Tom Regan: First, permit me to express my thanks to all of you for your thoughtful, challenging questions. I’ll do my best to answer them as well as I can. I have not thought systematically about many of the issues raised for quite a while, having turned my day-to-day work to writing fiction — short stories, actually — in which animals figure sometimes and sometimes not. If you know of a good publisher, let me know! Some of my answers have been cobbled together from other things I’ve written or said. I also sometimes go over information already familiar to you. I decided to include it in case you might want to share our ‘chat’ with family or friends, for example.
You’ve been described as “the philosophical leader of the animal rights movement” by the editors of Utne Reader (October, 2010), who named you, along with the Dali Lama, as “one of fifty visionaries who are changing the world.” What do you say in response to such laudatory words?
Well, it certainly was an unexpected honor. Utne prides itself on publishing “the best of the alternative press.” You won’t find Rush Limbaugh gracing its pages. Utne is synonymous with progressive, so that’s the first thing I hear when I consider the words you quoted: Utne sees the Animal Rights Movement as holding its own among other progressive movements. We all can take some encouragement from that.
As for my being “the philosophical leader”: I’ve never represented myself as any sort of “leader.” That would be a singularly arrogant thing for anyone to do. I’ve just tried to make a contribution — writing books, delivering talks, making films, encouraging poets and painters, for example, through the Culture and Animals Foundation — now going on forty years. I think you have to be dead for several generations before you can be elevated to the status of “leader,” and the last time I checked I was still breathing.
Tom Regan, “visionary?” That’s never been said about me before, to the best of my knowledge. Almost all of my professional writing has been highly analytic. Anyone who has read The Case for Animal Rights knows what I mean. A good friend of mine (good friends can needle one another) often tells me, “Whenever I’m havin’ trouble fallin’ asleep, I start readin’ a page of The Case for Animal Rights and, slam!, before I know it, I’m snorin’!”
Anyhow, there was one occasion when, along with other philosophers, I was asked to let my imagination run free and to play the unusual role of the “visionary,” including (but not restricted to) the future of philosophy. It’s reprinted in my book, The Thee Generation: Reflections on the Coming Revolution.
So, to the extent that I am a “visionary,” this is the vision I have. And, yes, I know: it takes a person with an enormous amount of optimism to believe that The Thee Generation will come into being and flourish. In my heart of hearts, I am that optimistic person. I believe in humanity’s boundless potential for the good. If I didn’t I could never have tried to make the contributions I mentioned earlier. Why spend one’s life on a hopeless quest? I’ll have more to say about this later.
In Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights, you suggested that some Animal Rights Advocates are DaVincians, many are Damascans, and most are Muddlers. Could you explain what you mean by those fascinating terms and would you tell us what journey you took to transform from a one-time butcher into an ARA “Muddler”?
I’ve met three different types of Animal Rights Advocates — people who are working for true animal liberation. Some are born that way. They don’t need to be convinced; they’re not asking for some sort of proof; it’s just the way they are. That was true of Leonardo, which is why I call these ARAs DiVincians. Others (who I call Damascans) have a life-altering experience, comparable to what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. They see something, or read something, or hear something and, in the blink of an eye, they are transformed into an ARA. Lastly, there are those I call Muddlers. These are people who grow into an expansive animal consciousness a step at a time. They aren’t born that way. They don’t have a single life-transforming experience. They’re looking for some sort of “proof” to convince them. In other words, they just “muddle along.”
That’s certainly how my wife Nancy and I became ARAs. When it’s appropriate I remind people that (as you mentioned) I once worked as a butcher, bought Nancy a stylish mink hat, and wrote (in a letter to her) that elephants are “things.” So, yes, I was a Muddler most certainly. Increasing my animal consciousness was a journey for me. However, for all Muddlers who complete the journey — and I am speaking from personal experience — a day comes when we look in the mirror and to our surprise we see an ARA looking back at us. That’s what happened to me, a son of the working class. As I often say, if Tom Regan can become an ARA, anyone can become an ARA.
That’s why I dedicate Empty Cages “To Muddlers, everywhere!” I know these folks. I’m one of them. They’re my audience, always. I mean, DaVincians don’t need anything from me: they already have an expansive animal consciousness. And as for Damascans: I’m realistic about my power to change a person into an ARA, in the blink of an eye, because of something I write or say. I’m not in the business of mass conversions. No, I’m in the muck with the Muddlers, trying to encourage them to move forward, to take another step.
As for how I got from where I was to where I am: Let me mention two different occurrences that plodded me along. Here I excerpt portions of an interview conducted by Carol Gigliotti forthcoming later this year in Antennae.
