Regan Animal Rights Philosophy Essay

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Defending Animal Rights by Tom Regan

Lisa Kemmerer cheers on Tom Regan as he defends the idea of animals having rights.

Amongst ethical topics, animal rights is perhaps the hottest, most divisive, and least understood.

Animal rights is about rights, just like human rights revolve around the concept of rights. Animal rights is a specific moral theory, not a catch-all for pro-animal points of view. Those who support animal rights specifically assert that animals have rights, just as those who defend human rights assert that people have rights. Those who represent animal rights generally argue that much of what we do to other animals is immoral because nonhuman animals have rights that ought to be respected. Therefore, they say, we cannot eat them, wear their skins, harvest their nursing milk or exploit their bodies to further scientific agendas; such acts infringe on the rights of these animals.

Defending Animal Rights is a collection of invited lectures written by Tom Regan over the past decade. This collection includes an eclectic sampling of the philosophy of animal rights from the intellectual founder of the subject. His essays fall into four broad categories: concept-clarification, philosophical argumentation, analogies drawn with other social struggles to demonstrate a point, and discussions of applied ethics – the personal and professional dimensions of advocacy for philosophers.

The first two chapters clarify concepts. Chapter One leaves readers with a clear understanding of the specific philosophical meaning of ‘animal rights’. Regan notes that every philosopher and theologian who has discussed ethics concerning nonhuman animals accepts some moral limits on how we may treat other creatures, but that the differences between philosophers and theories are “both real and deep.” The first chapter, ‘Ethical Theory and Animals’ compares ‘animal rights’ to other animalsand- ethics theories: perfectionism, despotism, contractarianism, Kantian, utilitarian, deep ecology, and ecofeminism. Each theory is placed in an historical context, key philosophers are noted and the similarities and differences between them highlighted – all in just a couple of pages for each theory. Regan also explains why the Rights View, as he calls the theory of animal rights, is his theory of choice. This chapter provides an excellent review of contrasting ethical theories on the topic of non-human animals.

The second chapter compares different forms of animal advocacy. In this chapter Regan clarifies the distinction between animal welfare and animal liberation – Regan aligns the latter with animal rights. Regan begins by noting that anti-cruelty laws are inadequate to promote the welfare of animals; indeed these laws are often inadequate even to the lesser task of preventing cruelty. Animal welfare, Regan writes, is also limited: advocates of animal welfare work within the system to improve the quality of life for non-human animals. Thus although animal welfare reaches beyond anti-cruelty, by accepting the current system it limits what can be accomplished on behalf of other animals. In contrast, animal rights advocates are abolitionists who strive for the goal of animal liberation – a state in which the basic moral rights of other animals will be honored, “including their rights to life, liberty, and bodily integrity.” Regan compares those who will suffer financially as a result of changes brought on through animal liberation to those who suffered from the freeing of slaves.

The next three chapters contain tight philosophical analysis as Regan defends the Rights View against critics. Chapter Three, ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, relates back to Regan’s groundbreaking book of the same name. He begins with a synopsis of the Rights View, then defends his use of ‘appeal to intuition’ and ‘inherent value’. He also takes on more sweeping criticisms in an interesting and detailed defense of his theory against feminists who assert that the notion of individual rights is inherently patriarchal.

In the fourth chapter, ‘Mapping Human Rights’, Regan responds to Carl Cohen’s widely accepted assertion that all and only human beings can and do have rights. Regan painstakingly focuses on one relevant point after another, and deftly lays bare his opponent in the tight style of good, entertaining philosophy. The next chapter ‘Putting People in their Place’, revolves around an eye-opening discussion of two possible ways to answer the question, “Who has rights?” Regan presents both, applies both, but defends just one. In these three chapters Regan identifies, clarifies, and explores critical issues in the animal rights debate, and reveals his mastery of the subject.

