued to urge people of faith to widen that circle
of kinship. "Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its
full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures" taught Dr.
Schweitzer. As a proponent of process philosophy, which views the universe as a
living network rather than a collection of inert forces or senseless objects,
Hartshorne raised the pertinent question: "Is it likely that God takes no
delight whatever in the more than a million other living forms on this planet,
yet does delight in, derive value from contemplating, the one human species
lately emergent on the planet? If such an idea is not sheer anthropomorphic
bias, what would be such bias?"
Overcoming specieism, the assumption that only one animal is of interest to God,
possesses inherent worth, or matters in the moral scheme of things, is the
ongoing mission of UUAM, the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry. This work
is no recent innovation, but shares a long history with the struggles for
abolition, the emancipation of women, and other liberation movements in our
Unitarian Universalist past.
Reverend Gary Kowalski
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