Tom Regan 1938–2017
This tribute was originally posted at Animal Liberation Currents.
Like many animal liberationists, I came to an understanding of the plight of our animal kin through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Many people are surprised to learn that this “father of the modern animal rights movement” did not argue that nonhuman animals have rights, at least not in the moral, philosophical sense. That case was to be made powerfully and convincingly less than a decade later by Tom Regan. In The Case for Animal Rights, Regan presented what was basically one long sustained and rigorous argument for animal rights of the actual moral and philosophical kind.
Since its publication in 1983, in many ways, the book has stood in the shadow of Animal Liberation. Yet for those less-than friendly to Singer’s utilitarian framework, The Case for Animal Rights provided a sound foundation upon which animal liberationists could make a case for rights—inviolate rights—for nonhuman animals.
Though broadly Kantian, Regan’s approach rejected the notion (central to Kant’s moral framework) that only “rational” beings (i.e., for all intents and purposes, humans) possess moral value. By contrast, Regan argued that what mattered morally is not rationality per se, but the capacity to be the subject of experiences. However, not just any kind of subjective experience warrants inherent value. To possess inherent value and consequently, moral rights, requires that one has the capacity to be the subject of experiences that matter to oneself, what Regan famously termed being the subject of a life. This view, that the capacity for this kind of subjective experience confers upon its possessor inherent value, is both intuitive and meticulously argued for in the book. I cannot tell you how many times I have referred to that passage on p. 243 of his book (I know the page number by heart) where Regan outlines which physiological, emotional, psychological, and cognitive capacities—over and above mere sentience—make one the subject-of-a-life. So impressed was I by this aspect of Regan’s view that my doctoral dissertation, focused on the moral significance of animal cognition, came about in no small part due to my simply trying to flesh out the moral ramifications of that passage. Of course, critics rightly pointed out how even such a thoroughly worked out view had blind spots, lacunae that Regan himself eventually came to fill then build upon.
Tom Regan was a pioneer in the struggle for the liberation of animals from the bonds of institutional and systemic violence, oppression, and domination. Though I never met the man, by all accounts he was what Aristotle would have called a person of great virtue, a warm, kind, compassionate human being. The world is a darker place now that he has left us, but fortunately Tom Regan left behind a profound and indispensable body of work to act as a beacon for animal liberationists to follow.