The current version of the UUA principles and purposes were passed in 1986. They are listed in the UUA bylaws Section c-2.1 Principles. These principles begin as a covenant,
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
The First Principle as it exists now provides a vision, leading us to individually and collectively embody our call to compassion for all. It invites us to come together to find out how we can support one another to live deeply so that all people may live well. Though action is implied, the First Principle is more about questioning, seeking, and faith. Guiding us to look beyond creeds, formulas, or specific actions or practices, the First Principle asks us to stay engaged with reality and in relationships, though we struggle with the harshness of life and the complex interplay of human nature as it both cares for and harms others. Lighting the way forward, this principle supports us in being open to the other, for we are a faith founded on continuous revelation. Everyone has something to teach us, no matter the individual or species.
The First Principle is a rigorous one. We recognize that we are finite beings and cannot always have compassion, time, focus, or energy for all manners of people and species in our communities. Not deterred, we seek to live based on our ever growing understanding and embodiment of our interconnection to the beautiful whole. We strive to act from knowing that other people are beautiful and have worth and dignity, even if we cannot act in ways consistent to that understanding. The fact that we will fall short does not keep us from trying, for we know that as we deepen our faith, our spirits will be more nurtured as we nourish and heal the world.
A changed First Principle affirms explicitly and more powerfully what many Unitarian Universalists already hold to be true: that all individuals of any species merit our compassionate consideration and that because they too are part of the beautiful whole, they have worth and dignity. The goal of any version of the First Principle is not to keep the circle of compassion small until each gets their share of dignity or compassion. We are called to extend the circle, each working to deepen their faith in the inherent worth and dignity of all. Though humans evolved both genetically and culturally to have an anthropocentric bias - to choose the well being of humans over other species - we also evolved mechanisms to extend compassion beyond our own self interests, own family, own tribe, own community, or own species. Changing the First Principle guides us to work in the world together for the betterment of all.
Why change the First Principle - isn't it enough to have the Seventh Principle about the interdependent web?
The First Principle is about the vision and spirit of the worth of individuals which the Seventh Principle doesn't address (respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part). The Seventh Principle asks us to affirm and promote respect for the web, but does not clearly suggest respect for the beings within the web. Our current principles generally reflect the tension in culture where humans think they have to chose either to care for the whole (the web) or to care for individuals (animal well being). The preference for the whole, without taking into consideration the individual, can lead to treating individuals as a means without considering the welfare of all individuals. A new paradigm is working its way into culture on how we can care of individuals and the whole, without pitting either philosophy against each other.
The current principle does not give specific instructions on how we are to nourish and heal. Instead it is a vision that we agree to work towards, affirming and promoting in the ways that each congregation can. The proposed new First Principle carries this same vision forward, including that it does not dictate how you should promote worth and dignity of every being. This is left to the conscience of the individual and to the shared lives of the member congregations. Some people may choose to do prison ministry, protest armed conflict, or work for women's rights, while others choose to rescue companion animals, protest factory farming, or work in conservation of wildlife, all of which have components that serve humans as well as other species. Each answers the call to live and love fully where one's deep joy intersects with the world's great need.
To different people, being means various things. For some being refers to anything that is alive, and would include plants. For others being does not refer to plants or fungi. Some see being as referring to those species that are sentient. This raises the question, what do we mean by sentient? This too has variable meanings, but mostly refers to the ability to perceive or feel things, such as being able to feel, see, hear, smell, or taste. Sentience also means being aware. Some too would see being as something that exists or is thought to exist, and might include rocks, mountains, river, the earth, or anything that makes up part of the whole of existence. Regardless of how each defines "being" the goal is to grow our circle of compassion for individuals, including ourselves, as we grow our own sense of belonging to and interconnecting with all of existence.
This same situation exists for the current version of the First Principle. The current principle does not specify what we mean by "person." All kinds of people are at the margins that challenge our conception of person and impact how we are to respond ethically to them. The goal is to hold all humans, regardless of their situation, as precious, and as meriting our moral concern.
Does adding all beings mean that we have to choose between the well being of humans and other animals?
The changed First Principle helps us acknowledge the interlocking oppressions that cause harm to humans and other species alike while valuing the needs of every individual. Everything is at risk and is interconnected. By helping one we help the many others. This affirmation does not diminish the proud historical traditions of Unitarian Universalists striving for human rights and racial and environmental justice, nor does it mean we should desist from the critical work of antiracism, antioppression, and multiculturism within our congregations and association. Many people have been ignored, treated poorly, enslaved, and oppressed, and still are. We must work on this, perhaps even increasing our pace and commitment to human flourishing. The First Principle Project is very much about human rights and well being.