First: Nancy and I were active in the anti-war movement back in the days of the Vietnam War. As a philosopher, I thought I should contribute something philosophical to the effort. The problem was, I had never read any of the relevant literature. So there I was, wandering through the stacks of the NC State library. And I remember, as clearly as if it happened yesterday, I took a book off a shelf. It was called An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I had never heard of it, but I had come across the author’s name now and then. The author? Mohandes K. Gandhi. What a fateful choice! Not only did Gandhi help me craft “something philosophical” for the anti-war sentiments so many of us shared. He also opened my (and, of course, Nancy’s) eyes to a new way of seeing our world. Because, of course, Gandhi helped us realize that the fork can be a weapon of violence. And it is a weapon of violence anytime we sit down and eat the dead flesh of a once living being. It is no exaggeration to say that reading Gandhi helped change our life. He was the paramount “intellectual motivation” for us.
Second: As is true of so many newly married couples, our first “child” was a companion animal, in our case a miniature poodle. We named him Gleco, which was the abbreviation for a small business (Gleason and Company) we passed everyday, driving from the country, where we lived, into Charlottesville, where Nancy was teaching special education classes (as they were then called) and I was doing graduate work at the University of Virginia. We had been vacationing and left Gleco with what we thought was a responsible caretaker. Shortly before we arrived home, running free, Gleco was hit by a car and killed. We spent a lot of time grieving over our loss. We had so much emotion invested in Gleco — just that one dog, the one we knew so well. It’s hard to explain how much emotion was banging around in our hearts. Had it been another dog we had known and loved, we would have reacted the same. Or a cat, as we would learn. Or a calf. Or a hen. Or … fill-in the blanks. Not that we embraced every aspect of animal rights as a consequence. For example, we lived for several years as lacto-ovo vegetarians. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that Gleco’s death helped change our life. Facing the powerful emotions associated with his death was the paramount “personal motivation” for us.
Fortunately for me, in 1972 I received a Summer Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities; it freed me up from having to teach that summer. That was when I began to try to make a “philosophical contribution” to the vegetarian movement. The research done during that time came to fruition with the publication of The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, which appeared in the October 1975 issue of The Canadian Journal of Philosophy.
Kai Nielsen was the editor of CJP in those days. I remember him telling me that when he read the title of my paper he put it in the “reject” pile, not reading another word. Then (thinking ill of himself for being so judgmental) he began to read it. “Hmm,” he said after a few pages. “Hmmm,” he said after reading a few more. “I’m not sure I agree with this guy,” he told the members of the editorial board, “but it’s damn good philosophy!” So it’s with the publication of that paper, in the same year that Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was published, that I began to try to make a “philosophical contribution.” Not that my paper had anything like the public influence Singer’s book did. I may be a former butcher but I’m not crazy. Still, I think my paper was among the first cracks (small though it was) in the door of academic resistance to taking animal rights seriously. In fact, Kai told me (and he was a man who was extremely well informed about such matters) that to the best of his knowledge The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism was the very first paper on animal rights published in a peer-reviewed journal in philosophy.
Earlier I confessed to being an optimistic person, and it’s here that I want to share a reason for my optimism. For one thing definitely has changed for the better in the past forty years. Back in the early 70s there was not a single course at America’s four thousand or so colleges and universities that discussed animal rights. Not one. Today I don’t think you can find a single college or university where animal rights is not discussed. And as for philosophy: philosophers have written more on the topic in the past thirty years than our predecessors had written in the previous three thousand. That hasn’t made America a nation of ARAs. But it has made a contribution to the seriousness with which this once “crazy idea,” animal rights, is taken. The way I would put it is: Back then, in the early 70s, we were loitering outside the moat; today we are inside the castle.
In any event, in my 1975 paper I make the case for vegetarianism using what I call a “rights based” approach. I invoke and defend two rights in particular: the right of nonhumans to be spared gratuitous (unnecessary) pain, and their right to life. “What we can see …” I write near the end, “is that the undeserved pain animals feel is not the only morally relevant consideration; that they are killed must also be taken into account.” So, yes. pain/suffering are important; but so are death/destruction.
In your experience, is it necessary to talk to people about “rights” in order to talk with them about what is wrong when it comes to how other animals fare in the world? In other words, is a philosophical discussion necessary in common intercourse or should vegans appeal to non-vegans in some other way?
