I first met Tom Regan when he was a visiting scholar at the National Humanities Center in the Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Regan’s recently published The Case for Animal Rights had secured his place as the philosophical spokesperson for the animal welfare movement. Our next encounter was in Philadelphia where Regan was the keynote speaker at a rally called to denounce the primate experiments at the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Injury Lab. I had expected to hear a dispassionate critique of the experiments; instead, the good professor, transfigured into a throwback Irish radical, brought the crowd chanting to its feet. Several months later Regan would join eighty activists in a four-day sit-in at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to demand that the Penn lab be closed. To the surprise of all, Secretary of Health Margaret Heckler responded to this illegal protest by suspending the lab’s funding.

Regan belongs to a rare breed of animals, the action-intellectual. In the tradition of Bertrand Russell, he combines analytic skills with political activism. A native of Pittsburgh, Regan was graduated from Thiel College and received his doctorate from the University of Virginia. Since 1967 he has been a member of the philosophy faculty at North Carolina State University.

In his more reflective moments Regan has edited anthologies on the pressing ethical issues of our day: Matters of Life and Death, Earthbound, and Just Business. He has coedited And Justice for All, Border Crossings, and Animal Rights and Human Obligations. His own essays on animal rights were collected in All that Dwell Therein. The Case for Animal Rights (excerpt) is an exhaustive philosophical enquiry, expanding the ground broken by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1973). At the Humanities Center, Regan completed Bloomsbury Prophet: The Moral Philosophy of G. E. Moore. Though his scholarly interests run widely, his “number one loyalty is the animals movement.”

Animal rights is an issue that demands both passion and thought. Though many of us are attached to our pets and we sympathize with endangered whales, we are basically insulated from the vaster, more profound ways humans exploit kindred creatures. For the sake of eye shadow tens of thousands of rabbits will be subjected to the torturous LD(lethal dose)50 test. Doses are given until fifty percent die — a standard procedure for consumer products. So that we can enjoy pink veal, calves are rendered immobile in darkened pens for a life span of 100 days to prevent the build-up of tough muscle tissue. Most dairy cows and egg-laying chickens are now confined in unnatural, factory environments. Fifty million dogs and cats are abandoned annually in the United States. We bomb, radiate, dissect, gas, and electrocute healthy animals in the name of research. Millions die in labs yearly. Beagles smoke cigarettes until they succumb to cancer. In the Penn Head Injury Lab, unanesthetized baboons had their brains bashed while technicians mocked the traumatized animals. Thanks to an Animal Liberation Front raid, tapes of these experiments became public.

In his person no less than in his writings, Tom Regan seeks to spread the message. He is there, in his books, in the classroom, and at the barricades.

Leonard Rogoff


SUN: Could you trace your personal genesis as an advocate of animal rights?

REGAN: When did it really happen? It was during the Vietnam period. I did research on pacifism and nonviolence, and I wanted to try to answer the questions about the war in a reasonable and serious way. In the course of doing that I read Gandhi. He talked about not eating animals because it was a violent act. I had never thought of it in those terms. In fact, I had worked as a butcher’s apprentice. As a philosopher the more I thought about vegetarianism, the more it seemed to me the arguments were overwhelming. You just had to change your life.

I’m not a pacifist. I don’t accept a complete prohibition on the use of violence. For example, in self-defense I think you’re justified in using it. It might be stupid, but it’s not immoral for that reason. So what I had to do was to try to find out what was true but without relying on Gandhi’s principles. That’s pretty much what I have done since 1972.

SUN: Many people in the animal rights movement speak about a traumatic episode, such as a visit to a slaughterhouse. You never had a conversion experience?

REGAN: Just at the time that I was thinking about this with my head, something happened to my heart. My wife Nancy and I had a dog that we had bought when we first were married. The dog was our substitute child; we had the dog for something like eleven years. We came home one day after having been away at the beach for a week, and the dog had been killed that morning running across the road. It was an amazing experience to me, because I had such a tremendous, unspeakable sense of loss over this particular animal. The death of that dog opened my heart to the notion of compassion for all dogs; once all dogs were in there, it grew to all animals who had a psychology to care about. So there was a bit of trauma. The head can lead the heart to the river but not make it drink. Maybe only experience can make the heart drink. So the person who is most fortunate, I think, is the one whose heart drinks the same truth that the head thinks. In my case that’s what happened.

SUN: Bruno Bettelheim calls it the “informed heart.”

REGAN: That’s a very nice expression.

SUN: As I read your book I was wondering about its relevance not from the point of view of animal rights but because it is a work of analytic philosophy. In our society, I don’t think that we tend to turn to academic philosophers for wisdom.