Two pieces follow that are likely to be of interest to a broad spectrum of readers, follow. These essays reach back in time to put animal rights in context with other social movements that successfully brought great change. ‘Patterns of Resistance’, an excellent read, throws a less-than-flattering light on the influence of Christianity and science in shaping the moral landscape of the United States. Regan delves into dusty archives, presenting tidbits from the works of Christians who once loudly argued for slavery and against the women’s movement. Likewise he exposes the works of scientists who used quantifiable measurements and biology to prove that Christian scriptures were right on both counts. Regan leaps forward in time to find Christians and scientists again working together to defame homosexuals. Finally, this engaging essay draws an analogy that reveals the same two forces – Christianity and science – still working in similar ways, this time to keep non-human animals apart from and beneath human beings. Regan never forgets to mention that his work is limited in scope, but readers are likely to feel the strength of what has been exposed.

The next chapter, ‘Understanding Animal Rights Violence’ engages the reader in a similar historical analysis, but this time Regan compares attitudes toward the use of violence in the nineteenthcentury struggle to abolish slavery with attitudes toward the use of violence in the contemporary animal rights movement. This thought-provoking essay examines what constitutes violence, and how and when violence might be used in social movements. Ultimately, Regan takes a stand: a resounding ‘no’ to violence.

The last two essays reveal Regan not just as a philosopher, but also as an advocate, and as a human being. In ‘Ivory Towers Should Not a Prison Make’ Regan defines advocacy, and cautions philosophers who advocate for a controversial cause – they are likely to be defamed both personally and as philosophers. This essay leaves no doubt that the author speaks from experience. While Regan concludes that stepping down from the ivory tower and into the streets is not necessary to the task of being a moral philosopher, and may result in much personal torment, he concludes that advocacy “is part of the larger human quest for integrity and wholeness.”

The final chapter reveals Regan’s personal quest for integrity and wholeness in a world where the overwhelming majority firmly reject his personal morality. In ‘Work, Hypocrisy and Integrity’, Regan discusses his personal quandary about working at a university that perpetuates animal experimentation. He defines hypocrisy and integrity, and explores analogous hypothetical (but highly likely) situations in a smattering of contemporary occupations. While he explores the topic thoroughly, Regan offers no easy answers, but a modicum of hope.

The various essays in Defending Animal Rights focus on ethics and non-human animals. Regan defines and applies concepts that are often misunderstood and misrepresented, tackles fundamental issues to deftly defend the Rights View, and reflects on perplexing issues in applied ethics and advocacy such as persecution, academic freedom and hypocrisy. This book helps to clarify one of the most important and perplexing ethical quandaries of our time. Through it all, the voice of Tom Regan is congenial, humble and warm-hearted.

If you want to read a philosophy book on ethics and animals, this one is a gem – and why not read one written by the master?

© Dr Lisa Kemmerer 2002

Lisa Kemmerer is a philosopher and activist.

Defending Animal Rights by Tom Regan, Univ. of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-02611-X, cloth, 224 pages, $25.

By Tom Regan

The other animals humans eat, use in science, hunt, trap and exploit in a variety of other 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 and also of what happens to them. And what happens to them matters to them.

Each has a life that fares experientially better or worse for the one whose life it is. Like us they bring a unified, psychological presence to the world. Like us they are somebodies, not somethings. In these fundamental ways that nonhuman animals in labs or 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 stress on some of the same fundamental moral principles.

At its deepest level, an enlightened human ethics is based on the independent value of the individual. To treat human beings in ways that do not honor their independent worth is to reduce them to the status of tools, or models or commodities, for example, is to violate that most basic of human rights, the right to be treated with respect.

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

As a result of selected media coverage in the past which this evening’s debate is a notable and praiseworthy exception, the general public has tended to view advocates of AR in exclusively negative terms: we are anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-rational, anti-human, we stand against justice and for violence. The truth, as it happens, is quite the reverse. The philosophy of AR is on the side of reason, for it is not rational to discriminate arbitrarily, and discrimination against nonhuman animals is demonstrably arbitrary. It is wrong to treat weaker human beings, especially those who are lacking a normal human intelligence, as tools or models, for example.