Different people respond to different opportunities. Over the years I’ve received letters from total strangers who tell me that reading something I’ve written “changed their life.” I’ve also received a like number of messages from people who think I’m a total nut case. So my experience has been: some people respond favorably to philosophical arguments; others do not. My advice? Let other people be our guide. Listen to them, to find out where they are in their life. Maybe they think they “have to eat meat.” Maybe they think “God gave animals to us.” Maybe they think “watching performing animals is great family fun.” Go with their flow. Be patient. Be genuine.
Did I say “be patient?” Nancy recently reminded me of something that happened it now must be twenty years ago at least. We were attending a professional meeting and a student stopped us. “What about plants?” he asked, to which a third person who was with us (raising her voice) said, “That is the stupidest question I’ve ever heard in my life! What do you have, mush for brains?” Then she stormed-off, in a huff. Later that evening, when our paths crossed, she said, “Honest, Tom and Nancy, I swear, people have asked me that question a thousand times! I can’t take it anymore.” To which Nancy and I replied, “Yes, but that was the first time that young man asked us that question.”
The last thing other animals need is another reason not to care about them. How we act towards other people can provide just such a reason. Being rude or judgmental doesn’t help any nonhuman. A coping technique I use (to quell my impatience, when I feel it bubbling-up in my throat) is to think of the people who ask questions I’ve been asked hundreds of times as mirrors. Yes, I think of them as mirrors. When I look at them, in other words, what I see is a reflection of who I used to be.
Like them, there was a time when I didn’t know how other animals were being treated.
Like them, there was a time when I knew but didn’t care.
Like them, there was a time when I knew and cared but not enough to change how I was living.
Like them, there was a time when I was … them!
That’s what I try to remind myself. I don’t want to come across as self-righteous or arrogant. That would give the questioner another reason not to care about other animals, and I don’t want to do that — I don’t want to be that reason.
In your speech in support of the Bill of Rights for other animals at the Royal Institute of Great Britain in 1989, which I regard as one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard, you characterize the perception many in the general public have as one of animal advocates standing against justice and for violence. As you went on to articulate in this same speech, the opposite is true: The philosophy of animal rights does, in fact, stand for peace and against violence. What is your opinion in regard to those who believe it may be possible to end the violence inflicted on other animals by employing violence against humans or their property?
Thanks for your kind words about my talk. It’s hard to remember being as young as I was when I gave it.
Obviously, questions relating to violence are complicated. One question asks what violence is; a second asks whether it can ever be justified. I’ll address both questions here excerpting from Chapter 11 of Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights as well as from my contribution to Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, edited by Steve Best and Anthony Nocella II.
What ‘violence’ means.
Some ARAs think violence is restricted to causing physical harm to a sentient being, human or otherwise. I personally disagree with ARAs who think this way, and I don’t think I am alone. Ask any English speaking member of the general public whether fire-bombing an empty synagogue involves violence. Ask any lawyer whether arson is a violent crime (whether or not anyone is hurt). Ask either of these questions to the people I have described and the answer will be, “Am I missing something? Of course these acts are violent.” The plain fact is, our language is not tortured or stretched when we speak of the “violent destruction of property.” We do not need to hurt someone in order to do violence to some thing.
Gandhi agrees. “Sabotage [destroying property for political purposes, without hurting anyone in the process] is a form of violence,” he writes. Martin Luther King, Jr. sees things the same way. Among the many relevant examples: In March of 1968, shortly before his death, King was leading a march in Memphis on behalf of the city’s sanitation workers. “At the back of the line,” King’s biographer, Stephen B. Oates observes, “black teenagers were smashing windows and looting stores … King signaled to [James] Lawson [the local march coordinator] … ‘I will never lead a violent march,’ King said, ‘so please call it off.’ While Lawson yelled in his bullhorn for everybody to return to the church, King … climbed into a car [and sped away].” No one was hurt that day in Memphis, but some serious violence was done.
Or consider what Nelson Mandela said at his trial for violence and sabotage in October 1963. He admitted quite freely that he was guilty of what he was accused of. “I do not deny that I planned sabotage,” he told the court. “I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation. Without violence [against property] there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle.”
ARAs who think that arson and other forms of destruction of property are forms of “non-violent direct action” are free to think what they will. Certainly nothing I say can make them change their minds. I will only observe that, in my opinion, unless or until these advocates accept the fact that some ARAs use violence in the name of animal rights (for example, when they firebomb empty research labs), the general public will turn a deaf ear when their spokespersons attempt to justify such actions.
So the real question, I believe, is not whether some ARAs use violence. The real question is whether they are justified in doing so. Here are the main outlines of a possible justification.
Can violence be justified?
