Tom Regan, philosopher and animal rights pioneer, 1938-2017

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» Tom Regan, philosopher and animal rights pioneer, 1938-2017

On 17 February 2017 Tom Regan died at the age of 78 after a short battle with pneumonia. Here, we republish an interview we conducted with him ten years ago, in memory of the great animal rights pioneer and his life and work.

Tom ReganTom Regan was arguably one of the most influential Animal Rights theorist in the world. The Case for Animal Rights (1983)his most well known text, propelled rights for animals to the political and philosophical fore. His work has often been compared to Peter Singer's, the leading voice of animal liberation theory, though Regan's Kantian view of Animal Rights stipulates that animals have intrinsic worth, just like humans. This is contrasted with Singer's utilitarian perspective, which believes that humans may use animals as a means to an end, as humans have the greatest intrinsic worth. 

Regan's work has been not only widely acclaimed, but also criticised, both within and without the vegan community: leading vegan feminist theorists Josephine Donovan and Carol Adams notably arguing in 1996 text Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals that his work has failed to give significance to the importance of emotional connection in animal-human relationships. However, no one could deny that Regan significantly paved the way in the field of Animal Rights theory, which has grown considerably since his pioneering efforts.

As a stalwart vegan and activist, his contribution will be greatly missed.  

The Vegan, Winter 2006, Archive.

Tom Regan is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at North Carolina State University. He is also an uncompromising 'Animal Rights Advocate’ (ARA). In his latest book Empty Cages – Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights he argues that human beings should not enslave non-human animals and use them as means to their ends. Rosamund Raha puts some questions to him.

In Empty Cages you refer to ‘DaVincians,’ ‘Damascans’ and ‘Muddlers’; what do you mean by these terms?

These names refer to three different ways people can acquire what I call animal consciousness. Da Vincians follow the model of Leonardo Da Vinci who, from a very early age, would not hurt animals and sought to protect them. Nobody had to convince him to be this way. He did not need a rational proof before he adopted his compassionate way of being in the world. It’s just the way he was, as a matter of his individual nature. Something in the genes, so to speak.

Many ARAs are like this, which is why I call them Da Vincians. Damascans differ. They don’t have the natural empathy we find in Da Vincians. But neither are they wanting some proof, some rational argument before they enlarge their animal consciousness. No, their life is changed radically, dramatically because of something they experience, the way things changed for Saul, in the Biblical story, as he travelled on the road to Damascus. According to the Biblical story, Jesus spoke to Saul ‘from the heavens,’ directly to him in a quite dramatic fashion. It was on the basis of this single, life-transforming experience that Saul, one of the main detractors of Jesus, became Paul, Jesus’s most influential disciple. Some ARAs undergo a similar transformation, which is why I call them Damascans.

They see something. They read something. They hear something. And there, on the spot, in the blink of an eye, they are born into animal rights advocacy. A dramatic event in their life changes the direction of their life forever. Then there are those I call Muddlers.Unlike Da Vincians, Muddlers are not born with natural sympathy for animals. And unlike Damascans, there is no single event in their life that changes who they are, changes why they live. Instead, Muddlers - well, they just muddle along, asking one question, then another; learning this, then that; asking for reasons for why they should change; needing to be convinced. Change is a drawn-out process for them, a journey. But if they keep at it, a day dawns when they look in a mirror and, much to their surprise, they see an Animal Rights Advocate looking back at them. That’s certainly what happened in my life. Nothing in the genes. No Road to Damascus conversion experience. Just a long slog to animal rights advocacy.

In your essay Animal Rights and the Myth of ‘Humane’ Treatment,you say that most people believe that non-human animals are treated well on farms and in laboratories. Why do you say this?