How do I make ethical and moral decisions if all beings and individuals have inherent worth and dignity?
Already the First Principle means difficult decisions on how we are to live our days. To change it will only mean we have more questions with which to engage. How can we help support one another when we stretch ourselves with the new challenges that will arise with embracing all beings as worthy? How shall we live knowing that to nurture our own lives, we have to harm life or make decisions that lead us to care more for some, and less for others, these "others" that all have worth and dignity? How do we stay engaged with an open heart to the suffering of others when we know that in actuality most humans make daily decisions that favor those closest to them in affection and form?
Each will answer these questions differently, and will probably change their behavior depending on context, age, and experience. Many people choose to make decisions that reflect the guidelines of "do minimum harm." The goal for others is to keep suffering to a minimum, such as striving to reduce physical or emotional distress, as well as pain and death. In both approaches, humans take into account the needs of every individual impacted by our decisions or behavior, and then weigh the consequence of our acts so that the least harm and suffering results. This is no easy task, as it means engaging in the reality that Albert Schweitzer described as the "necessity of life." Each of us harms others to survive; there is no escaping this. Instead of slipping into denial about the impacts of our actions, we choose to grow in faith and compassion so that we can witness to the suffering of others, and so over time, reduce the harm we cause in the world as either individuals, congregations, organizations, institutions, societies, or as a species. It is not all doom and gloom to walk with all beings in both the beauty and tragedy of existence. Instead, as Schweitzer wrote: "By having reverence for life we enter in a spiritual connection with the world. By practicing reverence for life we become good, deep, and alive."
Some might draw the conclusion that as harm cannot be avoided, and as long as one has reverence for life and is spiritually connected to the web, it is morally acceptable to inflict harm on individuals, or to participate in institutionalized oppression that causes harm on a great scale, such as wildlife trafficking or factory farming. This point of view incorporates the idea that as harm and violence are rampant in the web of life, and humans are naturally part of this web that includes the predator prey cycle, it is okay to harm others. Indeed, one might argue, that we cannot avoid hurting other species because we evolved to do so as an apex predator and a primate whose ancestors were both hunters and gatherers. A human moral conclusion however does not rest on natural behaviors, DNA, or evolution alone. We seek instead to harness our violent and self serving propensities, which during our cultural and genetic evolution has included for example murder, infanticide, rape, and cannibalism. None of these are acceptable today. Through the slow march of cultural development, violence has remarkably decreased until today when it is at an all time low level in much of the world. Humans choose in how they govern themselves and impose cultural expectations to decrease violence and control their more harmful behaviors. We can do the same in how we behave towards all species. Evolving certain neural and physiological pathways does not lock us into a certain response to the world, for we also evolved to compassionately care for the many: for our kind, for our kin, and for many peoples and species. To find out more how human caused violence has decreased and how we can rely on the "better angels of our nature," we invite you to the book of the same title by Steven Pinker.
The new First Principle again, would not tell us how to live, but it would ask us to question how we can live more fully so that others may live well. The First Principle also is not used to judge one another, such as saying "you aren't living up to the principles." Instead all the principles are a call to each of us as congregations, and as individuals, to transform our lives and deepen our religious commitment and sense of spiritual interconnection. Changing the First Principle, then, is to not to dictate our lives or to choose one species or demographic over another, but to find a way to enlarge our hearts and practices so that together we grow our compassionate witness to the world. Each of us is at some point on the continuum of justice, all worthy. It doesn't matter where you start from or where you end up. The goal of our principles is urging us to move joyfully as much as we can further along towards justice through our thoughts, words, and actions.
To change the First Principle, it requires a bylaw change of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This means that an amendment of the change would be voted upon at a June General Assembly. To get on the agenda for the General Assembly, either 15 congregations or one district would need to approve the amendment.
The amendment that each congregation would approve reads as follows: To omit "every person" and replace with "every being" in Article II Principles and Purposes, Section c-2.1 Principles, Line 12, UUA bylaws.
How will we know if our Unitarian Universalist association of congregations is ready for this change?
The broader cultural milieu is undergoing a profound paradigm shift as science, experience, and religious life inform us that humans are one among many species, all of which have worth as individuals and as components of the sacred whole. This is new territory for every human as we navigate through murky ethical waters on a course that cares for each as well as for the entirely of our ecological and social communities comprising of so many different species, of which humans are only one. No one knows a direct route in how to live this way. The path forward will meander, might retreat for a while, and could even seem to spiral into and out of chaos and complexity. We will never be ready if we never make the attempt. We can prepare ourselves for the best possible success if we do our work, and we do it together with as much love, compassion, and faith as we can muster. For this reason, the First Principle Project is as much about individual and organization process and dynamics as it is about end results.