REGAN: My education in philosophy was analytic. Philosophers weren’t supposed to say anything about what was good and what was bad. You were supposed to spend your time thinking about what it meant to say things are good or what it meant to say things are bad. It was always one step above the world of value — it was thinking about value. I had accepted that until the war in Vietnam, and then I just had to try to put what talents I had to use in the world. One thing led to another. I was along for the ride of ideas. I feel I just followed out the logic of what I began to think about a dozen or so years ago. It’s absolutely remarkable what has happened in philosophy with animal rights; a decade ago nobody was was talking about it at all. It was simply not on the agenda. Now we have 100,000 students a year who are talking about it, and they’re talking about it because philosophers have written about it. When the people who represent the medical or the agricultural establishment talk about whom they’re worried about as a source of power in the movement, they talk about the philosophers. That’s very gratifying.

SUN: When you look at Western intellectual history you don’t see animal rights as a central issue. There are few heroes or enlightened souls in the course of Western thought.

REGAN: There are more than we usually assume. I’ve tried to encourage people to research that more carefully because I think there are a lot more people out there from Pythagoras to Plutarch forward who were saying the sorts of things animal rights people would find acceptable. In fact, there’s reason to believe that Socrates and Plato thought these things as well, along with Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci. So there were people from the arts, from philosophy, but they were out of step with the culture of their time. It has always been a minority opinion in the Western world, but it’s been held by very strong, very important people. That’s a very important weapon to use to counter the claim that people have to be stupid, silly and uninformed to advocate animal rights. Some of the giants of Western civilization are animal rights people. We need to recover our roots. A lot of them bear important fruit.

SUN: I was wondering about cultural attitudes. Do you see any especially enlightened cultures or any differences between East and West?

REGAN: From what I know, any temptation to think that animals fare better in the Eastern world than they do in the West has to take into account things like the treatment of dogs in Korea. They use them as a source of meat; the means of raising and slaughtering them are absolutely brutal. I have a friend who’s been in research establishments in China. There are no laws, no enforcement; a great deal of horrendous animal abuse goes on there. There’s a temptation, I think, for a Westerner to romanticize the East because we think of the cows in India. My feeling is that there is probably a great deal of brutality to animals in the East. I think there are some philosophies in the East that are more hospitable to compassionate care for animals. I would think that Hinduism and Buddhism are more hospitable.

I chaired a conference in London on religious perspectives on the use of animals in science. We had somebody speak on Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, the religions of the world — on how they focus on this particular question. With the possible exception of Buddhism, and some ways of interpreting Hinduism, most of the religions viewed animals in a way that is very familiar to how they’re viewed and used here in the West. So I don’t think it breaks up quite simply. The Western mind’s habit is to romanticize the East just as it wants to romanticize the American Indian.

SUN: In an essay in All that Dwell Therein, you point out that Native Americans have ambiguous attitudes toward animals.

REGAN: It’s just a hard fact that many of the tribes, especially in the northeastern United States and in Canada, were the major cause of destruction of whole species of fur-bearing animals. We have this picture of subsistence living, but I mean they just killed these animals with a vengeance. The problem is to try to understand that fact. There were probably some tribes that were a whole lot better than other tribes, but we have this tendency to talk about all of them as one. That’s just false.

The principles that I articulate to defend the rights of animals are no different than the principles I articulate to defend the rights of humans.

SUN: In terms of an animal rights approach, do you admit to the possibility of a meat-eating morality?

REGAN: I would think that if there were a culture where animals lived out the fullness of their lives in conditions that allowed them to express their natures and they either died of natural causes or were euthanized on grounds of mercy, then it would seem to me to be morally permissible if you made use of their milk and their eggs along the way. Whether when they died you wanted to eat them. . . . I myself would have a hard time understanding how you could do that if you revered the animal. Perhaps if you had certain beliefs about the animal, then you could. What I am against on a rights-based approach is viewing the animal as a kind of replaceable commercial commodity. You kill an animal and replace it with another; it’s just a business you’re in. So I think, given a certain set of beliefs that I don’t have, it might be possible to think of how after an aged cow has died it would be appropriate to eat that animal. It would be a radically different view of the world than I have.

SUN: The crux of your argument is that all animals have inherent value, apart from our uses for them. In your book you reject any bias that favors human “specieism,” but there does seem to be a bias toward a mammalian specieism.

REGAN: Well, there is and there isn’t. I take what I regard as the clearest case of a nonhuman animal who has a rich psychology, on the basis of which you can then meaningfully talk about that creature’s experiential welfare over time. So I pick the mammalian animal because I think that is the clearest nonhuman case. There’s nothing in the book that says it has to stop there. In fact, at a number of places I indicate that I don’t think that it does stop there. It’s going to depend on how compelling you can make the same kinds of arguments in the case of other animals as I have tried to make in the case of mammals. You could push it in the case of birds, for example. Of course, there could be a very different theory that would say, psychology doesn’t matter at all. It’s whether a thing is alive that matters; it’s whether it’s a part of nature that matters. My theory differs. If you’re trying to develop a rights theory, it is not just whether it is alive, it’s whether something has a life in the sense that it has an experiential life.

