Animal Rights:

 A History

Tom Regan 

The Deeper Minds Of All Ages Have Had Pity For Animals
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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights:A History

Tom Regan

Often referred to as the intellectual leader of the animal rights movement Tom Regan is an American philosopher who specialises in animal rights theory and a prolific writer on the subject. Until his retirement in 2001 Tom Regan was a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University where he taught for thirty-four years. Regan is the author of four books on the philosophy of animal rights, including The Case for Animal Rights, a book particularly noted as having had significant influence on the animal rights movement.

Regarding our treatment of animals Tom Regan is an absolutist, this means that he considers that only the complete abolition of the use of animals as food, in experiments, in entertainment, in industry or as any means to human
ends  is morally acceptable.

I regard myself as an advocate of animal rights — as a part of the animal rights movement. That movement, as I conceive it, is committed to a number of goals, including:

the total abolition of the use of animals in science;
the total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture;
the total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping.
There are, I know, people who profess to believe in animal rights but do not avow these goals. Factory farming, they say, is wrong - it violates animals' rights - but traditional animal agriculture is all right. Toxicity tests of cosmetics on animals violates their rights, but important medical research — cancer research, for example — does not. The clubbing of baby seals is abhorrent, but not the harvesting of adult seals. I used to think I understood this reasoning. Not any more. You don't change unjust institutions by tidying them up.

What's wrong — fundamentally wrong — with the way animals are treated isn't the details that vary from case to case. It's the whole system. The forlornness of the veal calf is pathetic, heart wrenching; the pulsing pain of the chimp with electrodes planted deep in her brain is repulsive; the slow, tortuous death of the racoon caught in the leg-hold trap is agonizing. But what is wrong isn't the pain, isn't the suffering, isn't the deprivation. These compound what's wrong. Sometimes - often - they make it much, much worse. But they are not the fundamental wrong.

The fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us — to be eaten, or surgically manipulated, or exploited for sport or money.

Tom Regan The case for Animal Rights*

Central to his philosophical argument is the concept of similarities between ourselves and other animals which he considers " important enough to warrant a verbal marker of their own. I use the expression  "subjects-of-a-life" to refer to them.

Basically this means that any creature who has a complex mental life such as perception, desire, belief, memory, intention, and a sense of the future amongst other attributes is a subject-of-a-life. Much evidence supports the fact that most animals are subjects-of-a-life rather than simply biological automatons driven by mere instinct without subjective worlds.

Because each subject-of-a-life, each animal, is an individual, his or her own life is important to that individual as our lives are important to us and therefore all subjects-of-a-life have equal inherent value. This inherent value is equal among all subjects-of-a-life, since one is either is a subject-of-a-life or is not. Inherent value does not come in degrees, and it is not dependent on the individual's experiences or utility to others. Regan considers that both humans and nonhuman animals are subjects-of-a-life, therefore if we grant rights to humans regardless of their ability to be rational agents then to be consistent, we must similarly ascribe such rights to non-humans. Regan argues that animals have moral rights similar to those of humans, particularly the right to life.

Below is a good description of the concept of "subjects-of-a-life"  from which the above information was compiled.

Regan bases his case for animal rights upon his "subjects-of-a-life" concept.

The idea of being-a-subject-of-a-life is important because it illuminates our moral sameness, our moral quality

  • As subjects-of-a-life, we are all the same because we are all in the world.
  • As subjects-of-a-life, we are all the same as we are all aware of the world
  • As subjects-of-a-life, we are all the same because what happens to us matter to us.
  • As subjects-of-a-life, what happens to us matters to us because it makes a difference to the quality as well as the duration of life.
  • As subjects-of-a-life, there is no superior or inferior, no higher or lower.
  • As subjects-of-a-life, we are all morally the same, all morally equal.

Extract above from: Sentience and Rights Tom Regan Chapter Seven Animals, Ethics and Trade The Challenge of Animal Sentience Edited by Jacky Turner and Joyce D'Silva.

Tom Regan uses his argument that animals are subjects-of-a-life in both The Case for Animal Rights and Empty Cages 

Regan considers that animals have "inherent value" as subjects of a life and therefore cannot be regarded as a means to an end and, amongst other rights, have a right to be treated with respect including the right not to be harmed. This is a concept called the "direct duty" view as opposed to an indirect duty view .

