New Atheism, Moral Realism, and Animal Rights: Some Preliminary Reflections

Certain secularists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, often referred to as “New Atheists,” are the latest to tell us that we should look to rationality and science to figure out what to think about important moral issues. These New Atheists generally reject the notion that there can be independent moral truths or that actions can be intrinsically wrong; and they reject the notion of absolute moral rules. They maintain that morality informed by spiritual or religious considerations should be rejected.

I want to examine some aspects of this position as a general matter which, in many ways, is really not new with the New Atheists. I want also to discuss how this position affects our thinking about animal ethics given that, for the past several years, I have noted an increase in animal advocates who believe that animal rights are able to be grounded securely on rationality and science alone and who reject the notion that there can be independent moral truths or that actions can be intrinsically wrong.

Let me make two points at the outset: First, this is an involved issue that requires more than a single blog post. I am offering my preliminary thoughts here and will have much more to say at a later time in work that I am doing on moral realism and animal rights.

Second, I want to stress that if we reject scientific rationality as providing what we need to know about morality, we are not relegated to embracing “supernatural” beliefs or retreating to some sort of moral relativism or subjectivism. One may subscribe to views about moral realism or may accept the principle of nonviolence as a moral truth, for example, without subscribing to views about a creator deity or the survival of personality past death. Indeed, part of the problem is that this debate is often characterized as one requiring that, if we reject relativism, subjectivism, or some similar view, we must choose between the supernatural or scientific rationality. That is a false choice. Read more