Despite the influence Gandhi had on my moral and philosophical development, I am not a pacifist in the sense in which he understands this idea, at least as I understand his position. He thinks the use of violence is wrong in all circumstances — that it is always wrong. For my part, I believe violence sometimes can be justified. Here is an example that illustrates my point of view.
Suppose a deranged father has kidnapped his children. He is armed and is threatening to shoot them. If the police kill the father before talking to him, their use of violence can be faulted because non-violent alternatives were not explored; they shot first and asked questions later. Moreover, if they used a gun to kill the father when a tazer, say, would have been sufficient, the authorities can be faulted for using excessive violence; they used more when less violence would have been enough.
What could go wrong in this example suggests what makes violence acceptable when it is.
(1) Violence should be used to defend the innocent only after nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted, as the circumstances permit. And (2) the amount of violence used should be “proportionate” to the threat of the harm faced by those who are innocent. For example, we should not take a person’s life because they have stolen our pencil. It will be useful to give a name to the principle expressed when (1) and (2) are combined. I will call it the violent defense principle.
Except for uncompromising pacifists like Gandhi, the violent defense principle commands universal assent. Assuming the requirement of proportionality is met, ask yourself this: If the use of violence is necessary to defend your innocent friends or loved ones who (let us suppose) are at the mercy of a sadistic neighbor, would you rise to insist that no violence be used? I don’t think so. I know I wouldn’t. Well, all that the violent defense principle does is generalize on our judgments. The innocents who are threatened need not be your friends or loved ones, or my friends or loved ones; they can be anybody. And the person threatening the harm need not be a neighbor; that person could be anyone.
Is the violence done by the A.L.F. justified? Given the violent defense principle, it can be justified only if animals are innocent, which they unquestionably are. For example, the mink imprisoned in fur mills and the mice used in toxicity tests have done no wrong that could possibly justify denying them their freedom, injuring their bodies, or taking their very life. So, yes, these animals are innocent.
Proportionality also is required. More violence should not be used when less will suffice. Can A.L.F. actions meet this requirement? Who can deny that they can, not necessarily all of the time but certainly some of the time.
The situation is different when we apply the final requirement embodied in the violent defense principle. We ask, “Have nonviolent alternatives been exhausted, as circumstances permit? Have ARAs in general, the A.L.F. in particular, done all we (realistically) can do, using nonviolent means, to empty the cages?” I honestly do not think that we have. In fact, I think we have done very little in comparison to what we need to do. We haven’t even been able to stop toxicity tests on “animal models,” for heaven’s sakes. No, from my perspective, the A.L.F.’s use of violence is unjustified. ARAs have not exhausted nonviolent alternatives.
Of course, the opposite conclusion can be reached by ARAs who believe enough already has been done by way of non-violent activism. And it is here, not whether members of the A.L.F. are “domestic terrorists,” that we find the heart of the matter, the place where ARAs have sincere and often deep disagreements. In any event, in my opinion, people do not cease to be ARAs depending on what position they take on this divisive issue. I don’t agree with the A.L.F.’s means. But do I think they are trying to free other animals from the clutches of human tyranny? Yes, I do.
One other thing. In the ’80s I supported the A.L.F. and other activists who were breaking into labs and other dungeons of animal abuse, to document how horribly animals were being treated and to liberate the prisoners. With videos and photos in hand, no one could deny the truth. Personally, in retrospect, I think these actions would have been even stronger if the rescues had been open rescues. That said, A.L.F. actions back then, in addition to liberating prisoners, performed a vitally important educational purpose.
Somewhere along the way, between then and now, A.L.F. actions (in my opinion) took a violent turn. When buildings are torched today the story the media tells is about “domestic terrorists,” not the dungeons of animal abuse. The vital educational purpose has been lost — in the ashes, so to speak. I have more to say about this in Chapter One of Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights.
Can you explain what you regard as the importance and the accomplishments of your Culture and Animals Foundation?
Permit me to start with a bit of history. I had returned home after teaching (this was back in 1985) and Nancy said, “I just heard the most interesting story on NPR. It was about this performance artist, Rachel Rosenthal, who does a production called ‘The Others’ that raises consciousness about the plight of animals. And, get this: there are animals, more than twenty of them, who perform with her. Not ‘trained’ animals. Just tame animals from here and yonder.”
“Really?” I said.
“We should bring her here,” Nancy said.
“You mean (gulp) here, as in Raleigh?”
More “gulping” on my part.