...we can do wrong acts that involve animals, and so we have duties regarding them, though none to them. Such views may be called indirect duty views. By way of illustration: suppose your neighbour kicks your dog. Then your neighbour has done something wrong. But not to your dog. The wrong that has been done is a wrong to you. After all, it is wrong to upset people, and your neighbour's kicking your dog upsets you. So you are the one who is wronged, not your dog. Or again: by kicking your dog your neighbour damages your property. And since it is wrong to damage another person's property, your neighbour has done something wrong - to you, of course, not to your dog. Your neighbour no more wrongs your dog than your car would be wronged if the windshield were smashed. Your neighbour's duties involving your dog are indirect duties to you. More generally, all of our duties regarding animals are indirect duties to one another — to humanity.

How could someone try to justify such a view? Someone might say that your dog doesn't feel anything and so isn't hurt by your neighbour's kick, doesn't care about the pain since none is felt, is as unaware of anything as is your windshield. Someone might say this, but no rational person will, since, among other considerations, such a view will commit anyone who holds it to the position that no human being feels pain either - that human beings also don't care about what happens to them. A second possibility is that though both humans and your dog are hurt when kicked, it is only human pain that matters. But, again, no rational person can believe this. Pain is pain wherever it occurs. If your neighbour's causing you pain is wrong because of the pain that is caused, we cannot rationally ignore or dismiss the moral relevance of the pain that your dog feels.
The Case for Animal Rights
by Tom Regan
In PETER SINGER (ed), In Defense of Animals
New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 13-26

It is Regan's belief that non human animals should be treated in the same way as human beings and never treated as a means to an end, but rather treated as ends in themselves. This is in keeping with  Kantian philosophy although Kant only applied this concept to humans. Regan rejects some of the arguments of other activists including utilitarianism.

Regan's concepts of "duty view", "inherent value" and his arguments against utilitarianism are discussed in the links below.

The Case for Animal Rights By Tom Regan From Animal Right and Human obligations:

Regan argues that, because the moral rights of humans are based on their possession of certain cognitive abilities, and because these abilities are also possessed by at least some non-human animals, such animals must have the same moral rights as humans. Although only humans act as moral agents, both marginal-case humans, such as infants, and at least some non-humans must have the status of "moral patients." Moral patients are unable to formulate moral principles, and as such are unable to do right or wrong, even though what they do may be beneficial or harmful. Only moral agents are able to engage in moral action.

The concept of Moral agents and moral patients is explained the extract below: Courses/HRS318/Regan~case for animal rights.pdf

Tom Regan's philosophical ideas concerning animal rights are complex concepts, for a summary

Video Tom Regan, A Case for Animal Rights

Tom Regan has written or edited more than twenty books and numerous articles on animal rights.

Various writings of Tom Regan

In the The Case For Animal Rights already cited Regan presents arguments for the cause of animal rights.

The extracts which follow are among his concluding remarks :

The fate of animals is in our hands;
God grant we are equal to the task.

I must, in closing, limit myself to four final points.

The first is how the theory that underlies the case for animal rights shows that the animal rights movement is a part of, not antagonistic to, the human rights movement. The theory that rationally grounds the rights of animals also grounds the rights of humans.

Secondly, having set out the broad outlines of the rights view, I can now say why its implications for farming and science, among other fields, are both clear and uncompromising. In the case of the use of Animal Research, the rights view is categorically abolitionist. Lab animals are not our tasters; we are not their kings. Because these animals are treated routinely, systematically as if their value were reducible to their usefulness to others, they are routinely, systematically treated with a lack of respect, and thus are their rights routinely, systematically violated. This is just as true when they are used in trivial, duplicative, unnecessary or unwise research as it is when they are used in studies that hold out real promise for human beings.

We can't justify harming or killing a human being (my Aunt Bea, for example) just for these sorts of reasons. Neither can we do so even in the case of so "lowly" a creature as a laboratory rat. It is not just refinement or reduction that is called for, not just larger, cleaner cages, not just more generous use of anesthetic or the elimination of multiple surgery, not just tidying up the system. It is complete replacement. The best we can do when it comes to using Animal Research is — not to use them. That is where our duty lies, according to the rights view.

As for commercial animal agriculture, the rights view takes a similar abolitionist position. The fundamental moral wrong here is not that animals are kept in stressful close confinement or in isolation, or that their pain and suffering, their needs and preferences are ignored or discounted. All these are wrong, of course, but they are not the fundamental wrong. They are symptoms and effects of the deeper, systematic wrong that allows these animals to be viewed and treated as lacking independent value, as resources for us — as, indeed, a renewable resource. Giving farm animals more space, more natural environments, more companions does not right the fundamental wrong in their case. Nothing less than the total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture will do this, just as, for similar reasons I won't develop at length here, morality requires nothing less than the total elimination of hunting and trapping for commercial and sporting ends. The rights view's implications, then, as I have said, are clear and uncompromising.

