The Case for Animal Rights

from the Preface to the 2004 edition, The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan.
(c) 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.

I started to write The Case in September 1980 and finished in November 1981. I had been writing about ethics and animals in general, and animal rights in particular, for several years, so I did not begin from ground zero. My philosopher’s bags were packed with some more or less settled convictions as well as some more or less well-developed arguments. I thought I knew where I wanted to go and the best way to get there. I was (or so I fancied myself) very much in charge. Here is a question: Are animals aware of anything? There is a blank page. Assignment: Fill the blank page with my thoughts. It was effortless work. I enjoyed it immensely.

However, when I began to work my way through chapter six (which is mainly devoted to a critique of utilitarianism), something happened. It was as if—and I know this will sound strange, but I’ll risk it anyhow—it was as if I ceased to be the book’s author. Words, sentences, paragraphs, whole pages came, from where, I did not know. What I was writing was new to me; it did not represent anything I had ever thought before. But the words took up permanent residence on the page as fast as I could write them down. This was more than enjoyable. This was exhilarating.

But here’s the real puzzle. The exhilaration did not last for a few minutes, or hours, or days, or even weeks. I was in this state, without interruption, for months. It is no exaggeration for me to say that during this time, I had lost control over where the book was going. For all intents and purposes, I was just along for the ride. Which is why I think the most original parts of The Case (the final four chapters, where I state and defend the respect, harm, mini-ride, worse-off, and liberty principles) are not something for which I can take much credit. In a very real sense, they came to me as a gift.

.  .  .

My position, roughly speaking, may be summarized as follows. Some nonhuman animals resemble normal humans in morally relevant ways. In particular, they bring the mystery of a unified psychological presence to the world. Like us, they possess a variety of sensory, cognitive, conative, and volitional capacities. They see and hear, believe and desire, remember and anticipate, plan and intend. Moreover, what happens to them matters to them. Physical pleasure and pain—these they share with us. But also fear and contentment, anger and loneliness, frustration and satisfaction, cunning and imprudence. These and a host of other psychological states and dispositions collectively help define the mental life and relative well being of those (in my terminology) subjects-of-a-life we know better as raccoons and rabbits, beaver and bison, chipmunks and chimpanzees, you and I.

Line drawing challenges arise for anyone who believes that not all animals are subjects-of-a-life. Amoebae and paramecia, for example, are in the world but not aware of it. Where exactly on the phylogenic scale do subjects-of-a-life appear? I have always believed that no one knows the exact answer, and I personally have never tried to give one. Instead, I adopt a conservative policy by asking whether a line can be drawn that minimizes otherwise endless disputation. The line I draw is mentally normal mammals of a year or more (78). Wherever we draw the relevant line, these animals are above it. This is what I mean when I say the policy I adopt is conservative.

How can we talk about these animals without using needlessly cumbersome language? In The Case, I answer this question by stipulating that, unless otherwise indicated, the word animal will refer to “mentally normal mammals of a year or more.” (I make this same stipulation here.) Having explained these matters, I go to some length to make it as clear as I possibly can that other sorts of animals might be subjects-of-a-life. In my most recent writings, in fact, I argue that we have abundant reason to think that birds are and that fish may be. (Regan, 2003b) Even so, some philosophers, apparently more interested in dismissing my conclusions than in understanding my premises, confidently inform their readers that, in my view, subjects-of-a-life “turn out to be mammals and no other form of life” (Hargrove 1992: x).

The preceding considerations provide the rights view’s basis for denying that human and animal welfare differ in kind. “Both animals and humans,” I write,

have…interests, some biological, some psychological, some social…the overall tone or quality of the life of each, to a greater or lesser degree, is a function of the harmonious satisfaction of those preferences that it is in the interests of each to have satisfied. Granted, the sources of satisfaction available to most humans are at once more numerous and varied than those available to animals; even granted, in Mill’s memorable words, that it is ‘better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’; nevertheless, the same categories of thought (interests, benefits, harms, etc.) that illuminate the most general features of human welfare are equally applicable to animal welfare (119-120).

Now, both human and nonhuman subjects-of-a-life, in my view, have a basic moral right to respectful treatment. Of course, moral positions can be advanced that either dispense with rights altogether or, while affirming the rights of human beings, deny them in the case of nonhuman animals. But (or so I argue in chapters 5 through 7) such views prove to be deficient—for example, because they are inconsistent or needlessly complicated, because they lack precision or adequate scope, or because their implications clash with a large body of our well-considered moral beliefs, our moral intuitions.

The basic moral right to respectful treatment places strict limits on how subjects-of-a-life may be treated. Individuals who possess this right are never to be treated as if they exist as resources for others; in particular, harms intentionally done to any one subject cannot be justified by aggregating benefits derived by others. In this respect, my position is anti-utilitarian, a theory in the Kantian, not the Millian, tradition. But the rights view parts company with Kant (see, e.g., 239) when it comes to specifying who should be treated with respect. For Kant, only moral agents exist as ends-in-themselves; only those who are capable of applying abstract, impartial moral principles to their decision making share the equal right to be treated with respect. By contrast, the rights view recognizes the equal inherent value of all subjects-of-a-life, including those who lack the capacities necessary for moral agency. These moral patients (as I call them) have the same equal right to respectful treatment as do moral agents. According to the rights view, therefore, nonhuman animals who are subjects-of-a-life have this right as certainly as do those human subjects-of-a-life who read these words. Thus, although I believe that human life contains within it the possibility of a richness not to be found in the life of other animals—because, for example, of our advanced cognitive, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual capacities—this difference provides absolutely no basis whatsoever for our exploitation of other animals.

It is on this basis that I reach conclusions that, in Jan Narveson’s cheerful words, qualify me as “a starry eyed radical” (Narveson, 1987: 38). For example, since the utilization of nonhuman animals for purposes of fashion, research, entertainment or gustatory delight, harms them in the process of treating them as our resources; and since, given the rights view, such treatment violates their right to be treated with respect; it follows that such utilization is morally wrong and ought to end. Merely to reform such institutional injustice (by resolving to raise only “happy” cows or to insist on larger cages for lions in circuses, for example) is not enough. Morally considered, abolition is required.

My critics are of a different mind; indeed, if they are right, I have secured for myself (by dint of my dogged determination, so to speak) the unenviable distinction of being mistaken about everything having the slightest presumption to philosophical importance. Mistaken about the minds of animals. Mistaken about how to evaluate moral theories. Mistaken about what rights are and who has them. Mistaken about what our moral duties are. Even mistaken about what moral philosophy is and how it should be done. With such a full plate of imputed failure, a large portion of selectivity in what I am able to consider is unavoidable. While I cannot reply to all the objections raised, I believe those to which I do reply are among the most important.

Objections and Replies

The Appeal to Intuition

How might we justify our acceptance of various moral principles? How can we rationally choose between the conflicting moral theories of which these principles are a part? Anyone familiar with the history of moral philosophy knows how divisive and controversial these questions are. In The Case, I explain and attempt to defend a set of appropriate criteria for making such decisions. The criteria I deploy (131ff) are consistency, precision, scope, parsimony, and conformity with our intuitions. Of these five, the last has occasioned the most numerous critical responses, some of which, as I shall illustrate shortly, are demonstrably ill focused.

