An Open Letter to My Fellow Unitarian-Universalists (UUs) on Animal Liberation
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Norm Phelps
November 2014

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!”

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 dubbed “speciesism.”

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 primarily, 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 depletion.[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.]

    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 [Heifer Project - What's Wrong With Gifting Animals... ], including an informative and eloquent article 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.

Old Age:

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 exploitation 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, has 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 losing.

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 self-deception.

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 nonconforming people.

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 with evil.

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 known as the First Principle Project (FPP). Initially created by Unitarian-Universalist Animal Ministry (UUAM), and facilitated by UU minister and wildlife veterinarian LoraKim Joyner, FPP campaigns to amend the First Principle in order to bring animals as individuals clearly and plainly under its protection.

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 nonhuman animals, as well. Personally, I would prefer that an amended First Principle refer to “every sentient being,” because I fear that some will insist on interpreting “every being” to include plants and will argue that since even vegans eat plants, the consistency principle permits us to eat animals as well. This would be a misuse of the consistency principle, but I suspect we will nonetheless hear the argument made. But one of the things that makes being a UU so stimulating is that no two of us ever (or hardly ever) agree entirely about anything. And if each of us insists on their own favorite wording, we will never get anywhere. And so, I support amending the First Principle exactly as FPP proposes.

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 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.


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