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EVANA asked US author Norm Phelps about his hopes for 2009'A society is worthwhile only to the extent that it protects and nurtures those whom it has the power to harm'
24 December 2008
In a few days I will celebrate my sixty-ninth New Year’s quietly with my beloved wife, partner and teacher, and our family of rescued cats. But I have never approached an incoming year with the sense of anticipation with which I am awaiting 2009.
I am an American, and for the past eight years my country has decimated its own middle class, driven its working class into poverty and its poor into destitution; in the end, our worship of greed, wealth, and the social Darwinist doctrine of the survival of the most ruthless destroyed our own prosperity and threatens to sink the planet into a catastrophic economic collapse; we have taken dangerous steps toward abandoning the rule of law both at home and internationally; we have let greed and stubborn ideology bring our planet right up to the edge of becoming uninhabitable; and we are engaged in an unprovoked war of aggression against a country that posed us no threat. Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people by the people and for the people,” has been turned into “government of the people by the greedy and arrogant for the benefit of the rich and powerful.”
Albert Schweitzer told us that “Civilization originates when men become inspired by a strong and clear determination to attain progress, and consecrate themselves, as a result of this determination, to the service of life and of the world. It is only in ethics that we can find the driving force for such action, transcending, as it does, the limits of our own existence.” (The Philosophy of Civilization, xiii)
To put Schweitzer’s principle into plainer language, the only justification for the existence of a civilization, a nation, or a government is that it strives to make life better for every sentient being who lives at the mercy of its power, not simply for those who wield power. A society is worthwhile only to the extent that it protects and nurtures those whom it has the power to harm. Sadly, where animals are concerned, we have never recognized this. And during the Bush years, America lost sight of it where human beings are concerned, as well. We have clearly not been living in anything that Albert Schweitzer would call civilization.
But as this new year begins, I am filled with hope that this is about to change and that the election of Barack Obama marks my country’s recovery of its moral bearings. As happy as I am at the election of an African-American, I am happier still at the election of someone who seems to have a moral compass and appears to want to return government to its proper role of improving lives and enabling freedom while making America once again a good citizen in the community of nations.
Sadly, I do not expect Mr. Obama to do a great deal to directly improve the lives of animals. In concern for animals (as in the death penalty and health care), America lags far behind the EU, and I expect this to continue for the foreseeable future. But a society that has no compassion for human beings will have none for animals, either. The Obama presidency promises to place compassion closer to the center of America’s national consciousness than it has been for decades. And I believe that the compassion thus aroused will inevitably open up to all beings who stand in need of compassion regardless of their species.
A great deal has been made of the discovery by scientists like Frank Ascione and Ken Shapiro and historians like Charles Patterson of the role that violence against animals plays in creating an atmosphere that can lead to violence against humans. Their findings are valid and important, but in our anthropocentric blindness what we often lose sight of is that there is a causal connection in the other direction as well: Cruelty or callousness toward human beings creates an atmosphere in which it is easier for cruelty and callousness toward animals to flourish. The fate of all sentient beings is woven into the same fabric.
We cannot separate our own wellbeing from the wellbeing of animals. As Henry Beston told us, we are all caught up together in the web of life. And so, I am looking forward to 2009 with the hope that we are awakening from our national nightmare and are ready to join with people of good will and compassion around the world in taking up the long, hard, slow process of building Albert Schweitzer’s ethical civilization: a civilization of peace on earth and good will toward all living beings.
Norm Phelps is the author of The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights, and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other EVANA-articles about this topic:
One-Track Activism: Animals Pay the Price (en)
Until There Are No Beings Whom We Still Define as 'Other' (en)
New Book: The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA (en)
An Open Letter to the Dalai Lama (en)
Norm Phelps: Why the 'Heifer Project' is not compatible with UU ideals of compassion, (en)
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