Intuition is an ambiguous concept, and a troublesome one no matter how it is understood. In The Case, after explaining several ways in which others have understood it, I explain what I call the “reflective” sense of the idea:

[In the reflective sense,] our intuitions are those moral beliefs we hold after we have made a conscientious effort…to think about our beliefs coolly, rationally, impartially, with conceptual clarity, and with as much relevant information as we can reasonably acquire. The judgments we make after we have made this effort are not our ‘gut responses,’ nor are they merely expressions of what we happen to believe; they are our considered beliefs…. To test alternative moral principles by how well they conform with our reflective intuitions is thus to test them against our considered beliefs, and, other things being equal between two competing moral principles (i.e., assuming that the two are equal in scope, precision, and consistency), the principle that matches our reflective intuitions best is rationally to be preferred (134).

Having set forth how I understand intuition, and explained the role it plays in my thinking, I go on to explain why some of our intuitions themselves might stand in need of revision or even abandonment if, as is possible, they conflict with principles that are otherwise validated. What we seek, in other words, is what John Rawls (Rawls, 1971) refers to as “reflective equilibrium” between our intuitions, on the one hand, and our organizing general principles, on the other. Moreover (and here my theory becomes even more complicated than Rawls’s), I also explain why, given the ideal background conditions of arriving at our considered moral beliefs (impartiality, rationality, etc.), a proper humility should lead us to understand how elusive moral knowledge is.

In my view, in sum, while we can be rationally justified in accepting some moral principles and rejecting others—because we have done all that we can be reasonably expected to do by way of evaluating the competitors—it does not follow that the principles we select are true. What we can know, rather, is that we have done our best to evaluate the competing principles fully and fairly, with a view to deciding which ones best satisfy the appropriate criteria, including the test of conforming with our moral intuitions. However, because satisfying the criteria mentioned above represents an ideal that might never be fully realized, we never will be in a position to claim to know that the principles we accept, and the general theory of which they are a part, are in fact true, their competitors, false.

For his part, Narveson is unhappy with my appeal to our moral intuitions. Sometimes his consternation has my ideas as its object; more often the objections he raises are not objections against my views, expressed or implied. For example, Narveson at one point makes light of my supposed belief that the “property” of inherent value is something I “intuit” (38) while at another place he takes exception to my supposed view that deciding who possesses inherent value is “a matter of moral perception” (39). Now, this may be an accurate way to characterize G. E. Moore’s position (Moore, 1903) regarding our acquaintance with (in his theory) the simple, unique, non-natural property of intrinsic goodness; and it is true that I have written rather extensively about Moore’s philosophy (Regan, 1986a; 1986b; 1991c). But what Narveson says in the passages to which I have just alluded is manifestly an inaccurate way to characterize my views. “Properties” (whatever they are) are not “intuited,” in my view, and neither are our intuitions “a matter of moral perception” (whatever that is). To suppose otherwise is to do battle with someone other than the author of The Case for Animal Rights.

Narveson is not always this ill-focused in his understanding of how I understand moral intuitions. He writes (correctly) that, when I appeal to intuitions, I am referring to “reflective intuitions, a la Sidgwick, Ross, and Rawls rather than sheer seat-of-the-pants pronouncements” (33). Even so, Narveson believes that the appeal to intuition, when used as a test for choosing between competing moral principles, “is theoretically bankrupt” (ibid.). Why? Because, he objects, “two mutually contradictory proposed moral principles could each pass it” (34). Passing this test, he asserts, “therefore can’t be sufficient” (ibid.) as a basis for justifying our acceptance of one moral principle rather than another.

It should be plain from the argument above, however, that I never assert or imply that conformity with our considered moral beliefs is a sufficient condition for choosing between moral principles or theories. The appeal to our intuitions is only one among a set of criteria of evaluation I employ, and it is no objection to this position to insist, as Narveson does, that passing this test “can’t be sufficient.”

Still, it is appropriate to ask whether conformity with our moral intuitions should play any role in our evaluation of moral principles. Narveson thinks not. Our intuitions, he seems to think, just as likely as not represent the dominant cultural biases of our time, place and circumstances; as such, they should not be relied upon to do any heavy lifting when we turn to the serious business of theory evaluation.

For my part, I am not convinced that this is a mistake. Recall that the intuitions to which we are to appeal are moral beliefs we form or retain after we have made a conscientious effort to think about them rationally, coolly, and impartially, assuming we understand the concepts involved and assuming we have secured as much relevant information as it is reasonable to demand. These conditions, as I am at pains to explain, set forth an ideal that, imperfect creatures that we are, none of us may ever fully realize. Given my view, then, as I noted earlier, while we can be rationally justified in accepting a given theory, in part because its principles conform with our moral intuitions, it does not follow that the preferred theory is the one and only true theory. Narveson might protest that he wants more; in particular, he might want to know which theory is the one and only true one. But if there is one thing the history of moral philosophy teaches, it is that those who think they have found the one and only true theory are just as likely to be correct as are those who, after years of toil, think they have found the one and only true snark. Which does not mean, I hasten to add, for reasons already given, that we must view all moral theories as equally worthy of acceptance.

To conclude my discussion of Narveson’s criticisms: while I am not so brazen as to suppose that my appeals to intuition are free of potentially serious difficulties, I do not believe he has identified what these might be.

The Idea of Inherent Value

Among my most persistent critics is R. G. Frey (Frey, 1980, 1987) who argues against ascribing rights to nonhuman animals. And to humans, too. His is the stance of the unrepentant act-utilitarian, an imperturbable partisan who, when confronted with the ghastly things his theory could permit, ranging from deceitful promises to the judicial execution of the innocent, tightens his grip on his theory rather than abandoning it. Whereas the confidence of some philosophers might be shaken when it is pointed out that their favorite theory could (literally) have murderous consequences, Frey’s commitment to utilitarianism does not waiver.

Frey does more than deny rights to animals; he also denies animals all but the faintest trace of mind. “Sensations,” some pleasant, some painful, he concedes they experience. But that’s about it. Barren of preferences, wants and desires; lacking memory and expectation; unable to reason, plan, or intend: Frey’s conception of the mental life of nonhuman animals comes within a whisker, so to speak, of Descartes’s. I address this aspect of Frey’s work in The Case (pp. 36ff) and will not repeat my criticisms here. Instead, I limit my discussion to his criticisms of an idea that is central to the rights view, the idea of inherent value.

To understand what this idea means and how it functions in my theory, inherent value needs to be seen in the larger context of the other sorts of values that play a role in the rights view. These values include (1) well-being (understood as quality of life or welfare); (2) intrinsic values (including various mental states, such as pleasure and satisfaction); (3) utility (understood either as what is useful as a means, as what exists as a resource relative to someone’s purposes or interests, or as the aggregation of values such as welfare or pleasure, for example); (4) uniquely human values, including the satisfaction of aesthetic, scientific and sacramental interests; (5) merit or excellence; (6) the value of a life (understood by asking how much is lost, how much harm is done, when individuals die); and (7) inherent value (understood as a kind of value possessed by certain individuals, after the fashion of Kant’s idea of individuals existing as ends in themselves).

Concerning inherent value, I argue four things. First, while an ethical theory would be simpler if it could dispense with this kind of value, simplicity isn’t everything; in order to have the best theory, all considered, I argue that we must postulate inherent value. Second, inherent value is logically distinct from, is not reducible to, and is not a function of the other kinds of values previously mentioned. An individual’s moral status as one who possesses inherent value is logically independent of how happy she is, how talented or deserving, how useful, and so on. Third, inherent value is a categorical concept; an individual either has it, or that individual does not; and all those who have inherent value have this value equally. Fourth, all those individuals who are subjects-of-a-life, as this concept was explained in the preceding, have inherent value and thus enjoy an equal moral status, the subject-of-a-life criterion constituting a sufficient condition for the possession of such value. (4)

Many are the critics who have taken exception to the idea of inherent value; Frey, who disputes the idea of itself as well as its alleged equality, is chief among them. Concerning the former, Frey informs his readers that he “do[es] not regard all human life as of equal value. I do not accept,” he writes,

that a very severely mentally-enfeebled human or an elderly human fully in the grip of senile dementia or an infant born with only half a brain has a life whose value is equal to that of normal, adult humans. The quality of human life can plummet, to a point where we would not wish that life on even our worst enemies; and I see no reason to pretend that a life I would not wish upon even my worst enemies is nevertheless as valuable as the life of any normal, adult human (Frey, 1987: 58).