So, how was CAF born? It was born when, with Nancy in the lead, we decided to bring Rachel and “The Others” to Raleigh, North Carolina. Bringing her here (what a story there is to tell!) also served as the inspiration of the CAF mantra, so to speak: “We’d rather be inside the theatre performing than outside the theatre protesting.”
After that decision was made, we were off and running. If we had hosted a performance art production, why not some music (Paul Winter) and comedy (The Montana Logging and Ballet Company)? Why not an art exhibition? We sponsored several, including a major exhibition by Sue Coe, another by Robert Raushenberg. What about Pulitzer Prize winning poets? We invited Maxine Kumin, and Galway Kinnell. What about … ? Legal theorists? Sociologists? Anthropologists? Historians? Political scientists? Biographers? Novelists? Fill-in the blanks. Our annual International Compassionate Living Festival became an energizing focus of our life as ARAs.
Amidst and among these wonderful people, we invited others who were critical of animal rights. Yes, CAF in our mind is synonymous with cultural activism for animals. But we never lost sight of the need to provide ARAs with an opportunity to learn about where those who opposed our thinking were coming from. Some of the best presentations were given by “the enemy.”
In the last few years of ICLF, CAF collaborated with the Animals and Society Institute, the scale of the event having grown beyond CAF’s all-volunteer-capacity to organize. Ours was a pleasant, rewarding collaboration, and we take this opportunity to thank ASI and everyone else who made ICLF possible, for all those many years, including CAF’s current board members (not counting the two of us) Marion Bolz and Mylan Engel.
Today, CAF focuses mainly on our grant program. We are not a wealthy organization. Far from it. That said, we are able to make ten to fifteen grants per year, and while the money is not huge, the grants are helpful to those who receive them. Just this past year we received applications from Chile, Spain, Australia, France, Canada, Finland, England, Italy and, of course, the United States. Obviously, there are creative, inquiring ARAs all over the world committing their time and talent — their lives — to the struggle for animal rights. We only wish CAF had the funds to help more.
Carol Gigliotti recently has written that the conferences CAF sponsored and the grants we have awarded “planted the seeds of human-animal studies in the arts and humanities.” That might be true. We certainly were in a different line of business than any other organization. So, if that’s true — if we truly planted the seeds — that would have to rank as CAF’s most important accomplishment.
In The Case for Animal Rights (esp. chaps. 2-4) and elsewhere it is indicated that you consider that the ability to feel pain does not imply self awareness, in the sense of one having a notion of psychological continuity over time. I therefore believe you must have at least one example of an individual of some species who is sentient but not a subject of a life (even though I still find it difficult to understand such an occurrence from an evolutionary perspective). Who could this individual be?
A tough question but here’s my best shot. Sentiency usually is defined as capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, while self-awareness, as I understand the idea, involves more than being aware of something, including pleasure or pain. It involves being aware that I-am-the-one-who-is-aware-of (in this case) pleasure or pain. Without this higher order/unifying awareness, there is no self-awareness.
Second trimester human fetuses, I believe, are not self-aware in this way. Can they be sentient? Yes, I believe they can be. But are they self-aware? Are they aware-that I-am-the-one-who-is-aware-of-these-stimuli? I don’t think so. Indeed, I don’t think that newly born human infants are aware of themselves, as selves.
There is a concept some philosophers and psychologists explore called the specious present. Roughly speaking, and in this context, it refers to discrete moments of experience that are not united, not held together, by a self. We might think of this sort of mental life as being like a series of disconnected bubbles, each of which lasts only an instant before popping. One bubble, followed by another bubble, followed by another bubble, and so on. In this picture there is no unifying mind or self that carries the memory of the first bubble to the second, then to the third, etc. There is just the series of evanescent, disconnected bubbles, each lasting a moment before popping, none connected to the others.
Could these be the mental states of sentient beings? Could one of the bubbles be pleasant, another painful? Why not? Without self-awareness? Again, why not? Indeed, if we follow this logic, there would be as many discrete sentient beings as there are discrete pleasant and painful bubbles.
Which is why I have never understood how the right to life could be derivable from sentiency. Sentiency, again, means capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. Self-awareness, someone might believe, is not necessary for sentiency. But what sort of mental life would this leave us with? We have one bubble (pain), followed by another bubble (pleasure), followed by another bubble (pain), etc. However, without an enduring self, there isn’t anybody who can have a right to life because there isn’t anybody to have one. There is just one bubble, followed by another bubble, etc., etc.
So, do all sentient beings have a right to life, just because they are sentient? Not that I can see. Not that I can understand.