SUN: In a casual conversation I once mentioned to you a report that recommended the use of slugs instead of primates in toxicity testing. You called that a step in the right direction.

REGAN: Right. You see that’s a part of my ignorance talking. I don’t have much knowledge about slugs, to tell you the truth, except that you occasionally see them in gardens. It could be that if I had an appropriate understanding of slugs, it would be no progress at all. My feeling is that it is a step in the right direction in this sense: even if slugs have a psychology and they feel pain and what you do to them deprives them of future enjoyment, it seems to me there’s reason to believe that the range of their psychological interests is less rich than in the case of primates. In that sense it’s a step in the right direction. The ideal thing that we want to encourage is the development of nonanimal technologies in science. It’s not to do away with science, just to redirect it. So it would be a step in the right direction, though it still uses animals. I would want it to go further.

SUN: Much of your discussion on the duty we owe to animals rests on the distinction between moral agents and moral patients. There is an underlying analogy that you use between animals and enfeebled humans as moral patients. That’s a difficult concept for many people to accept.

REGAN: They have a difficult time with that because somehow they think that being a member of the human species is a decisive or very important moral consideration in and of itself. But belonging to any species, as a matter of logic, has no bearing whatsoever on what is owed to that individual as an individual. What is owed to the individual as an individual depends upon the individual and not upon species membership. Some human beings like you and me are moral agents: we’re capable of understanding that others have interests; we’re capable of taking their interests into account; we’re capable of trying to guide our actions by certain principles that we reach upon the basis of reflection. In the case of young children, the senile, and the mentally retarded, I think they’re capable of doing that very modestly, if at all. And I think the same is true in the case of mammalian animals. But these human beings, who are moral patients, not moral agents, don’t belong to me. They’re not a resource in the world for me or for other moral agents to use. That’s why I’m against experimenting on them. I’m against eating them. I’m against wearing their skins. To me the logic is absolutely compelling. It’s a double standard to say that it’s wrong to do those things to those human beings, but it’s OK to do it in the case of these animals who are like them in the relevant respects. People feel emotionally different about these human beings perhaps, but again, that waxes and wanes. A lot of people don’t like retarded, senile, or mentally ill people. A lot of people would like to get rid of them or use them. I myself don’t feel that way. We should protect them, but we should also do the same thing in the case of the animals.

A lot of people really do think that it’s a question of the baboon or Baby Fae. They say there’s no choice, we have to save Baby Fae. . . . My view is when they try to defend that preference the arguments break down.

SUN: In your categorical opposition to the use of animals in scientific research people are going to charge you with being anti-human. This is a perennial argument.

REGAN: Of course, but I am also categorically opposed to using humans in research against their will and against their informed consent in the hope that others will benefit. The principles that I articulate to defend the rights of animals are no different than the principles I articulate to defend the rights of humans.

SUN: One of the accusations that’s frequently made against the animal rights movement is sentimentalism, emotionalism. Your book is designed to give a philosophical foundation to the movement.

REGAN: When I’m in a less calm mood I think that my book is designed to ram those accusations down the throats of those who make them. My own view of my work is that when somebody makes these accusations, I ask them, have you read The Case for Animal Rights? If they say yes, I ask them to answer its arguments. If they say no, then to me those people are making sounds without any meaning, like a clanging cymbal. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The Case is a weapon in my view.

SUN: One can logically accept the soundness of your position, but common sense tells me that several mice would be worth a cure for AIDS. I know that’s arguing on the basis of consequences rather than on the basis of inherent right; it’s an argument that you address in your book.

REGAN: A lot of people thought that a few black prisoners were worth finding a cure for syphilis. The point really is not just what we think off the top of our heads, but whether we can defend what we think with some deep reflection. I think that the animal rights position does encounter the kinds of resistance you just indicated. A lot of people really do think that it’s a question of the baboon or Baby Fae. They say there’s no choice, we have to save Baby Fae. But what you’ve got to do is carefully and thoroughly try to get them to defend the preference that they express there. My view is that when they try to defend that preference the arguments break down.

SUN: You say we have a duty of assistance to animals but not a duty of charity. Could you clarify that distinction?

REGAN: A more fundamental duty is to treat the animal with respect. The primary way in which you show that is by not harming. Whatever the full account of the moral ties that bind us to animals is, it must include more than my not harming, my not violating their rights. If their rights are being violated, then I have a prima facie duty to assist them against those who are doing this. But there are so many of these prima facie duties that it’s hard to fulfill them all, so we have to pick and choose. In my case I think that I have a prima facie duty to protect the animals against the violations of their rights on the part of scientists and the agricultural industry. It’s not charity. I’m not giving them something they don’t deserve. They do deserve my assistance. A charitable act is something over and above what duty requires. It’s meritorious but not obligatory. Well, assistance is not an act of charity, it is an act of duty.