It will be noticed that, in the passage just quoted, Frey refers to “the quality of human life” and to the fact that “the quality of human life” can vary from individual to individual, sometimes “plummet[ing]” to an unquestionably undesirable level indeed. It should be clear, then, that by challenging my position in the way he does, Frey has confused the idea of inherent value with the very different idea of individual welfare. To speak of “quality of life” is to refer to how well an individual’s life is faring, while to speak of the “inherent value” of an individual is to refer to the value of the individual whose life it is. Human subjects-of-a-life who are confused, enfeebled or otherwise disadvantaged, let us agree, have a life that is of a lesser quality than those who realize the highest level on Maslow’s scale of self-actualization. But this does not entail that human subjects-of-a-life with a poorer quality of life lack inherent value. Not for a moment do I deny that the experiential welfare of different individuals can vary greatly. But as I have never said or implied that quality of life is everywhere the same, Frey’s insistence that it can differ fails as a criticism against my position.

The same is true of what Frey has to say about my views regarding the equality of inherent value. After first (falsely) attributing to me the position that “all human life, however deficient, has the same value,” he then goes on to say, “I [Frey] do not agree. For me, the value of life is a function of its quality, its quality a function of its richness, and its richness a function of its scope or potentiality for enrichment; and the fact is that many humans lead lives of a very much lower quality than ordinary human lives, lives which lack enrichment and where the potentialities for enrichment are severely truncated or absent” (57). Once again, however, Frey does not so much challenge my views as miss what they are. First, I do not state or imply that “all human life…has the same value,” including the same inherent value (this because inherent value is possessed by individual subjects-of-a-life, not by the life these subjects have); second, while in my view all humans who satisfy the subjects-of-a-life criterion in my view have inherent value, and have it equally, it does not follow that the value of their life, any more than its quality, is equal. In short, given my theory of value, the quality of an individual’s life is one thing; the value of the one whose life it is, another. Since Frey treats the two ideas as if, in my theory, they are one and the same, his protestations misfire. (I will have more to say about the different value different lives can have below, in the section “Evaluating Lives.”)

.   .   .

Peter Singer…weighs in on the side of those who charge me with inconsistency (Singer, 1985). If I am willing to have a dog thrown overboard in order to save a human life, he thinks I should be willing to experiment on a diseased dog in order to save humans who suffer from the same illness. However, if I am willing to allow experimentation in this case, then I cannot consistently claim to be an anti-vivisectionist, someone opposed to all research using animals.

…Singer fails to recognize the moral disanalogies between lifeboats and research laboratories. None of the survivors on the lifeboat is there because his or her rights were violated. None is there as a result of being treated with a lack of respect. As soon as we enter a laboratory in which animals are experimented upon, however, the moral scene changes dramatically. When one solitary animal is brought into a laboratory, there to be used in pursuit of human benefits, that animal’s right to be treated with respect has been violated. Once this much is recognized, Singer’s charge of inconsistency has no traction. It is not inconsistent to adopt my view in lifeboat cases and to oppose vivisection in all cases.

…A few weeks after the final manuscript had been mailed to the publisher, I remember walking the cold December streets of New York jostled by the holiday crowds, thinking that in every stranger’s face I saw a future animal rights advocate. I looked forward to the glorious day when The Case for Animal Rights would transform America, the world even, into a safe haven for animals, a place where, at long last, they would be treated with respect.

Talk about being mistaken. Not only did I greatly overestimate the power of The Case, I greatly underestimated the many challenges standing in the way of society’s full acceptance of animal rights. If I have learned anything in the past twenty years, it is that the struggle for animal rights is not for the faint of heart. The pace of social change requires the plodding endurance of the marathoner, not the lightning speed of the sprinter…. My unrealistic expectations about how The Case would change the world have been properly chastened by increasing age and the lessons of time. Even so, I like to hope that this old friend of mine, this book, helps us better understand—by means of rigorous philosophical cartography, shall we say—where the animal rights movement should be heading. And why.


Some of the material in this new Preface has been adapted from “The Case for Animal Rights: A Decade’s Passing.” A Century of Value Inquiry: Presidential Addresses of the American Society for Value Inquiry, Richard T. Hull (ed.), Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi (1994): 439-459.

Works Cited

All references to The Case for Animal Rights are given by page number in the text. I adopt the same policy when a single volume by another author is cited multiple times.

Frey, R. G. 1980. Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frey, R. G. 1983. Rights, Killing, and Suffering. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Frey, R. G. 1987. “Autonomy and the Value of Animal Life.” The Monist 70 (1): 50-63.

Hargrove, Eugene. 1992. The Animal Rights/Environmental Ethics Debate: The Environmental Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press, x.

Moore, G. E., 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Narveson, Jan. 1987. “On a Case for Animal Rights.” The Monist 70 (1): 31-49.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Regan, Tom. 1983b. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Regan, Tom. 1985. “The Case for Animal Rights.” In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer. Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 13-26

Regan, Tom. 1986a. Bloomsbury’s Prophet: G. E. Moore and the Development of His Moral Philosophy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Regan, Tom (ed.). 1986b. Moore: The Early Essays. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Regan, Tom (Ed). 1991b. G. E. Moore: The Elements of Ethics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press: 83-104.

Regan, Tom. 1994. “The Case for Animal Rights: A Decade’s Passing.” A Century of Value Inquiry: Presidential Addresses of the American Society for Value Inquiry, ed. Richard T. Hull (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi) 439-459. In Regan, 2001: 39-65.

Regan, Tom. 2004b. Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.

Singer, Peter. 1985. “Ten Years of Animal Liberation.” The New York Review of Books (January 17, 1985) 46-52.

19 comments to The Case for Animal Rights

  • Thanks, Tom, for taking the time to update your classic book. I hope it receives wide readership globally. We can easily apply your ideas to a wider range of animals beyond “mentally normal mammals of a year or more.” While it may have been more difficult to develop a strong case for their inclusion 3 decades ago, it is clear that many animals who we thought weren’t sentient or didn’t have rich emotional lives clearly do, including at least fish and chickens — I’m sure as we study a wider range of animals we’ll learn they too care very much about what happens to them. I realize we have to begin somewhere (as did The Great Ape Project) but perhaps in your “retirement” you’ll include these other beings in your circle of concern. Of course, I know you do in your daily life. Thank you very much for all you’ve done for animals.

  • Since we are not philosophers we do not feel that we are capable of judging whether the “subject’s of a life” approach you have taken or Singer’s utilitarianism is the better philosophical argument. What we can say is that we appreciate the fact that you have always stood consistently over the years for the Animal Rights position. Too often we have seen others in the Movement depart from Rights to some form of welfarism. No one can say that about you.
    In our opinion you have made the most articulate and cogent arguments in defense of nonhuman animals. We can honestly say that no one has ever stated it better :
    “It is not larger, cleaner cages that justice demands…. but empty cages. The philosophy of animal rights asks for nothing more, but neither will it be satisfied with anything less.”
    When the revolution comes, and we all know it will, we believe that it will be your contributions that will be cited as the source. Congratulations and thank you for all that you have contributed to the movement.
    Joe and Jacquie

  • I have some suspicions about the consistency of holding the claim that subjects-of-a-life have inherent value while (1) conceiving of it as “logically” independent and “categorical” and (2) founding such moral status on the possession of capacities which being a subject-of-a-life consists in. Let me explain.