Of course, this situation would run counter to evolution if this was the permanent state of developing human and nonhuman life. So at some point in the course of development, a unifying mental order must emerge, a self that carries the memory of the one bubble to the occurrence of the second, and so on. But when, and precisely how this happens: well, I don’t think anyone truly knows the answers to these questions.
Hi Professor Regan. Great to get the opportunity to quiz you! I think your work is fantastic and so important. I wonder what your opinion is on animal welfare. As a vegan obviously I don’t agree with the use or abuse of any sentient being for any reason. I wonder do you feel that only a move to abolish any use or abuse of animals is sufficient, or do you feel that ensuring better welfare for animals that are used by humans, such as farm animals, is a part of the journey to adequate animal rights? Is a push for better animal welfare a way of helping society take the logical next step in not using or abusing other animals or does this, as some think, make the use and abuse of other animals acceptable to some? Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for your kind words about my work and for your provocative question, which I know divides people who think of themselves as ARAs. In any event, my own thinking hasn’t changed over the years. For example, back in 1986, I wrote a small booklet entitled The Philosophy of Animal Rights which begins with a short summary of The Philosophy of Animal Rights. More recently I wrote a short essay entitled How to Prolong Injustice. The best I can do by way of answering your question is (slightly edited in some places) to start with the summary, give examples of winnable abolitionist campaigns, and reproduce the essay. Then I’d like to add another essay of mine, Animal Rights and the Myth of ‘Humane’ Treatment, for anyone who would like to read something on that topic.
In trying, as I do, to live by the philosophy you promote I find one of the biggest problems occurs in cases where respecting a moral patient’s rights may conflict with that same individual’s preferences and interests. For example, is there an argument in favor of over-ruling an individual’s free will if, as a result, that individual suffers less, or must individual free will take precedence always (as a right), even if that means the individual’s suffering is greater as a result? Wild animals and pets being just one example in each case. In other words, as moral agents, should our priority be the protection of a moral patient’s free will or the minimization of their suffering, in cases where these conflict? What their free-will drives them to, and what our experience has shown us to be the path of least suffering for them, are not always the same thing!
This is a really hard question, for which I thank you. I think it would take the wisdom of Solomon to give a complete definitive answer, but here goes.
Paternalism means limiting the freedom of another for what we think is their own good. Parents act paternalistically toward their children throughout their formative years after which time the children become independent agents crafting their own destiny.
When it comes to nonhuman animals, my thinking varies, depending on whether we are talking about companion or wild animals.
Companion animals are in some ways (not in every way, of course) like permanent children. For them a day never comes when they pack their bags and move out in pursuit of an independent life. In the nature of the case, therefore, we are called upon to act paternalistically towards them. In fact, this is a central part of the contract we enter into with them when we invite them into our lives. It would be grossly irresponsible of us not to place any constraints of their behavior. Of course, like some parents, human guardians can over-do it. Some of them can be so overbearing, so “protective” that thy squeeze the spontaneity and joy out of their companions. We’ve all encountered these sorts of people. If you’re like me, they make you ill.
What we are looking for in our relationships with our nonhuman companions is a balance between allowing them their freedom, on the one hand, and protecting them, “for their own good,” on the other. Here’s an example from our life with dogs to illustrate what I mean.
Most of the dogs we have lived with have liked to run free, which they were able to do in a park near where we live. (Yes, I know, it’s illegal to unleash a dog in that park, but kindly don’t report me). No cars, trucks, just open space. My role as human companion was to offer them as much freedom as I responsibly could. Of course, that changed when we came out of the park and into our small suburban neighborhood. The world outside the park was different than the world inside the park. Car, trucks, who-knows-what. So on went the stretch leash as we walked home.
One of our dogs, Dr. Pepper, was never satisfied. She would wait for me to unleash her as we were walking down the driveway; then, if I failed to be really mindful, pow!, like a shot out of a cannon, she was off, back to the park! “Come on, dummy!” she was saying, “Let’s play some more!” That dog (she was a mixed breed, and proud of it) was the most devious being I’ve ever known.
Nonhumans living in the wild, on the other hand, normally can get along with their life without needing our paternalistic intervention. I say normally because circumstances can arise in which it would be appropriate to intervene. We have foxes, raccoons and other wild friends who live in our neighborhood. If someone puts poison in food they set out I think it would be entirely appropriate for me to intervene, “for the animal’s good.” But these sorts of exceptions make the rule, in my view. As a general policy, as I write in The Case for Animal Rights, humans should “let wild animals be, keeping human predators out of their affairs, allowing [them] . . . to carve out their own destiny.”
So, does their freedom rank above our paternalistic care? As I said, I think it varies, from one situation to another.
