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First Principle Project seeks to expand concept of 'inherent worth and dignity'

"To affirm and to promote the inherent worth and dignity of all beings is an exercise of the heart, a spiritual practice, and a path of deepening growth and broadening connection," writes Rev. Meredith Garmon, minister at the Community Unitarian Church at White Plains.

"In the most important ways, it's not about what we owe them — other beings. It's about how connecting with all beings in compassion is our own road to awakening."

The First Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) affirms "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." The First Principle Project is an effort to modify this principle to take into account the spiritual and ethical implications of living in a multispecies world, by changing the words "every person" to "every being."

This would not be the first time the UUA has revised its guiding Principles to reflect changes in members' understanding of foundational values. In 1985 the Seventh Principle was added, and the other Principles were revised to address sexist language and other issues.

Changing the First Principle would involve a change to the UUA by-laws ratified by a vote of congregational delegates. Approval by 15 UU congregations is required for the proposal to be placed on the ballot at the 2015 UUA General Assembly.

So far two UU congregations have endorsed the change — most recently, the Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Vista, California.

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
— English Unitarian Jeremy Bentham, early proponent of animal rights

The First Principle Project has generated a lot of discussion, especially around the issue of what is meant by the phrase "every being." Does it include all animals? What about insects, or plants?

Some have suggested changing the wording to "every sentient being" to make the intention more clear. But that has generated more discussion around the meaning of the word "sentient."

The wording would most likely be changed to simply "every being," making the interpretation a matter of individual conscience. The current wording of the First Principle takes the same approach, leaving the meaning of the word "person" open to interpretation.

Even broadly defined, the proposed change to the First Principle would have profound implications for our shared understanding of animal rights, ethical eating, and environmental justice.

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