It cannot be rational, therefore, to treat other animals as if they were tools, models and the like if their psychology is as rich as, or richer than, these human beings.

The philosophy of AR is pro, not anti-science. This philosophy is respectful of our best science in general and of evolutionary biology in particular. The latter teach us that, in Darwin’s words, human differ from many other animals in degree and not in kind. Questions about line-drawing to one side, it is obvious that the animals used in laboratories, raised for food, and hunted for pleasure, or trapped for profit, for example, are our psychological kin. This is not fantasy. This is fact, supported by our best science.

The philosophy of AR stands for, not against justice. We are not to violate the rights of the few so that the many might benefit. Slavery allows this, child labor allows this, all unjust social institutions allow this, but not the philosophy of AR whose highest principle is that of justice.

The philosophy of AR stands for peace, and against violence. The fundamental demand of this philosophy is to treat humans and other nonhuman animals with respect. This philosophy, therefore, is a philosophy of peace. But it is a philosophy that extends the demand for peace beyond the boundaries of our species, for there is an undeclared war being waged everyday against countless millions of nonhuman animals.

To stand truly for peace is to stand firmly against their ruthless exploitation.

And what aside from the common menu of media distortions, what will be said by the opponents of the AR. Will the objections be that we are equating animals and humans in every respect when in fact humans and animals differ greatly, but clearly we are not saying that humans and other animals are the same in every way; that dogs and cats can do calculus, or the pigs and cows enjoy poetry. What we are saying is that, like humans, many other animals have an experiential welfare of their own. In this sense, we and they are the same. In this sense, therefore, despite our many differences, we and they are equal.

Will the objection be that we are saying that every human and every animal has the same rights, that chicken should have the right to vote, and pigs the right to ballet lessons but, of course, we are not saying this. All we are saying is that these animals and humans share one basic moral right, the right to be treated with respect.

Will the objection be that, because animals do not respect our rights, we therefore have no obligation to respect their rights either. But there are many human beings who have rights and are unable to respect the rights of others. Young children, and the mentally enfeebled and deranged of all ages; in their case, we do not say that it is perfectly all right to treat them as tools or models or commodities, because they do not honour our rights. On the contrary, we recognize that we have a duty to treat them with respect.

What is true of cases involving these human beings in no less true of cases involving other animals.

Will the objection be that, even if other animals do have moral rights, there are other more important things that need our attention: world hunger, and child abuse, for example. Apartheid, drugs, violence to women, the plight of the homeless, after, after we take care of these problems, then we can worry about AR.

This objection misses the mark for the rank and file of the AR movement is composed of people whose first lines of service is human service: doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, people involved in a broad range of social services from rape counseling to aiding victims of child abuse, or famine or discrimination, teachers of every level of education, ministers, priests, rabbis.

And the lives of these people demonstrate that the choice that people face are is not between helping humans or helping other animals. For one can do both. We should do both.

Will the objection be, finally, that no one has rights, not any human being and not any other animal either but, rather, that right and wrong are a matter of acting to produce the best consequences, being certain to count everyone’s interests and count equal interests equally. This moral philosophy, utilitarianism, has a long and venerable history, influential men and women, past and present, are among its adherents and yet it is a bankrupt moral philosophy if ever there was one.

Are we seriously, seriously, to inquire as to the interest of the rapist before declaring rape wrong; should we ask the child molester whether his interest would be frustrated before condemning the molestation of our children? Remarkably a consistent utilitarianism demands that we ask these questions and, in so demanding, relinquishes any claim on our rational assent. With regard to the philosophy of AR, then, is it rational, impartial, scientifically-informed, does it stand for peace, and against injustice? To these — all these questions — the answer is an unqualified yes.

And as for the objections that are raised against this philosophy, are those who accept it able to offer rational, informed, answers, again the answer is yes. In a battle of ideas, the philosophy of AR wins, its critics lose. It remains to be seen which side emerges, as the victor in the ongoing political battle between what is just and what is not.

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