In the Preface to the 2004 edition of The Case for Animal Rights, you wrote that you thought your position was seriously challenged by Callicott’s critique that it does not “provide a credible basis for addressing our obligation to preserve endangered species.” Upon further reflection, have you come to accept this intuition that we have an obligation to preserve endangered species, and if so, on what basis?
Callicott (if my memory serves me well) was one of the non-ARAs we invited to CAF’s International Compassionate Living Festival so people who were ARAs could learn why others were not. I have not seen Baird for (gosh, it must be) over twenty years by now, but I still regard him as a friend from whom I learned much. As for your specific question, about my “failing to account for the intuition that we have an obligation to preserve endangered species”: yes, I think I failed to do justice to that intuition in the first edition of The Case for Animal Rights. However, in the new Preface to the second edition, I think I explain how the rights view can account for this intuition and ground this obligation. Here’s what I write:
“Compensatory justice is an idea advocates of human justice sometimes employ. A classic example involves past injustice done to members of identifiable groups. For example, although today’s descendants of the Miniconjou Sioux who were slaughtered by the 7th US Calvary at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 were not alive at the time of the massacre, it is not implausible to argue that they (today’s descendants) are owed something because of what happened, not only at Wounded Knee but for many years before and after. Given any reasonable view of history, today’s descendants have been disadvantaged because of the massive injustice done to their predecessors. Moreover, what they are owed is something more than what is owed to others of us who have not been disadvantaged in similar ways, for similar reasons. Other things being equal, more should be done for them, by way of compensatory assistance, than what is done for us.
“The rights view can apply compensatory principles to animals (the East African black rhino, for example) whose numbers are in severe decline because of past wrongs (for example, poaching of ancestors and destruction of habitat). Although the remaining rhinos have no greater inherent value than the members of a more plentiful species (rabbits, say), the assistance owed to the former arguably is greater than that owed to the latter. If it is true, as I believe it is, that today’s rhinos have been disadvantaged because of wrongs done to their predecessors, then, other things being equal, more should be done for the rhinos, by way of compensatory assistance, than what should be done for rabbits.”
So, using broad strokes, this is how I think the rights view can account for our intuition that we owe more to the members of endangered species of animals than we owe to the members of more plentiful species. I failed to make this argument in the first edition of The Case for Animal Rights — one of many omissions, I’m sure.
Who gets to say what “animal rights” means and who gets to define what the AR movement is and who is or is not part of it?
Rights have a pedigree, so to speak. Humans have been thinking about them for thousands of years. When we talk about an individual’s rights, therefore, we are talking about an idea that people can’t just make up. Rights mean something. Here are the defining characteristics of the idea as I understand it, beginning with human rights. My answer excerpts several pages from Chapter Four of Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights.
The first thing we learn when we begin to explore human rights is how much they have shaped human history. Revolutions have been fought, religious liberties claimed, and royal heads have rolled, all in the name of human rights. This should tell us something about their importance. When people are willing to take up arms in defense of their rights, perhaps to give their very life, something of great value must be at stake. What could this be?
Read more: Legal Rights and Moral Rights
To act in ways that are respectful of the rights of individuals is to act in ways that are respectful of the individuals whose rights they are. Because human beings have rights to life, bodily integrity, and liberty, serial murderers commit grievous moral wrongs when they take the life of their victims, child molesters act wrongly when they injure their victims, and kidnappers wrong their captives when they deprive them of their freedom. In each of these and all analogous cases, there is an essential moral sameness in the wrong that is done: whenever our individual rights are violated, we are treated with a lack of respect.
In a general sense, then, the several rights discussed (the rights to life, liberty, and bodily integrity) are variations on a main theme, that theme being respect. This is the main theme because treating one another with respect just is treating one another in ways that respect our other rights. Thus it is that this important idea (treating one another with respect) can be used to express what we might call our summary right, the one right that unifies all our other rights: our right to be treated with respect . . .
So, to go back to the first part of your question: rights mean something. And they mean the same thing whether they are ascribed to humans or nonhumans. “Animal rights” exhibit the same characteristics as “human rights”: no trespassing, equality, trump, justice, respect, as has been explained. As I have expressed this idea in a “animal research” context: Animals are not our tasters, we are not their kings. If people affirm animal rights, this is what they are affirming. If others deny animal rights, this is what they are denying.
Now, there are those who deny animal rights but use the words anyway. Peter Singer comes to mind in this regard. He explicitly denies that animals have rights then turns around and says they do anyhow. He says his use of “animal rights” is “rhetorical.” That’s not the way I understand the idea. To my way of thinking, “animal rights” means something. Invoking or appealing to their rights is invoking or appealing to more than a “rhetorical” idea.