My last two points are about philosophy, my profession. It is, most obviously, no substitute for political action. The words I have written here and in other places by themselves don't change a thing. It is what we do with the thoughts that the words express — our acts, our deeds — that changes things. All that philosophy can do, and all I have attempted, is to offer a vision of what our needs should aim at. And the why. But not the how.

Finally, I am reminded of my thoughtful critic, the one who chastised me for being too cerebral. I am also reminded, however, of the image another friend once set before me — the image of the ballerina as expressive of disciplined passion. Long hours of sweat and toil, of loneliness and practice, of doubt and fatigue: those are the disciplines of her craft. But the passion is there, too, the fierce drive to excel, to speak through her body, to do it right, to pierce our minds. That is the image of philosophy I would leave with you, not "too cerebral" but disciplined passion. Of the discipline enough has been seen. As for the passion: there are times, and these not infrequent, when tears come to my eyes when I see, or read, or hear of the wretched plight of animals in the hands of humans. Their pain, their suffering, their loneliness, their innocence, their death. Anger. Rage. Pity. Sorrow. Disgust. The whole creation groans under the weight of the evil we humans visit upon these mute, powerless creatures. It is our hearts, not just our heads, that call for an end to it all, that demand of us that we overcome, for them, the habits and forces behind their systematic oppression. All great movements, it is written, go through three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption. It is the realization of this third stage, adoption, that requires both our passion and our discipline, our hearts and our heads. The fate of animals is in our hands. God grant we are equal to the task. - here you will find more information about Tom Regan

The Philosophy of Animal Rights
By Tom Regan

The other animals humans eat, use in science, hunt, trap, and exploit in a variety of ways, have a life of their own that is of importance to them apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it. What happens to them matters to them. Each has a life that fares better or worse for the one whose life it is.

That life includes a variety of biological, individual, and social needs. The satisfaction of these needs is a source of pleasure, their frustration or abuse, a source of pain. In these fundamental ways, the nonhuman animals in labs and on farms, for example, are the same as human beings. And so it is that the ethics of our dealings with them, and with one another, must acknowledge the same fundamental moral principles.

At its deepest level, human ethics is based on the independent value of the individual: The moral worth of any one human being is not to be measured by how useful that person is in advancing the interest of other human beings. To treat human beings in ways that do not honor their independent value is to violate that most basic of human rights: the right of each person to be treated with respect.

The philosophy of animal rights demands only that logic be respected. For any argument that plausibly explains the independent value of human beings implies that other animals have this same value, and have it equally. And any argument that plausibly explains the right of humans to be treated with respect, also implies that these other animals have this same right, and have it equally, too.

It is true, therefore, that women do not exist to serve men, blacks to serve whites, the poor to serve the rich, or the weak to serve the strong. The philosophy of animal rights not only accepts these truths, it insists upon and justifies them.

But this philosophy goes further. By insisting upon and justifying the independent value and rights of other animals, it gives scientifically informed and morally impartial reasons for denying that these animals exist to serve us.

Once this truth is acknowledged, it is easy to understand why the philosophy of animal rights is uncompromising in its response to each and every injustice other animals are made to suffer.

It is not larger, cleaner cages that justice demands in the case of animals used in science, for example, but empty cages: not "traditional" animal agriculture, but a complete end to all commerce in the flesh of dead animals; not "more humane" hunting and trapping, but the total eradication of these barbarous practices.
For when an injustice is absolute, one must oppose it absolutely. It was not "reformed" slavery that justice demanded, not "re- formed" child labor, not "reformed" subjugation of women. In each of these cases, abolition was the only moral answer. Merely to reform injustice is to prolong injustice.

The philosophy of animal rights demands this same answer — abolition — in response to the unjust exploitation of other animals. It is not the details of unjust exploitation that must be changed. It is the unjust exploitation itself that must be ended, whether on the farm, in the lab, or among the wild, for example. The philosophy of animal rights asks for nothing more, but neither will it be satisfied with anything less.

Continue Reading:

This speech was given by Tom Regan, at the Royal Institute of Great Britain in 1989.It was part of a debate on the question, "Does the Animal Kingdom need a bill or rights?"

Ill-gotten Gains
by Tom Regan
In PAOLA CAVALIERI & PETER SINGER (eds.), The Great Ape Project
New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993, pp. 194-205
Acrobat version
Late in 1981, a reporter for a large metropolitan newspaper (we'll call her Karen to protect her interest in remaining anonymous) gained access to some previously classified government files. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Karen was investigating the federal government's funding of research into the short- and long-term effects of exposure to radioactive waste. It was with understandable surprise that, included in these files, she discovered the records of a series of experiments involving the induction and treatment of coronary thrombosis (heart attack). Conducted over a period of fifteen years by a renowned heart specialist (we'll call him Dr Ventricle) and financed with federal funds, the experiments in all likelihood would have remained unknown to anyone outside Dr Ventricle's sphere of power and influence had not Karen chanced upon them.

