Can we reconcile moral certainties with Unitarian Universalist Principles?
From the moment the essay was published, the comments flowed in—on the web, letters to the editor, calls and letters to my church. More than 16,000 words total. Most of the responders were upset because I eat meat. (I’d describe myself as a flexitarian, and a lot of my own cooking is vegan or vegetarian.) They called my essay “self-serving, anthropocentric, and speciesist,” “sad,” “a thinly veiled attempt at rationalization and conscience soothing,” having “its own contradictions,” “lacking in compassion,” “lacking in research,” “promoting animal abuse,” and “straying from our Seven Principles.”
Here are two of my favorite comments:
“If someone served Ms. French dog meat—maybe even a greyhound, the breed of her own dog—would she continue to take the position that nothing is off the table?”
“I assume she would be fine being eaten herself provided the shark, let's say, felt similarly grateful for the meal he was about to receive?”
The writers make good points. Clearly they are thinking hard and feeling passionately about their moral choices. As am I.
The heaps of mail—the most words generated by anything I’ve written—actually got me thinking about something other than the ethics of eating meat. What struck me is that our religion, with its idealistic set of Seven Principles, puts us in a tough position. Five of our UU Principles ask us for tolerance toward other people and their beliefs, to affirm: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person; .. . compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another . . .; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; [and] the right of conscience.”
But our moral selves sometimes demand that we take strong stands—implying that people who don’t agree are morally wrong. It seems almost impossible for someone who believes in a moral absolute to be true to their own conscience and be true to our Principles. That’s very perplexing. Even people who share many common values can end up on opposite sides of a moral stand. And that’s where it gets tricky to live our Principles.
I don’t mean to single out my critics, who on the whole were reasonable and respectful. Historically we Unitarian Universalists have always felt compelled to take strong stands. Some of those stands do feel morally irrefutable, though they didn’t always, to all people, at all times: Slavery is wrong. Not letting women vote is wrong. Discriminating against people of color, or gay people, or disabled people, or anybody is wrong.
I, too, have felt compelled to put my foot down, like with the right to marry, or the right of a woman to make her own reproductive decisions, and say, This is a basic civil right and I don’t want to discuss it further. You, on the other side there, are just morally wrong. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that just shuts any real conversation down.
In anticipation of a recent reunion with the evangelical Southern Baptist family I grew up in, three of us in my household got swept up in Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics. We wanted to know how people we knew were good and intelligent could come to such different conclusions.
Thinkers over time have argued whether humans get our sense of morality from nature or nurture. More recently Jean Piaget proposed a third possibility, rationalism, that kids figure out morality for themselves. But Haidt says that moral intuition (and emotion) come first. Then reasoning comes along later, scrambling to come up with evidence to justify our feelings.
Biology bears this out, according to brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor—whose TED talk about her insights after her own stroke went viral. When we encounter something unfamiliar, that sensory information travels through our limbic system first to our amygdala so we emotionally react to it. Only afterward does it go to our cerebral cortex, where we can apply reason. Taylor writes: “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking persons who feel, biologically we are feeling persons who think.”
This stopped me cold. Was my work, writing essays, nothing more than scrambling to justify my own emotions? Maybe the letter writer who accused me of “a thinly veiled attempt at rationalization” was right. Maybe, as Haidt says, I was making up “post hoc constructions . . . on the fly.”
But Haidt also writes, and I love this metaphor: “Moral reasoning is the tail wagged by the intuitive dog. A dog’s tail wags to communicate. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments. . . . If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from the person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”
That may be the missing link between the tolerance and acceptance our principles ask of us and what we are biologically compelled to do: make moral judgments based on intuition and emotion.
We Unitarian Universalists are often characterized as being too much in our heads. These thinkers and scientists may just be a good way to help us realize that we’re not really that rational. There’s not just one answer, and we don’t always have it. Underneath all our thinking and arguing we are all feeling people first. If we can own that, then perhaps we can start to listen more deeply to one another’s stories and the emotions behind them, the fear, the pain, the pride. We can practice empathy: finding commonality with other people (“Like me, this person has known sadness, or is avoiding suffering, or is learning about life”) and make a regular practice of loving kindness and easing each other’s suffering, even just a little, starting with a smile or an encouraging word.
When I started thinking about my essay, I turned to a dear friend, Elizabeth Gish, my congregation’s former student minister, who is vegan and writes Elizabeth’s Little Blog. I got the Elizabeth wisdom I knew I would. She said something like this:
We are all born into a world that is broken. We’re all woven into a system that causes harm, and I don’t think it’s possible to extract ourselves from doing harm. Like in Christian language, we’re all sinners. The soybeans I eat may be flown here from far away, where land is stripped, rainforests cut down, pesticides applied, rats killed during the harvest. Being vegan is just one way I can try to shape my world. Some people may criticize me for traveling and flying as much as I do. And they’d be right. But that’s something I can’t—or don’t have the will—to change right now. I don’t want to be judgmental of other ways people choose. We’re all just stumbling together to do our best.
That is what I take away from this, and that is the reason, as Jonathan Haidt says, we gather into teams, like church: “We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about.”
I believe we’re all called to try and do the best we can, with our own experiences and emotions; make sense of what we’re born into; and work with others to change it, in the way that calls us most clearly, for the better.
Illustration (above): “Walter” (detail), © 2006 Sally Muir, oil on board (Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library).
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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