    Regan starts with the idea that “Some nonhuman animals resemble normal humans in morally relevant ways. In particular, they bring the mystery of a unified psychological presence to the world. Like us, they possess a variety of sensory, cognitive, conative, and volitional capacities… These and a host of other psychological states and dispositions collectively help define the mental life and relative well being of those (in my terminology) subjects-of-a-life we know better as raccoons and rabbits, beaver and bison, chipmunks and chimpanzees, you and I.”

    It seems, then, that a (perhaps necessary but at least sufficient) condition for having inherent value is being possessed of a set of “psychological states and dispositions”, or, roughly, capacities. Now, I guess it can be agreed that these are empirical facts about those beings which actually count as subjects-of-a-life.

    But if – one supposes – inherent value is a moral property of those very same beings which, ex hypothesi, is insensitive to variations in empirical features that make for the psychological and physiological life of a being, why take this set of capacities as the foundation of value in the first place? How can it be that, magically as it were, empirical properties cease being of moral relevance at some point? Two options seem available:

    (a) either one adds the further assumption that the empirical properties of which the property “being a subject-of-a-life” consists are species-specific and normatively ascribed to whichever being happens to be a member of such-or-such species;

    (b) or, if only individual (intrinsic, species-independent) features matter, one is committed to upholding two claims which, I think, are at odds, namely:
    (i) the foundations of inherent value are empirical and, as such, liable to significant variations in degree, over time, within species, across contexts, etc.
    (ii) inherent value is categorical and, as such, insensitive to such variations.

    But then there must be a rather peculiar sense in which any relevant being can equally be said to be a subject-of-a-life in virtue of having those very capacities which, contingently, it might not have had. Regan seems committed to moral individualism in the sense that not every member of a species should have inherent value. But then, the stipulative threshold disappears. It seems that inherent value is not independent of every logically relevant empirical fact, but only of those which do not make one a subject-of-a-life (happiness, usefulness, desert…). At least Kant found himself less embarrassed by the idea of value insofar as its foundation was for that matter not empirical: rational beings are not so in virtue of their birth condition (by contrast with the possession of (say) intelligence or sense as a matter of making good use of one’s understanding).

    I wonder if I’m misreading Regan. Any thoughts from readers?


    We need to distinguish the moral absolutes from the moral relatives.

    Here is a moral absolute: It is wrong to hurt a feeling creature needlessly.

    I think we can all agree to that, because whatever reservations we may have are all packed inside the qualifier “needlessly.”

    But that brings us to moral relatives: Is it wronger to hurt several feeling creatures than one feeling creature, if something inescapably needs to be hurt? Is it wronger to hurt some feeling creatures than other feeling creatures?

    I suggest we leave the moral relatives aside for now (medical research, puppy mills), because so very much hurting already rides on the absolutes. Hundreds of billions of animals are being needlessly hurt and killed annually to feed humans and yet in most cases it is unnecessary. I am a healthy vegan. Every other Canadian, American and European, at least, could be a vegan too. Their health, and the planet’s would only be the better for it. If there are exceptions, let’s leave them aside, for the day we take on the moral relatives. So much needless hurt could be prevented if we at least acted on the absolutes.

    I of course agree with Tom that animals should be treated with respect, but I think respect’s too vague to serve as a basis for practical action. The morally absolute case can also be made without getting into the contentious issue of “rights” (although I of course agree that animals have a right to be spared needless hurt, just as we all do).

    There’s much more to say — not just about moral relatives, but about “utility.” (I happen to think that pleasure and pain are incommensurable: a recent way of putting it is that no number of orgasms can compensate for one fallen sparrow — and certainly not if the orgasms are not the sparrow’s, or the sparrow is not the one doing the calculation.) But I’d rather keep this comment simple and focused.

    So I’ll leave it at that.


      (1) Hypothetical “lifeboat” problems are of course examples of moral relatives rather than moral absolutes.

      (2) A principle of relative morality (which is really a corollary of absolute morality) is: “Minimize hurt” — but it is complicated by the question of whose hurt, which is something that does not come up in the case of absolute morality: “Don’t hurt needlessly.”

      (3) It follows from the incommensurability of pain and pleasure that the relative principle is not “Minimize hurt and/or maximize pleasure.” Pleasure is a hedonistic mattert, not a moral one.

      (4) I think “feels” covers the same territory as “subject of a life,” and rather more directly.

  • I am deeply sympathetic to Regan’s aim of ruling out the use of animals in research, but I am not yet persuaded that an appeal to their right to be treated with respect can do the necessary work.

    Regan notes Singer’s objection that if we are entitled to throw a dog overboard to save the other occupants of a lifeboat, we must also be entitled to experiment upon the dog to save human sufferers of the same disease. Regan replies that there is a moral disanalogy:

    None of the survivors on the lifeboat is there because their rights were violated. None is there because they have been treated with a lack of respect. As soon as we enter a laboratory in which animal experimentation is proposed, however, the moral scene changes dramatically. . . . [A]s soon as that solitary animal is brought into a laboratory, there to be used in pursuit of human benefits, that animal’s right to be treated with respect has been violated.

    The problem, it seems to me, is that the relevant analogy is not between the dog in the lifeboat, whose right to respect has not been violated, and the dog in the laboratory, whose right has already been violated, but between potentially equally respected dogs in the lifeboat and in the world at large.

    No one’s rights need be violated for humans and a dog to end up aboard a lifeboat that will not support them all. In the circumstances, Regan agrees that it is permissible to throw the dog overboard and that such a choice evinces no disrespect for the dog. The basic reason is that the typical human loses more in losing her life than does the typical dog in losing his. Though they equally deserve respect, there is no way to save the lives of all aboard, so equal respect does not require it. If some subject-of-a-life must go overboard, it is better that it be the dog, even if the dog cannot consent. (Were circumstances different, so some human being had less to lose than the dog, the same argument would license sacrificing that human without her consent.)

    The important structural feature is that the humans and the dog in the lifeboat innocently share a common plight from which not all can be saved. That structure, however, is replicated in a plausible rendition of Singer’s case: No one’s rights need be violated for humans and a dog to be afflicted with the same disease. Lethal experimentation upon one subject-of-a-life with the disease may save the rest; without it, they will all die.

    Here, just as in the lifeboat, humans and another animal share a plight in which not all can be saved. All equally deserve respect, but since not all can be saved, equality of respect cannot require it. Selecting the dog for experimentation need evince no disrespect for him. The dog is selected, not out of lack of respect, but as the individual with the least to lose when not all can be saved. If some subject-of-a-life must be subjected to lethal experimentation, it is better that it be the dog, even if the dog cannot consent. (Were circumstances different . . . etc.)

    The cases seem parallel. The analogy is between the situation of the lifeboat occupants, none of whose rights have been violated, and the situation of the disease sufferers, none of whose rights have been violated. In each case, the practical must has the same status: One must be thrown overboard to save the rest. One must be experimented upon to save the rest. In each case, there is a problematic point of decision: in the lifeboat, when it is decided to throw the dog overboard, and in the disease case, when it is decided to experiment upon the dog. And in each case, the dog has been treated with all due respect prior to the problematic decision. We are faced with uncomfortable questions:

    • If it is not wrong to throw the dog overboard, how can it be wrong to select the dog for experimentation?
    • If it is wrong to select the dog for experimentation, how can it be permissible to throw the dog overboard?