Most people believe this because this is what they are told by the multi-billion dollar animal-abusing industries. And by the government, whose inspectors basically serve as arms of the industries themselves. Read any mainstream magazine. Peruse any newspaper. Watch any television station. The story is everywhere the same. Animals are treated really well by really caring people. When Joe and Jane Consumer hear the same message, over and over again, it’s natural that they would accept it as true, especially if those of us who challenge the message are pictured as extremist wackos. The major animal-abusing industries are very skilful at blunting our message by attacking the messengers.

How do you think people should respond to this betrayal of trust?

The first challenge is to help people see that their trust is being abused, which will take time and patience. In my own view, one of the best ways to do this is to let industry spokespersons speak for themselves. For example, we have quotes from the hog industry or the veal industry saying how ‘humanely’ they treat their animals. And next to what they say we show pictures of how these animals are being treated.

"The story we need to get out is that these industries not only are abusing animals, they are abusing the trust (and insulting the intelligence) of their customers."

The sub-text is, ‘These spokespersons think you (consumers) are so stupid, so uncaring that they can say “Black is white” and you’ll go along with them.’ The story we need to get out is that these industries not only are abusing animals, they are abusing the trust (and insulting the intelligence) of their customers. Once we have raised consumer consciousness to this level, but not before, we have an opportunity to channel consumer anger and outrage into a positive force for the animals.

In the autumn 2006 The Vegan magazine, Peter Singer said that he could ‘imagine a world in which people mostly eat plant foods, but occasionally treat themselves to the luxury of free-range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm.’ How would you feel about that kind of world?

I can imagine such a world but, in my judgment, it certainly is not the one Animal Rights Advocates should be working to realize. Think about what ‘humanely’ means. It means to do something with compassion, kindness, and mercy. Are any animals ever killed in this fashion? Yes, I think so. Consider those animals who are dying and who suffer greatly; there is nothing we can do to help make their life any better. In circumstances like these, I think the humane thing to do is to end their life, on grounds of compassion, kindness, and mercy. However, this is far, far different from taking the life of a healthy animal, in the prime of life. What kindness, what compassion, what mercy do we show to these animals by slitting their throat? In my honest opinion, people who endorse a view like the one proposed by Singer are too interested in preserving French haute cuisine and too little interested in working for a world that truly reflects respect for animal rights.

As the natural habitats of some species have been mostly destroyed, Peter Singer suggested that animals such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans may need to live under human control and protection. Do you consider this necessary?

I believe we may be fast approaching a time when the best home for these and other wild animals might be in sanctuaries or wildlife preserves that protect them from human and other forms of predation. Not circuses, for heaven’s sake. And not safe havens open to hunters. It will take vast sums of money, expansive natural habitat, and fierce enforcement of tough laws. For an example, consider the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (USA). I think the founder, Carol Buckley, and her staff are living proof of what can be done to save imperilled animals without compromising the animals’ dignity in the process.

Yes, and of course in a vegan world there would be so much more land available to rebuild wildlife habitats because eating lower down the food chain uses much less land and water than eating crops through the intermediary of an animal.

Do you believe that a vegan world will ever be possible?

Yes, a vegan world is possible. Why do I believe this? All I need to do is look in the mirror and see a vegan looking back at me. People need to understand. Not only did I eat ‘meat’ of every cut and description as I was growing-up, I worked as a butcher to help pay for my college expenses. During those years, I had eyes but did not see, I had ears but did not hear. So if I, Tom Regan, can evolve into a vegan, anyone can do the same. We who have arrived at this destination must never lose hope that others will join us. We are all imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. The last thing we should do is provide people with another reason for ignoring animals.

Which is why, in my view at least, we must open our arms to others, not drive them away from growing more compassionate because of what we say or how we say it. The means we use create the ends we achieve. Our hate can only create more hate. But our love for others, even those with whom we most disagree . . . well, in the long run, that is the only solution, when you stop and think about it.

Thank you very much Tom Regan for giving such an uplifting interview, your positive comments give us all hope!

Interview by Rosamund Raha

Introduction by Ali Ryland

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