Karen's surprise soon gave way to shock and disbelief. In case after case she read how Ventricle and his associates took otherwise healthy individuals, with no previous record of heart disease, and intentionally caused their heart to fail. The methods used to occasion the 'attack' were a veritable shopping list of experimental techniques, from massive doses of stimulants (adrenaline was a favourite) to electrical damage of the coronary artery, which, in its weakened state, yielded the desired thrombosis. Members of Ventricle's team then set to work testing the efficacy of various drugs developed in the hope that they would help the heart withstand a second 'attack'. Dosages varied, and there were the usual control groups. Administering certain drugs to 'patients' proved more efficacious in some cases than did administering no medication or smaller amounts of the same drugs in other cases.

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An interview with Tom Regan

Interviewer: Professor Regan, you are widely accepted as a founder and prominent leader in the animal rights movement. Could you describe what is meant by animal rights and what do you mean when you speak of the "rights view"?

Professor Regan: There are many people who feel that we have an obligation to be kind to animals, and not to be cruel to them. But this view doesn't make it a matter of justice that we treat animals in a certain way-just that it is nice if we are kind and not very good if we are cruel. Many people think that we should be nice to animals because if we are not nice to animals we will not be nice people, and then we will end up beating up our children and our neighbors and so on. The problem is, these views don't focus on our duty to animals but only on the effects our treatment of animals has on us. The rights view says, "We owe it as a matter of strict justice to treat animals in a certain way." In particular we owe it to these animals not to eat them, for example, or not to put them in cages for our entertainment, or not to use them in education or in surgery, which is so anachronistic and yet characteristic of modern medical education in the United States. The current view is, "These animals are ours, we may do with them as we wish." The rights view says, "No you may not. They cannot claim their rights, they cannot understand their rights, and in this way they are very much like mentally enfeebled human beings. But they have them none the less."

The important thing to see is that the animal rights position, properly understood, is the human rights position. It's not that we are saying that non-human animals have a right to be treated with respect but human animals don't. We're dealing with the rights of all animals, and since we humans are animals, it follows that we have the same basic kinds of rights as they do.

Interviewer: Your fate, you have said, is to help others see animals in a different way-as creatures who do not belong in cages or skillets. How would you have people see animals?

Professor Regan: It's a very difficult thing. It's something we all struggle towards and I'm not sure that I have perfected it myself. To quote from Dustin, "... see them as other nations, see them as sharing the earth with us, co-inhabitants with us," but essentially having the capacity, as in the case of wild animals, of living quite separately from us. In the case of domestic animals the great challenge is to figure out how to live in a mutually respectful symbiotic relationship. It is very difficult to do that.

Continue reading the rest of the interview

Tom Regan quotations:

"The animals that we raise for food or trap for fur are like us in fundamental ways, "They are in the world, they're aware of the world, they're aware of what happens to them as beings in the world.... They have a life whose quality matters to them, just like you and me."
Tom Regan

All of us engaged in the struggle for animal rights have a tendency to forget who we once were. Most of us once ate meat, for example, or unblinkingly dissected nonhuman animals in the lab during high school or college biology courses. Probably we went to a zoo or an aquarium and had a good time. Some of us hunted or fished and enjoyed that, too. The plain fact is, it is not just society that needs changing. The struggle for animal rights is also a struggle with self. What we are trying to do is transform the moral zombie society would like us to be into the morally advanced being we are capable of becoming. All liberation movements have this common theme. That's only one of the ways our Movement resembles other rights movements of the past.
Tom Regan, The Bird in the Cage: A Glimpse of My Life—An Autobiography

Books by Tom Regan

Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights

The Animal Rights Debate

Defending Animal Rights

All That Dwell Therein

Animal Rights, Human Wrongs:
An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Thee Generation: Reflections
on the Coming Revolution

The Case for Animal Rights

The Struggle for Animal Rights

Animal Rights and Human Obligations

Love the Animals: Meditations and Prayers

G.E. Moore: The Early Essays

Animal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives
on the Use of Animals in Science

Earthbound: Introductory Essays
on Environmental Ethics

Matters of Life and Death

Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings

And Justice for All: New Introductory
Essays in Ethics and Public Policy

Understanding Philosophy

Bloomsbury's Prophet: G.E. Moore and the
Development of His Moral Philosophy

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Photo: Tom Regan

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important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.