    If the two cases could be distinguished in some morally relevant way, we could consistently affirm the permissibility of throwing the dog overboard in one case while denying the permissibility of animal experimentation in the other. What is not clear is how to distinguish them.

    Interestingly, a utilitarian, at least one who is doubtful about the utility or benefits of animal research (as Regan also is), may be in a better position to rule it out than Regan himself. Regan’s approach has the attractive feature that whether animal research is permissible will not turn upon delicate calculations of expected benefit. It will be ruled out, according to him, because it is a violation of animals’ right to be treated with respect. If that tack is unsuccessful, however, as the arguments above suggest, a utilitarian approach may deserve a second look.

    The utilitarian, of course, cannot dismiss calculations of consequences or settle matters by direct appeal to animals’ rights to respectful treatment, since it will always be theoretically possible to pile up enough benefits from animal research to outweigh any harms done. But the theoretical permission may amount to little in practice. The reason is that there is no prospect of authorizing all and only that subset of animal research that credibly promises substantial human benefit. Instead, what has to be justified, to earn utilitarian endorsement, is the institutionalization of animal research, and it may be—I have argued elsewhere that it is—very doubtful that that kind of justification is forthcoming. We may get permission in principle but prohibition in practice.

    I look forward to your response.

  • Evelyn B. Pluhar

    Tom Regan’s candid description of his experience while writing The Case for Animal Rights paints a moving portrait of philosophical inspiration. He felt less like an author than a transcriber, waiting in suspense for the ending to come. What a book! I remember reading it in astonishment, an “animal lover” who at last found arguments to support my feelings and also reveal my inconsistencies. This book established him as the founder of the philosophical animal rights movement. It also provides the foundation for principled activism on behalf of suffering and abused nonhumans all over the globe. Utilitarian theories, by contrast, only go so far, aimed as they are at the amelioration of suffering that exceeds the limits of overall utility. Consistency, as the amazing writings of R. G. Frey show, leads utilitarians to throw cognitively disadvantaged humans as well as nonhumans under the bus, provided that experimentation and organ harvesting is as humane as possible and the “greater good” best served. Regan forthrightly reminds us that the rights view is abolitionist, not ameliorative. All “subjects-of-lives,” i.e., all beings with an experiential welfare who thereby care about what happens to them, are equally worthy of respect, be they chipmunks, cows, or humans. All have equal inherent value, Regan argues. As he notes, many critics have misunderstood this claim. I will take the liberty of adding just a few words to this discussion.

    Being a subject-of-a-life is a sufficient condition for inherent value. I think the key here is that one be able to care about what happens to oneself: such a life is valuable to the bearer of it. This qualifies one to be considered an end in oneself—to be respected–rather than regarded as a merely instrumentally valuable being. One either is a subject-of-a-life or one is not: degrees of intelligence, rationality, sensitivity, etc., are irrelevant to one’s moral status. Regan is careful to leave open the possibility that inherent value might be had on the basis of other properties too; he has never claimed that being a subject-of-a-life is necessary for one to be worthy of respect.

    Who counts as a subject-of-a-life is an empirical question. Much has been made of Regan’s original decision to conservatively draw the line at mammals who are at least one year old. The line was always tentative, as he stressed, open to adjustment as science fills in blanks (to us) about nonhuman cognitive and emotional capacities. He now agrees that birds should be included and probably fish as well. He has always subscribed to the “benefit of the doubt” principle for members of other species who could possibly qualify. Invertebrates, for example brainy mollusks, could well be subjects-of-lives too. We may adjust the age downward as well; research with human babies well under a year old suggests that they are able to recognize just and unjust behavior, to be angry on behalf of abused others, and to plot for better outcomes. Many nonhumans at a tender age likewise act like subjects-of-lives.

    Regan deserves all possible accolades for his philosophical defense of the rights of all subjects-of-lives. Philosophical arguments have consequences. Spain’s 2008 declaration that all the great apes have the legal rights to liberty and protection from torture is an example of what Regan began. Of course, there is so much farther to go. May the inspiration behind this book give us the resolve to persevere.

  • Gayle Dean-Bass

    Thanks, Tom, for your dedication to and work for animal rights. Unless I’m misunderstanding your argument, I think the lifeboat/research-lab analogy displaces the locus of the problem. You say:

    None of the survivors on the lifeboat is there because their rights were violated. None is there because they have been treated with a lack of respect. As soon as we enter a laboratory in which animal experimentation is proposed, however, the moral scene changes dramatically. . . . [A]s soon as that solitary animal is brought into a laboratory, there to be used in pursuit of human benefits, that animal’s right to be treated with respect has been violated.”

    Suppose the dog in the lifeboat is the animal-companion of one of the other six passengers. And suppose the dog in the research lab is the animal-companion of one of the six researchers. Neither dog is being considered as a subject for being thrown overboard or for being experimented upon. Both dogs are simply on the scene as companions of their respective humans. Suddenly, it becomes clear that the lifeboat is sinking and someone needs to be thrown overboard to save everyone else. At the same time — on shore in the research lab — it becomes clear that everyone (including the dog) has contracted an unknown illness, and that someone needs to be experimented upon to save everyone else. It is only at this point — in both situations — that thoughts turn to sacrificing someone to save everyone else. Until this emergency, no dog or human has been considered for possible use for anything — thus no individuals are in the lifeboat or the lab because their rights were violated. When the decision is made about whom to sacrifice (either human or dog) in either the lifeboat or the laboratory — it is made by criteria that are respectful of all. The suggestion that there has been some prior violation of rights in the laboratory but not in the lifeboat is misleading. Of course, if there is a prior violation, that’s relevant, but there doesn’t have to be any. There may have been no violation in either case prior to thought or deliberation about whom to sacrifice. It seems that the venue of lifeboat or laboratory is irrelevant.

    Thanks, again, for all your wonderful work on behalf of animals, both human and non-human.

    Gayle Dean-Bass

  • Lori Marino

    On Lifeboats and Philosophical Consistency

    I have tremendous respect and admiration for the intellectual merit of Tom Regan’s arguments and for the compassionate tone he brings to the discussion of rights for other animals. I’ve always been fascinated by the lifeboat situation and it is this line of debate between Regan and, primarily, Singer, that I will focus upon in my comments. Extreme situations requiring direct action, such as the lifeboat situation, have the power to reveal our most basic values. In this case, either a human or a dog goes overboard. Period. My overall argument is that Regan’s concept of equal inherent value cannot inform this decision. Someone is going overboard and somehow that decision will be based upon some calculable factors that appeal to everything from speciesism to utilitarianism. But once the decision is made based upon these other factors one is clearly beyond the bounds of Regan’s theory.

    Unlike Regan, I do not think that the lifeboat situation is fundamentally different from that of using the dog for research. It seems irrelevant whether the context is a laboratory where decisions have clearly been made about the relative worth of dogs versus humans or a lifeboat where the decision to throw someone overboard will ultimately come down to the same issue. Indeed, one could argue that the laboratory, the factory farm, the zoo – are all simply “lifeboats” in the end. But the concrete lifeboat situation is, perhaps, the most straightforward way to probe our beliefs push-comes-to-shove (no pun intended). So, given this, I will focus upon the question of whether the lifeboat decision can be made by appealing to Regan’s idea of inherent value.

    In this essay, Regan articulates his idea of inherent value with the following statements:

    “…inherent value is a categorical concept; an individual either has it, or that individual does not; and all those who have inherent value have this value equally. Fourth, all those individuals who are subjects-of-a-life, as this concept was explained in the preceding, have inherent value and thus enjoy an equal moral status, the subject-of-a-life criterion constituting a sufficient condition for the possession of such value.”

