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Tom Regan’s Case for Animal Rights

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Tom Regan is Professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University and a leading animal rights advocate. His best known work is in the form of his book The Case for Animal Rights (1983).

Regan’s position on animal rights and how it differs from that of Singer’s.

Regan disagrees with Singer’s utilitarian program for animal liberation, for he rejects utilitarianism as lacking a notion of intrinsic worth. According to Regan, animals and humans all have equal intrinsic value on which their right to life and concern are based. This is precisely where Regan and Singer philosophically differ as Singer does not take into account this intrinsic value that Regan argues for; that utilitarianism lacks.

Regan calls for the total abolition of the use of animals in science, the total dissolution of the commercial animal agriculture system, and the total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping. Regan writes, “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 put in our cross hairs for sport and money.” As Regan so eloquently puts it, “People must change their beliefs before they change their habits. Enough people, especially those elected to public office, must believe in change – must want it – before we will have laws that protect the rights of animals.”

Regan’s reasons for granting animals equal moral rights.

Let us consider the following example:

Regan writes: “Suppose your neighbor kicks your dog. Then your neighbor 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 neighbor’s kicking your dog upsets you. So you are the one who is wronged, not your dog. Or again: by kicking your dog your neighbor damages your property. And since it is wrong to damage another person’s property, your neighbor has done something wrong – to you, of course, not to your dog. Your neighbor no more wrongs your dog than your car would be wronged if the windshield were smashed. Your neighbor’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.”

The above example is clearly absurd but it does offer a glimpse into the minds of many people. Many present day philosophers hold indirect duty views but have come to understand that they must avoid both the view that animals don’t feel anything as well as the idea that only human pain can be morally relevant. “Among such thinkers the sort of view now favored is one or another form of what is called contractarianism.”

The idea of contractarianism is that “… morality consists of a set of rules that individuals voluntarily agree to abide by – as we do when we sign a contract.”

Regan on contractarianism: “Those who understand and accept  the terms of the contract are covered directly – have rights created by, and recognized and protected in, the contract. And these contractors can also have protection spelled out for others who, though they lack the ability to understand morality and so cannot sign the contract themselves, are loved or cherished by those who can. Thus young children, for example, are unable to sign and lack rights. But they are protected by the contract nonetheless because of the sentimental interests of others, most notably their parents. So we have, then, duties involving these children, duties regarding them, but no duties to them. Our duties in their case are indirect duties to other human beings, usually their parents.”

Regan then introduces animals into this theory of contractarianism. He writes, “As for animals, since they cannot understand the contract, they obviously cannot sign; and since they cannot sign; they have no rights. Like children, however, some animals are the objects of the sentimental interests of others. You, for example, love your dog… or cat. So these animals – those enough people care about: companion animals, whales, baby seals, the American bald eagle – these animals, though they lack rights themselves, will be protected because of the sentimental interests of people. I have, then, according to contractarianism, no duty directly to your dog or any other animal, not even the duty not to cause them pain or suffering; my duty not to hurt them is a duty I have to those people who care about what happens to them. As for other animals, where no or little sentimental interest is present – farm animals, for example, or laboratory rats – what duties we have grow weaker and weaker, perhaps to the vanishing point. The pain and death they endure, though real, are not wrong if no one cares about them.”

If previously unfamiliar with Regan, one could think that “Contractarianism could be a hard view to refute when it comes to the moral status of animals if it was an adequate theoretical approach to the moral status of human beings. It is not adequate in this latter respect, however, which makes the question of its adequacy in the former – regarding animals – utterly moot.”

Thus, Regan has reasoned that indirect duty views “…fail to command our rational assent.” He proposes: “Whatever ethical theory we rationally should accept, therefore, it must at least recognize that we have some duties directly to animals, just as we have some duties directly to each other.”

Regan’s two animal liberation theories.

Theory 1: The Cruelty-Kindness View

“Simply stated, this view says that we have a direct duty to be kind to animals and a direct duty not to be cruel to them.”

Surely, the flaws of Theory 1 scream out at you! As Regan is very much aware, this view offers an inadequate theory.

Considering kindness, a kind person is motivated, for example, by either compassion or concern. Since this is a virtue, one doesn’t have to be kind. As Regan explains, “… there is no guarantee that a kind act is a right act. If I am a generous racist, for example, I will be inclined to act kindly toward members of my own race, favoring their interests above others. My kindness would be real and, so far as it goes, good. So kindness, not withstanding its status as a virtue to be encouraged, simply will not cancel the weight of a theory of right action.

Considering cruelty, “People or their acts are cruel if they display either a lack of sympathy for or, worse, the presence of enjoyment in, seeing another suffer. Cruelty in all its guises is a bad thing – is a tragic human failing.” Indeed. Regan then makes a similar case for cruelty as he did for kindness: “But just as a person’s being motivated by kindness does not guarantee that they do what is right, so the absence of cruelty does not assure that they avoid doing what is wrong… So, yes, let us be for kindness and against cruelty. But let us not suppose that being for the one and against the other answers questions about moral right and wrong.”

Theory 2: The Rights View

Regan on utilitarianism: “A good end does not justify an evil means. Any adequate moral theory will have to explain why this is so. Utilitarianism fails in this respect and so cannot be the theory we seek.”

So we must search (adopt) for a theory that includes the value of the individual, what Regan calls inherent value. But, if one was looking to be persuaded by the rights view, Regan offers no sound reasoning to why one should adopt such a value. Nevertheless, I will share Regan’s words with you on the subject.

Regan on inherent value: “To say we have such value is to say that we are something more than, something different from, mere receptacles. Moreover, to insure that we do not pave the way for such injustices as slavery or sexual discrimination, we must believe that all who have inherent value have it equally, regardless of their sex, race, religion, birthplace, and so on. Similarly to be discarded as irrevelant are one’s talents or skills, intelligence and wealth, personality or pathology, whether one is loved and admired – or despised and loathed… all have inherent value, all possess it equally, and all have an equal right to be treated with respect, to be treated in ways that do not reduce them to the status of things, as if they exist as resources for others. My value as an individual is independent of my usefulness to you. Yours is not dependent on your usefulness to me. For either of us to treat the other in ways that fail to show respect for the other’s independent value is to act immorally – is to violate the individual’s rights.”

Extending the rights view to nonhuman sentient beings.

Regan writes: “Animals, it is true, lack many of the abilities humans possess. They can’t read, do higher mathematics, build a bookcase, or make baba ghanoush. Neither can many human beings, however, and yet we don’t say – and shouldn’t say – that they (these humans) therefore have less inherent value, less of a right to be treated with respect, than do others. It is the similarities between those human beings who most clearly, most uncontroversially have such value – the people reading this, for example – it is our similarities, not our differences, that matter most.”

The crucial similarity in Regan’s rights view.

Regan writes: “… we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, each of us a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things; recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death – all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced by us as individuals. As the same is true of those animals who concern us (those who are eaten and trapped, for example), they, too, must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life with inherent value of their own.”

Those who deny that animals have inherent value on the account that, “… only humans have the requisite intelligence, or autonomy, or reason? But there are many, many humans who will fail to meet these standards and yet who are reasonably viewed as having value above and beyond their usefulness to others. Shall we claim that only humans belong to the right species – the species Homo sapiens? But this is blatant speciesism.”

All who have inherent value have it equally, whether they be human animals or not.


Written by Ethan Handur

January 15, 2008 at 13:25

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