Tom Regan: The Case For Animal Rights

Tom Regan establishes the rights of animals in his monumental philosophical work, The Case For Animal Rights. As individuals with complex mental lives, Regan explains why animals are due just treatment. Central to his philosophy is his subject-of-a-life criterion. Any being with a complex mental life, including perception, desire, belief, memory, intention, and a sense of the future--among other attributes, and which Regan spends much time exploring--is a subject of a life. Considerable evidence leads to an understanding that most animals indeed are subjects of a life, as opposed to biological beings without such subjective worlds. Regan uses this criterion to ground his case for the basic rights of animals.

Because each subject of a life is an individual who cares about his or her life, that life has inherent value. This inherent value is equal among all subjects of a life, since one either is a subject of a life or is not. Inherent value does not come in degrees, and it is not dependent on the individual's experiences or utility to others. Regan does not deny that experience and usefulness to others do have value, but he is careful to distinguish this sort of value from the inherent value of the individual: He asserts that individuals have moral rights based on their inherent value. (Such a postulation of rights distinguishes Regan from many moral philosophers, including Peter Singer. In fact, the idea that humans or animals have moral rights is not a view commonly held by moral philosophers.)

According to Regan, human and animal rights are validated with respect to moral principles. Most important is justice, which is addressed through his respect principle, "We are to treat those individuals who have inherent value in ways that respect their inherent value." Here, Regan's rights view has an advantage over the utilitarian view, by which a wrongful act against an innocent is justified if it brings about the greatest net satisfaction of interests. It is also preferable to the so-called perfectionist view, by which an individual's moral status is based upon the degree to which he or she possesses certain attributes (intelligence, artistic ability, etc.), a view which can lead (and has) to the unfair exploitation of those with lesser degrees of these chosen attributes. Regan asserts that justice is our paramount duty, "the duty not to treat individuals differently in the absence of a relevant dissimilarity." By his respect principle, all subjects of a life, as a matter of justice, have a basic moral right to respectful treatment, which recognizes their inherent value.

Clearly, not all subjects of a life have the ability to apply impartial moral principles. Those that do are moral agents; those that do not are moral patients. Moral agents have unacquired duties (as opposed to contract or acquired duties) towards all subjects of a life, not just towards other moral agents. The just treatment of moral patients by moral agents does not require that the moral patients be able to reciprocate or even recognize moral actions. This concept is relevant to adult human actions towards young children and the mentally enfeebled, and to animals as well. The inclusion of animals is necessary. To exclude one moral patient while including another is purely arbitrary, and such partial treatment cannot be deemed just. So treating animals respectfully is not simply a matter of kindness or sentimental interest, but of justice.

If we are to act morally, then animals are not at our disposal to use as we choose. Our recognition of the basic rights of animals as individuals with complex subjective worlds requires fundamental changes in our institutions, including the elimination of animal agriculture (as we know it, at least), animal experimentation, hunting, and the use of animals in most forms of entertainment (the rodeo, circus, etc.). Regan cautions that the opposition is likely to frame animal rights as "antihuman." But he reminds us that to require just treatment of animals is to ask for nothing more than in the case of any human to whom justice is due. Human and animal rights are closely related, for they are based on essentially the same moral principles.

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