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.
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.