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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.

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