Rationalism and Animal Ethics

(First published for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science)


My previous article on animal ethics elicited quite a debate. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at one of the more interesting arguments against explicitly promoting animal ethics. Hasn’t rationalism got enough to do without having to champion the cause of animals?


There are many different factors in this discussion. Firstly, we should note that most countries are still in some way opposed to a rational worldview. Even where I write from, in the UK, secularisation has gone from strength to strength and yet it would be right to label anti-theism a minority view. Many here see the problems with violent extremism, but not the links with faith or religion per se. So it is legitimate to raise concern that this cause is already enough on its own.


I tend to disagree with this position for several reasons. Firstly, I think it assumes secularism to be a cause of greater popularity than animal ethics (and thus more important to be getting on with in the short term), and I don’t think that’s true. In a decade of debating animal ethics I have encountered thousands of people, and yet there have been barely a handful who agree with ideas like factory farming and cosmetic animal testing purely on the ethics. People might argue the economics or necessity of these ideas, but none simply agree with the suffering these things cause as a core principle. There is a basic disagreement with unnecessary suffering in a way that there isn’t a basic disagreement with religion or faith.


This point on its own doesn’t prove anything: just because animal ethics has a generally wider circle of agreement (and it is only ‘general’ – as I argued in my previous article, it is evolving gradually all the time) this doesn’t mean that voices for reason must incorporate the argument. However there is a second argument, which, alongside this first one, makes the case for promoting animal ethics within secularism. This argument is to do with our goals.


Suppose we lived in a different world: one where human beings were wired very differently, and the pursuit of reason had very different effects. One doesn’t need to flesh out the details too succinctly as it is merely a thought experiment, but suppose that promoting reason and science in this strange world actually led directly to lower technological development, lower levels of education and increased violence. We might describe this world as one where human beings were negatively influenced by understanding: the more they know about anything, the less they care for everything.


This is a highly unlikely thought experiment; the formation of an intelligent species that begs a whole variety of questions as to how it could even exist (after all, the correlation between understanding and apathy must be on the descending end of a bell curve, else how did they evolve to even have science?). But it does point to a world where most of us would not choose to promote science and reason – a world where to do so would be to do harm. Our initial emotions in reaction to the thought experiment might be ‘but I would still want to discover the truth’, but given you were the only one wanting this in that strange world, and given the great harm it causes to do so, odds on eventually you would change your mind. This tells us that we aren’t in the game of promoting science and reason for the sake of science and reason. Rather we do it because of the outcome of doing so. We want a greater and ever increasing understanding of the universe, we want to inspire tremendous development and change, we want to reduce conflict caused by non-evidence based world views, not to mention all the other wonderful achievements that reason can provide us. It just so happens that we are part of a fairly linear humanity, when it comes to reason causation.


The discovery that we promote science and reason for a further goal has direct effects on the ‘burdening of science and reason’ argument. We shouldn’t consider any form of ethics, whether current or newly discovered, to be ‘too much’ of a burden to join with or promote: to do so would be to stick to rigidly to our opinions (that we should only promote general rationality or science) and not rigidly enough with the consistent outcomes that logic would ask us to consider (that we should promote rationality in any distinct and legitimate causes).


Arguably even if we were discussing the most unpopular ethical idea on the planet – something the rest of humanity deemed to be unworthy of anything but ridicule – we should not immediately cast it aside. There is certainly something to the argument that there is a threshold of popularity below which we should ignore ideas and instead focus on the great leaps we can achieve with secularisation alone in the short-term. But to place that threshold too high, or too firmly, is to forget that ignoring the newest ethical ideas is to stand with the status quo and against progression. I can’t see a reason for suggesting that this is a place where sincere rationalists should ever be caught.


I’ll add one final point, from my experience of treading that middle section of the rationality and animal ethics Venn diagram. The argument of burden comes from both sides: those in animal ethics are also reluctant to accept a burden, deeming their issue too important to weigh down with promoting rationality. Though, admittedly, the percentage of animal supporters accepting rationality as a valid cause is much lower than the rationality supporters who accept animal ethics. This tells us two things:

a) Everyone sees their own corner of advocacy as more important, and prioritises their own immediate goals as more important than the goals of sister causes who share a common ideal.

b) Rationalists are more likely to see the logic in other ethical causes (if we deem it to be true that supporters of rationality tend to be more likely to be rationalists and that rationality is a logical ethical cause).


I happen to believe that everyone, to a usually insignificant degree, sees himself or herself as having a ‘pet cause’ and thus reacts more favourably to that one cause than others. This would explain the lack of people in b) by positing that most people, not just activists, are summed up by a). From this position, built on fairly reasonable assumptions, it logically follows that not only is rationality a necessary moral cause on its own, but also that a rationalist influence is a great necessity in all other legitimate moral causes (as it leads to a more consistent set of ethical beliefs).


Either way, putting all assumptions aside, if one believes rationality to be a morally important cause then it follows that one should be keen to impart rationality into other legitimate moral causes. If nothing else (and arguably it is far from ‘nothing else’) then it remains a necessary tool by indirectly teaching the importance of reason. Arguing that this causes a burden is likely an inconsistent position.