As for the second part of your question: “who gets to define what the AR movement is and who is or is not part of it?” The best answer that comes to my mind is: anyone who is working for the recognition of animal rights, whose actions respect the right of humans to be treated with respect, is part of the AR movement. This does not mean that all ARAs must agree on how to bring about this recognition. For example, I do not doubt that members (if that’s the right word) of the A.L.F. see themselves as working for the recognition of animal rights. Do I agree with what they do? No, for reasons cited earlier, I do not. But are they active in the AR movement? Yes, I think they are.
Chapter Six of Defending Animal Rights is called “Patterns of Resistance” in which you describe the “dynamics of exclusion” which prevent the formation of an ideal moral community. You chose to highlight two social institutions which act as “forces of resistance” to the inclusion of a number of groups in the moral community including, of course, nonhuman animals. Could you please outline your argument to enable ARZone members to more fully appreciate “what they are up against”?
All movements for progressive change encounter the same “patterns of resistance.” In the chapter to which you are referring, I discuss the movements to abolish slavery, to enfranchise women, to grant equal rights to gays and lesbians, and to truly liberate nonhuman animals. Two powerful voices resisting all these movements have been (strange bed-fellows) science and religion. For example, defenders of slavery often cited passages from the Bible that they claimed “proved” that God intended blacks to be slaves, whereas others cited various scientific studies (comparative brain size between whites and blacks, for one) that “proved” blacks were biologically inferior to whites. When you have these powerful forces — religion, on the one hand, and science, on the other — speaking in favor of a repressive status-quo, it’s fair to say that changing the status-quo will be a daunting challenge.
And what do we find today, in the midst of our movement — the AR movement? Overwhelmingly, the voices speaking from a religious or a scientific perspective are speaking in favor of human superiority compared to other animals. I am not saying everyone speaking from these perspectives is saying this anymore than everyone speaking from these perspectives in the past favored the subjugation of women. What I am saying is that, overwhelmingly, this is what these voices are saying.
To my mind, it’s important for ARAs to understand these “patterns of resistance.” It’s important, first, because it helps create ARA solidarity with those from the past who have worked for progressive change; they had to face the same forces of resistance we have to face. It’s important, second, because our knowledge of these patterns can perhaps open a dialogue with those who believe in human superiority compared to other animals “because of what the Bible says,” for instance. “Oh,” we can say, “that’s why you believe in human superiority. Well, did you know that slavery was defended in the same way? And so was the subjugation of women.” I’m not saying this will bring every discussion to an end; I’m only saying that this is one way a discussion can begin. And it’s important, finally, because bringing these patterns of resistance to the attention of teachers and administrators can help them understand and, in some cases, possibly embrace the burgeoning field of human-and-animal-studies.
In my talks to ARAs I invite them to imagine a very big wall — a huge wall. The wall symbolizes the oppression of nonhuman animals. If only we could topple that wall with one good push! Chances are, that’s not going to happen. Chances are, we are going to have to dismantle that wall one brick at a time.
Will the wall of animal oppression be disassembled while everything else remains the same? Just speaking for myself, I doubt it. Other broad, deep changes — in how human beings understand what it means to be human as well as in how we are to live within the larger life community — fundamental changes like these will have to occur before the last brick is removed. Something akin to The Thee Generation I described earlier needs to come into being and flourish if other animals are to be truly liberated. To my way of thinking, the animal rights movement is a spoke in the wheel of a much larger movement, what in the past I have called The Whole Movement: the consolidation of all progressive, egalitarian movements. So, yes, most certainly, ARAs will have a place at the table in The Whole Movement. After all, the table is large, the interests varied, and the food is … vegan, of course.
ARZone exists to help educate vegans and non-vegans alike about the obligations human beings have toward all other animals. By providing a space for a variety of blog posts, forum discussions, notes, videos and more, ARZone fosters a sense of community among its members. Through live online chats with a diversity of people who work both within and outside of the animal advocacy community, ARZone supports rational discourse and intelligent dialogue about the most pressing issues facing us today. ARZone is dedicated to seeing an end to the violence committed against all others, with a particular focus on nonhuman animals. ARZone is opposed to speciesism, and all other “isms” that seek to divide rather than unite. ARZone is committed to non-violence, recognition of and respect for basic rights, and ending the commodification of all sentient beings, nonhuman as well as human.
Interview with Tom Regan by ARZone — May 20, 2011