    These statements reflect a deontological philosophy of inherent value that is categorical and implies equality of moral status. It is not, at face value, utilitarian. With that said, the only logically consistent response to the lifeboat situation is to admit that it would be impossible to decide upon who goes overboard without letting some utilitarian or speciesist concerns into the picture — or drawing straws. Taken in their pure form, Regan’s statements say that both human beings and dogs have equal inherent value and, therefore, equal moral status. If one takes these premises seriously, they do not provide any basis upon which to make the choice about who to throw overboard. Regan argues that just because inherent value is categorical that does not mean that all lives are equally valuable. But here is where he gets into trouble. If we take Regan’s notion of inherent value at its word, then to argue that the dog should always be sacrificed for the human in the lifeboat is to be inconsistent with this tenet. Regan has attempted to rescue this situation with “wiggle room” provided by the harm principle or the worse-off principle, stating that the harm to a human of being thrown overboard is greater than the harm to a dog and that no reasonable person would deny that the loss of a human would be greater than the loss of a dog. But on what basis are these assumptions made; is it logically admissable to make a categorical concept into one that is graduated or, at best, fuzzy, in order to default back to the case for human life over the lives of other animals? I argue that the worse-off principle necessarily appeals to either speciesist or utilitarian notions. If harm to a dog is always considered to be lesser than harm to a human, given that they are of equal inherent value, then that is speciesist. If we appeal to other calculable factors, such as whether more humans will suffer from the loss of a person than loss of the dog, then we are in utilitarian territory (whether that equation is based on empirical evidence or cultural beliefs is not the issue). In any case the decision will be based on some factor or factors that undermine the equal inherent value principle.

    I am not arguing one way or the other for who should be tossed overboard but I am pointing out that if Regan’s theory of equal inherent value is taken seriously (without fudge factors) then we are left with two moral outcomes in the lifeboat. Either we cannot decide or we draw straws. But if we make a decision — any decision — Regan’s concept of equal inherent value is no longer part of that process.

    Regan’s concept of equal inherent value has merit. But I wish he would have stopped there and upheld the obvious, albeit revolutionary, conclusion. But, in the end, even Regan attempts to justify favoring humans over other animals by appealing to the worse-off principle. And this principle seems to favor humans invariably. The fact is that other animals will never really be equal unless we are willing to toss a member of our own species overboard — at least once in a while.

  • Tom Regan’s argument has always been the rock on which a thoroughgoing animal liberation movement could be built. I certainly embraced it wholeheartedly … until a few years ago, when I suddenly realized that the notion of inherent value did not jibe with my otherwise materialist worldview. The so-called Argument to the Best Explanation of the world as we know it simply does not have room for any such “animal.” There are quarks and gluons and maybe even trees and rabbits and human beings and beliefs and desires, but it does not seem plausible to the scientific-minded to suppose that there are also inherent values (among many other mythological beasts).

    What there are are subjective values, and also, let us grant, valuers — the “subjects” of those values. A distinction that is often lost on folks who discuss these things is between inherent value and intrinsic value. The latter is quite subjective and contingent; it is distinguished only from instrumental or “extrinsic” value. For example, you value your cat extrinsically if you like her for ridding your house of mice; but you value your cat intrinsically if you simply find her lovable and wonderful and wish only her good “for her own sake.”

    Inherent value is quite different from either of these. And Regan certainly recognizes this in Chapter 7 of his book. But it leaves me wondering, now that I have taken a skeptical turn regarding objective value, just what basis Regan thinks inherent value has. It is a distinct concept, yes. But is it instantiated in reality? If so, how?

    I did not use to care very much about questions of moral metaphysics, since the issues of so-called applied ethics were so compelling to me, and the “existence” of morality seemed inescapable. But now I find moral metaphysics absolutely crucial. Without some spelled-out basis for fitting inherent value into the universe we accept on nonmoral grounds, where is that rock for us to stand on when we affirm the truth of animal rights (in a non-derivative and merely utilitarian sense)?

    My present position on animal liberation is that it is something I value intrinsically. But if someone else happens not to, and I am unable to find any flaws in their facts or their logic, I don’t think I have anything else to say to them … that is, if I am only going to speak truthfully and noncoercively to them. What I still do have in abundance are other avenues of trying to further what I desire and value, such as striving to persuade other human beings to give up eating and otherwise using other animals, to support legislative initiatives, etc. — by means of educating them to the facts of animal (ab)use and also the environmental repercussions thereof, treating them to delicious vegan meals and showing them how easy it is to prepare them themselves, having them read books by Marc Bekoff on what animals are really like, and so forth ad inf.

    Thank you, Tom, for your lifetime of good work.

  • Like Professor Regan, I find the lifeboat scenarios distracting. Suppose three human beings who are 8 months, 18 years and 80 years old are in a lifeboat. Someone must be thrown overboard or they will all drown, and suppose that is an impermissible outcome. Whatever decision-making procedure is used here, no outcomes here would help justify “vivisecting” one of these human beings in ordinary contexts: imagine someone trying to argue that since some human being should be thrown overboard (for whatever reasons, and perhaps good ones), harmful, terminal, non-consensual experimentation on that individual is permissible. Why would this be different when some animal is in the boat? I don’t see why it would.

  • Kathie Jenni

    Tom’s work shows that subjects-of-a-life have a basic moral right to respectful treatment, and that harming animals in treating them as mere resources violates that right. Most urgently, animal defenders need to end the unjust harms done to living animals; but I would like to elaborate the notion of respect as it bears on our treatment of the animal dead—in particular, our practice of bearing witness for animal victims of human injustice.

    Why is it important to remember human atrocities such as the Holocaust? Some rationales are forward-looking and consequentialist. We remember in the spirit of “never again”: to prevent atrocities’ recurrence. But there are also backward-looking, expressive reasons: we bear witness to show respect for the dead, to express our solidarity and grief, to affirm the moral value of both the lost and the saved.

    Recent work by Jeffery Blustein, W. James Booth, James Dawes, James Hatley, and Avishai Margalit illuminates the nature and moral purpose of bearing witness for human victims of injustice. Those who bear witness become “living reminders of a past…,” serving as “sentinel[s] of memory” who urge others to remember, too. (Booth) Bearing witness is “an exercise of agency:” an act of communication directed to a contemporary or future audience. (Blustein) It is required when people have been “grievously injured or harmed” through acts of injustice, and when this is something “others may … not want disclosed.” (Blustein) The witness has a “moral purpose” of exposing evil that was deliberately concealed, and he “ascribes intrinsic value to his testimony, regardless of instrumental consequences,” as a way of expressing solidarity with victims of evil. (Margalit) Bearing witness “ … asserts the moral status of the victims, their coequal membership in the moral community,” by giving them a voice. (Blustein) Thus bringing atrocities to light is not merely a prelude to justice, as it is in judicial settings aimed at punishment. Rather, “doing justice *is*, in key parts of its practice, memory work.” (Booth; my emphasis) Keeping alive the memory of crimes, victims, and perpetrators is a constituent element of justice.

    Tom shows that caring about animals is not exhausted by concern with welfare and humaneness; that rights, obligations, and justice are at the center of what has been profoundly wrong with humans’ treatment of animals. Past (like present) atrocities visited on animals did not only inflict terrible suffering, but violated animals’ fundamental rights to life, liberty, and bodily integrity. This moral dimension of the past brings with it memorial obligations of the same type as corresponding obligations to bear witness to human suffering in cases of massive injustice. Bearing witness to animal suffering is not primarily an act of compassion, nor is its importance exhausted by its beneficial consequences. It is something we owe to the animal dead as an affirmation of respect.