SUN: One notion, which I never really appreciated before I read your book, is respecting the right of the individual animal as opposed to the species or even the entire ecosystem. You have a quarrel with the ecologists. Being on an endangered list doesn’t grant an animal special privilege.

REGAN: I don’t think that the notion of moral rights is happily at home with any other partner than the notion of the individual. It’s the individual that has moral rights against other individuals. And the notion that groups, or sets, or collections, or species or any of these have moral rights I find unintelligible. But again other people are working in that area, and in the book I try to be tolerant about that. I don’t try to close any doors. It’s just that I’ve never seen any good arguments on this front. I remain to be convinced. That doesn’t mean that I am indifferent to the extermination of species; to the contrary. The way you protect the species is by protecting individuals. So I think that the animal rights position that I am trying to defend is not necessarily antagonistic to a Friends of the Earth or Sierra Club view of things. It’s just that they tend to emphasize certain systems or species where I emphasize individuals. Even though philosophically there are some differences, politically we can agree in many places.

SUN: Among the people who argue that we have indirect duties to animals — and I think you cite Kant as one — is that animal abuse leads to human abuse. How sound an argument is this? Hitler, after all, loved his German shepherds.

REGAN: I think there are probably exceptions to it. I don’t think it is a universal law that people who are insensitive or brutally cruel to animals develop into characters who are insensitive or cruel to human beings. There is reason to believe that there is some causal connection between these two in a large enough number of cases that we should worry about children who display cruelty to animals as an early indication of a social pathology that might manifest itself later on. I’m told that there is a statistically important correlation between cruelty to animals in childhood and serious, violent felony in adulthood, so there’s something going on there. But what matters morally is not just what the future holds for these people, it’s what they’re doing to these animals now.

SUN: The basis of your argument rests on the inherent value of the individual and not on the utilitarian argument of consequences. I notice at times — for example in your discussion of vegetarianism — you do point out that not consuming meat is more nutritious and healthier for us. You don’t want to let such considerations enter the substance of your argument though.

REGAN: It would be a totally ridiculous moral position that said people ought to do something that they can’t do. So if I developed a theory that said people ought to fly on their own and not use airplanes, if that was my moral injunction, that would be stupid and unrealistic. When you start arguing dietary matters, people say you can’t live without eating meat. That’s why I discuss that, only to show that the principles are not impossible. They’re not making impossible demands on us. There are what are called stomach vegetarians, people who are vegetarians because they’re worried about their own health. The animal rights people tend not to be stomach vegetarians. They’re interested in justice, whatever it takes.

SUN: What direction is the animal rights movement taking at the moment? For example, you are trying to give students the right not to dissect animals in their laboratories.

REGAN: I’m tremendously disappointed in what my university [North Carolina State] finally did. I thought that there was promise of a real breakthrough. They do not want to give a student a serious right to object as a matter of conscience. No student should be required to kill an animal or dissect a dead one. There are alternative ways of finding out this stuff. The argument of what happens if the student wants to be a surgeon is a separate question from undergraduate biology classes. The only claim that I have tried to make is that undergraduate students in the life sciences should not be required to do this if they oppose it as a matter of conscience.

SUN: What political directions is the movement going in? You’ve been able to gain support on various legislative fronts, in Congress.

REGAN: People have been doing this for a long time. I think it’s good — educational efforts, legislative efforts — but what I’ve encouraged people to do is to think of more kinds of confrontational tactics, but nonviolent ones. The NIH was the first big expression of what I think the movement needs to do more of. I think that the problem is not that the movement has too many people who are willing to be arrested in defense of the rights of animals; the problem is we have too few. So I hope that we will have increased protests of that sort.

SUN: What is your attitude toward the Animal Liberation Front?

REGAN: I am against the violent destruction of property. I am not against showing what’s being done in laboratories. I’m not against their trespassing. I am not even against their taking videotapes or other records if these are necessary to show what is being done. My own view is that those who take these materials should turn them over so other people can learn from them, and then admit that they have taken them. There should be civil disobedience rather than lawless behavior.

SUN: It would seem to me that the consequences of your book, if one were to follow its ethic, would lead to a kind of saintliness.

REGAN: Gee, I’d better be careful what I say. I don’t know that. It is a step in the direction of spiritual growth. I take spiritual growth very seriously. Whether saintliness is the right metaphor I just don’t know. It is a spiritual book, even though it is an analytical one. What I want to bring about is a change in the spirituality of people, not just a change in their behavior. I want people to behave differently because they feel differently, because they believe differently. It’s not just indoctrination or propaganda.