    Bearing witness, however, carries moral risks, so that it matters greatly how one does so. We must choose our methods carefully, for some can undercut the aims of moral witness. Sometimes, it seems that only documentary film will do justice to a brutal injustice: will adequately capture the hideous truth of what happened and rouse us to activism. Yet this form of testimony does not find its way only to the compassionate, but also to others who will use it in pernicious ways and some who are simply voyeurs, so that the witness can unwillingly become “a pornographer of pain.” (Dawes) Given the aim of paying respect to victims, this is the last outcome a moral witness desires. For the dead to be displayed before the uncaring or sadistic compounds the original wrong done them, and bearing witness makes this possible. If displaying the abuse of animals compounds their degradation but advances the recruitment aims of activists, we face a moral dilemma.

    I am uncertain of how Tom would approach it. Would he accept that we have memorial obligations to animals who did not and perhaps could not have an interest in being remembered and in having their moral status affirmed after their deaths? Would he accept that animals have interests in non-degrading lives and deaths, so that they can be wronged posthumously as humans can, in ways examined by Joel Feinberg and seemingly endorsed by Tom?

    If he believes that we have memorial obligations to animals, how would Tom approach the witness’s dilemma? For him, no aggregated good consequences can justify a violation of individual rights. Thus if animals’ right to respect entails discretion in witnessing their unjust deaths, we may be severely limited in our use of images, at a substantial cost to enlisting animal defenders. Tom’s prohibition on overriding rights for the sake of maximizing future welfare seems too strong, from that perspective. Moreover, it seems potentially in conflict with the obligation to go beyond refusing to participate in unjust practices: the obligation to work for change in our culture’s treatment of animals. Tom argues that we must “help to educate those who presently support the animal industry to the implications of their support; to help to forge the opinion that this industry … violates the rights of farm animals; and to work … to effect the necessary changes….” Activists know that there are few ways more powerful to accomplish these aims than showing up-close documentaries about industry’s abuse of animals.

    Perhaps the worse-off principle for resolving conflicts of rights can help. If showing graphic films of animals’ murders can help to prevent even one murder of another, then perhaps the right not to be brutally killed simply overrides the right of the animal dead not to have their degradation publicly displayed. The problem, though, is that we can never be sure that overriding a right in this way will prevent the unjust killing of any particular animal.

    In any case, how to bear witness is a matter of moral judgment that those who would honor the animal dead must take on. That struggle for wise judgment is itself a labor of respect.

    Thank you profoundly, Tom, for your lifetime of world-changing work and for all that you have taught me.

  • One of the most common objections to arguments in defense of animals like Professor Regan’s is this:

    “Although many non-human animals are indeed subjects of lives — they are conscious, sentient and with lives that can go better and worse from their own point of view — that is insufficient (and perhaps not even necessary) for possessing basic moral rights or being someone for whom there is a serious obligation not to harm. To have such rights, an individual must be able to engage in sophisticated mental activities, like moral reasoning, scientific theory creation, aesthetic contemplation, religious worship, reflection on the nature and meaning of existence and so on. Since animals are not able to do that, they have no rights and there are no serious moral obligations toward them.”

    This reasoning is subject to the glaringly oblivious objection that many human beings are not able to engage in such sophisticated mental activities: the very young, the very old, the severely mentally or emotionally challenged, and many more. So if this argument against animals succeeds, it also “justifies” eating, wearing and experimenting on weak and helpless human beings as well. Since that’d be morally wrong, the argument against animals (regrettably often called “The Argument from Marginal Cases”) fails.

    Some respond to this objection by arguing that human beings normally are mentally sophisticated and so all human beings should be treated as if they were, while animals normally cannot be mentally sophisticated and so it’s permissible to treat them badly. But human beings normally have four limbs, are able to see, and are able to read, and human beings who do not have four limbs, are blind and are not able to read should not be treated as if they can. What this shows is that individuals should be treated on the basis of their own characteristics, not the characteristics of other members of groups they are members of. This is true for humans and for animals and it appears that since being a subject of a life is sufficient for human beings having basic moral rights, it is true for many animals as well.

    There are many other responses to try to circumvent this “Argument from Marginal Cases.” Standing on the shoulders of a philosophical and moral giant, Tom Regan, I have argued in a number of places that they do not succeed. But I hope that Tom Regan will review what he thinks is the strongest response to this kind of argument, which is surely important since it is common in many people’s thinking about these issues.

  • One of the great achievements of The Case for Animal Rights is the sustained critique of utilitarian ethics contained within it. Regan argues both that utilitarianism is not an acceptable theory of ethics, and that even if it were, it would not support the conclusion that most everyone should be a vegetarian. I believe that this second kind of criticism is important and deserves further elaboration.

    When confronted with the unspeakably painful and degrading treatment most animals raised for food are forced to endure, many people rightly believe that this practice is wrong and that it is wrong for anyone to take part of it in any way (e.g. by eating meat). Utilitarians like Singer certainly think this, and Singer has argued extensively that his utilitarian theory implies that almost all normal adults living in affluent countries have a moral obligation to become, at the very least, vegetarians. His reasoning appears to be rather simple and straightforward: if we weigh the interests an average meat-eater has in continuing to eat meat against the interests animals have in living a life that is free from painful and degrading treatment, the best consequences will be achieved by not eating meat. According to him, the only real interest a meat-eater has in eating meat is that meat tastes good, and this is a trivial interest in comparison of the animals’ interests in avoiding painful and degrading treatment.

    But a problem emerges for this deceptively simple argument. Is it not true that the modern meat industry is simply too big for any one person to have any effect on the number of animals raised and killed for food with their individual decisions? If so, then a person who becomes a vegetarian simply sacrifices her interests without thereby furthering the interests of any other animal. Perhaps Singer would respond to this by pointing out that there is some probability that an individual’s choice to become a vegetarian would prevent the painful and degrading treatment of at least some animals, and given the fact that the interests at stake for humans in eating meat are so trivial, safety would require us to refrain from eating any meat.

    There is a flaw in the reasoning, however. Singer assumes that the only interests that are stake for the average meat-eater in eating meat is the trivial interest in eating tasty food. I want to suggest that eating meat can further the interests meat-eaters have in eating meat in such obviously important areas such as achievement and creating and maintaining deep personal relationships (among others). The first concept I need to introduce is the psychological concept of a person’s identity, or their self-concept: how a person thinks of herself. This concept is important to understanding a person’s well-being for how a person thinks of herself will be part of how she arrives at conceptions of her achievement and will determine in part which relations she thinks are worth pursuing and maintaining. Furthermore, a person’s eating history forms part of her self-concept. This should not be surprising, as eating is the third most time consuming activity we do, after sleep and work (Rozin, “The Integration of Biological, Social, Cultural, and Psychological Influences on Food Choice”, in Shepard and Raats, The Psychology of Food Choice). In Sobal et. al.’s useful terminology, each person has a Personal Food Trajectory that has been influenced by such things as their culture, society, government and other political systems, families, friends, colleagues, and so on. What we eat, how we eat, with whom we eat, and how much we eat form a core part of how we conceive of ourselves (Sobal et. al., “A Conceptual Model of the Food Choice Process over the Life Course”, in Shepard and Raats).

    A person’s Personal Food Trajectory can influence what success is for a person: think of chefs trained to cook classic French dishes, or BBQ pitmasters who run their family’s business. Likewise, someone raised to be an adventurous eater might become a foodie who seeks out the most authentic and best food wherever they go. A home cook might turn the daily meal into a showcase for his talents, or an opportunity to demonstrate his love and care for his family. These passions are for more than good tasting food; they are, instead, for being a certain kind of person, and for achieving what that kind of person can achieve.

    Perhaps the most important way that eating meat can influence the interests of a person comes from our interactions with others. Few people choose what to eat without pressure from others. This is especially obvious in a family setting, where the choice of food requires careful negotiating. A family who refuses to become vegetarian can pose a serious problem for a cook who desires to make this change. But there are other kinds of societal influences as well, and as Leon Rappoport notes, “those who violate the food conventions of their group or society do so at their own risk” (How We Eat). A person who lives among non-vegetarians can find his choice of becoming a vegetarian to be a cause of strife among his friends and family. In deciding to eat meat, then, it is possible such a person is interested in maintaining the relations that are of obvious importance to him.

    Singer could try to argue that none of these concerns amount to much, that a chef could easily cook vegetarian food, that a foodie could seek only vegetarian fare, and that one could easily find vegetarian friends to replace your meat-loving ex-friends. In other words, Singer could try to show that there is, in fact, a harmony between self-interest and morality. But I am not as sanguine about this issue as this response presupposes. I suspect that for some people, refraining from eating meat will constitute a setback to their interests. Notice that the interests I mention are much more serious than mere gustatory pleasure—they are what most everyone agrees are the most important components of the good life. If refraining from eating meat has only a slight probability of preventing pain to animals, and will lead to such sacrifices for at least some meat eaters, it becomes a seriously open question whether Singer’s view will require that most everyone become a vegetarian. It is at this point that a meat-eater will start talking about bigger cages, about more humane treatment, in order to make the balance shift to his favor.

    The advantage of Regan’s Right’s View is that he can acknowledge that the switch to a vegetarian diet may require a serious sacrifice on the part of some meat-eaters without thereby undermining his support for vegetarianism. His Principle of Respect requires that we treat animals with the respect they deserve, and it is certainly a failure to do this if you eat the dead corpse of an animal, even if your refusal to do so does not save any other animal’s life. What’s more, acknowledging the sacrifice required by meat-eaters in switching to a vegetarian lifestyle might have further practical benefits, for if those of us who argue for such a switch constantly minimize or negate the sacrifice we are asking others to make (by e.g. claiming their interests are so trivial) we run the risk of not only alienating our target audience, but also of causing them to think that, given our Personal Food Trajectory, we simply do not understand what is at stake for them. Regan can acknowledge the interests he is asking them to sacrifice, and still insist that the sacrifice must be made.

  • Gary Comstock

    Many have noted Tom’s achievements, which are considerable. I’d like to add only that Tom’s work is complemented and reinforced by a theme that has emerged over the years here at On the Human, a Darwinian theme that differences between mammalian species are differences of degree rather than kind.

    On the view of animals many of us were taught, there’s a vast and unbridgeable gulf between us. Various human capacities are invoked to explain the gulf; we can control our actions on the basis of reasons; animals can’t. We have free will and moral autonomy—or language, culture, or a soul—animals don’t. There’s the divide.

    Tom’s work narrows the gap. One cannot read The Case for Animal Rights without having to decide what one thinks about his argument about the moral implications of our shared biology. The argument, that is, that a) since many normal adult mammals have mental states at least as sophisticated as humans who are severely neurally challenged then b) the burden of proof is on anyone who thinks that we may not exploit the one group and may exploit the other. Regan requires, at least, that one justify discriminatory practices toward animals. By emphasizing the cognitive diversity of the human species and the psychological sophistication of some nonhumans Regan’s achievement is to raise animals toward people, as it were, reducing the gap from the bottom up.

    In OTH we have read essays that might provide fodder for an argument that the gap is also being reduced from the top down. Accumulating data from the neurosciences and experimental psychology seem to advance Regan’s strategy insofar as they suggest that we overestimate the original elevation of humans. We’re lower than we presume. For if a certain line of interpretation of the data is correct—a line that can be found in OTH postings—then Regan’s strategy to reveal the full depths of animal psychology finds an ally in the work of those who are exploring the depths of human psychology. What they seem to find, oversimply, is a quasi-neo-Freudian self, a self over which we lack much mastery.

    What I have in mind is not the idea that some animals exercise control over their mental states in a way analogous to the way that severely cognitively impaired humans do but, rather, that some animals exercise control in exactly the same way as do ordinary humans. Consider what John Doris here calls the situationist literature: that normal humans exercise far less control over their beliefs and desires than they like to think. Or consider what Chris Suhler and Pat Churchland here call the nonconscious control hypothesis: that control of our attention functions much more via autonomic and automatic means than we usually imagine.

    If recent developments in evolutionary psychology, experimental economics, and the brain sciences seem deflating, that sound of the air being let out of the balloon may be attributable to the fact that we started with an over-inflated sense of our capacities. If developments lead to a reduced assessment of our cognitive skills, then the same developments may make it even more difficult to deny that animals exercise control over their beliefs, desires, emotions, and plans in the same way we do–by largely nonconscious means.

    Do the empirical results about humans strengthen Tom’s hand as he makes his case for animal rights? I’d be curious to know if other folks join me in thinking that they do.

  • Lori Marino

    I find this discussion fascinating and a measure of just how important Tom Regan’s ideas have been in this domain. I don’t agree, however, that the lifeboat situation is distracting. I think that its purity reveals what we actually think at bottom line. But, even if there are disagreements about the utility of the lifeboat situation, there is, in my view, a singular question at the core of this issue. That is, under what circumstances would one throw a human overboard to save the rest? That question has the potential to reveal exactly how authentically we are willing to live out the premise of equal moral rights. It seems to me that our threshold, if you will, for sacrificing a member of another species is significantly lower than that for our own species. For instance, in one of my classes on animal welfare a student told me that he would save the life of Adolf Hitler before his family dog. Why? Because Hitler was a human being. Many students articulate a very similar philosophy. So, my question is, when is it ever permissible to favor another animal over a human? Our answers would be quite telling, I think.

  • Raymond G. Frey

    A lot of water has flowed under the dam since the first appearance of Tom’s book and some of his early papers. His criticisms of me I have dealt with in a sheaf of papers on animal experimentation. There is no confusion between inherent value claims by Regan and quality of life claims by me. I don’t know of anyone in ethical theory that has made sense of his inherent value notion. Again, Tom deploys his intuitions constantly, and it is not merely utilitarians who are wary of this way of proceeding to develop an adequate ethical theory.

    Does Tom have an adequate ethical theory? He seems deeply suspicious of Hare’s students–Singer and myself in particular–because we eschew rights-theory. And yet it seems that most rights theorists find his strong account of animal rights unconvincing, too. This fact may explain why even many rights theorists do not draw from rights theories the practical conclusions Tom draws. On this issue, a great amount of water indeed has flowed under the dam. Tom needs to address it.

    Tom’s work sets about the discussion of animals through regarding them as moral patients. Much contemporary work proceeds to discuss animals in terms of agency, however, finding in at least some animals the rudimentary elements of agency and linking rights talk to this fact. Is Tom amenable to this? Do we get the same set of rights whichever path we go down? And what of people who go down the path of agency but whose rights ascribed to animals are weaker than the ones Tom favors? Are they guilty of some sort of mistake?

  • Tom Regan

    I want to thank each of you for taking the time and going to the trouble of sending your comments about my work. To those of you who have conveyed your positive impressions, I am grateful. But the same is no less true of those of you who have conveyed your informed criticism. I have learned and benefited from both sorts of comments. Again, I thank you.

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