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An Analysis of Tom Regan's "Animal Rights, Human Wrongs"

Luke Holm earned bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Tom Regan's "Animal Rights, Human Wrongs" is a compelling read.

Tom Regan's "Animal Rights, Human Wrongs" is a compelling read.

Animal Rights, Human Wrongs by Tom Regan

Tom Regan, an animal rights activist, wrote Animal Rights, Human Wrongs to show that animals have rights in just the same way as humans do. In this article, I will review much of Regan's discussion about the matter of "animal rights" and analyze several of his arguments that attest to the liberation of animals from the cruel grasps of speciesist humans.

His first and second chapters help to show what kinds of cruelty animals are subjected to. After briefly reviewing the first two chapters, I will review many of the theories which Regan presents throughout chapters three through seven. After, I will briefly analyze several of Regan's responses to critique in chapters eight and nine. Finally, I will summarize my thoughts on the book and relate what I thought were Regan's strongest arguments.

Chapters 1 & 2: Types of Animal Suffering

The first two chapters of Animal Rights, Human Wrongs are much like all of Singer's Animal Liberation. Essentially, they help to show the massive amounts of cruelty that animals are victims of every single day. As more thoroughly discussed in another article analyzing Singer's Animal Liberation, we are made aware of animals produced for food, such as anemic veal calves and factory farm-raised hogs and chickens. Regan then goes on to tell how the fashion industry exploits animals for their furs or pelts. He relates how minks are made to suffer in unnatural conditions which go completely against their environments in the wild. Furthermore, Regan tells how many animals are captured for their furs. One of the cruelest ways to make an animal suffer is to trap it in a steel-jawed trap and allow it to writhe and struggle until the trapper makes his rounds and ends the poor animal's life once and for all. Finally, Regan emphasizes the cruelty done to animals in laboratory testing facilities. Drug manufacturers, cosmetic companies, and other such scientists subject animals to studies that rarely offer benefit to human beings as a whole. Regan concludes with the notion that while using animals for tools, or as means to an end, nears the highest human capacity for evil, tests such as LD50 tests and other cosmetic-oriented testings are slowly diminishing due to a higher standard of morality and the general public finding out what happens to animals when they are used as tools rather than as pets.


Chapter 3: Positive and Negative Rights

Chapter three begins the real purpose of the book: to show that animals have rights in much the same ways as humans do. However, before Regan is able to show this, he must first show that humans have rights in a moral sense.

In order to show this, he begins by showing what kinds of rights can be had—positive and negative rights. Negative rights are ones such as the invisible "No Trespassing" signs that humans might have for their bodies. Negative rights give humans bodily integrity, the right not to be harmed by another person, or the right not to have their person invaded by another. Positive rights, if there are such things, are the rights or benefits of human society; such as the right to health care or education. However, while there may be such a thing as positive rights, we shall focus solely on negative rights, for these are the kinds of rights on which Regan bases his later arguments for the rights of animals. Thus, negative rights will reign in the realm of moral rights.

There are two basic assumptions when it comes to negative rights. First, the attainment of negative rights means that other humans do not have the right to physically harm or invade your body without your consent to do so; this is much like the invisible "No Trespassing" sign Regan describes. Second, the possession of negative rights means that other humans may not impede upon or limit your personal autonomy or freedom. If humans do possess these two rights, then negative rights should always trump any other rights of morality.

To further explain, imagine a utilitarian who believes in the morality of others. Meanwhile, there are three sickly patients who are in need of a liver, a heart, and a lung. Since these sickly patients have a right to life, and since the utilitarian’s goals are to maximize the well-being of the greatest possible number, the utilitarian would find it acceptable to kill one healthy person, extract his organs, and distribute the necessary organs in order to save the sickly people. The trump, then, would go to the healthy person, for the healthy person has the negative right to not have others invade his personal being. His right to personal integrity trumps the needs of the other sickly persons.

The next benefit of having rights is that everyone who has them has them equally. This seems obvious in modern-day North America; however, this was not always such a clearly defined notion, for we once owned slaves and harbored other such prejudices toward our fellow humans. This is why moral rights are observed as just. Claims of justice when it comes to rights are claims to the fairness of the distribution of such equal rights. "Trespass. Trump. Equality. Justice. These are among the ideas that come to the surface when we review the meaning and importance of moral rights. While each is essential, none succeeds in unifying the core concept" (Regan 29). Regan states that these elements are needed when it comes to a unified concept of moral rights. While he is providing these elements for the advocacy of human rights, his underlying motive is to begin showing what kinds of rights animals have if they, in fact, have any rights at all.

Chapter 4: Direct and Indirect Duty

Chapter four begins to illustrate what kinds of duties humans might have to animals. The first type of duty is called an indirect duty. Indirect duties are duties that involve animals but are not duties to animals. Regan gives an example of what such a duty would consist of. You have a dog who you dearly love, but your neighbor finds the dog a nuisance. One day your neighbor breaks your dog's leg for no reason whatsoever. "Proponents of indirect duties agree that your neighbor has done something wrong. But not to your dog. The wrong that has been done, they will say, is a wrong to you" (32). The reason for the wrong having been done to you is because the dog is your property and you are the one who is made upset by your neighbor's action. The reason the dog has not been wronged is that they lack sufficient knowledge of human interests. "The interests animals have, if in fact they have any, it is claimed, are of no direct relevance to morality, whereas human interests, meaning both our preference interests and our welfare interests, are directly relevant" (33). Preference interests are what humans want to do or possess, while welfare interests refer to what is in human's best interests.

From here, Regan elaborates on how human interests can be mutually sought out and obtained for the benefit of both parties. One way to do so is to participate in a simple contract. When two people enter into a simple contract, "...both parties seek to advance or protect their individual self-interest. Contracts are entered into for the good of each person who signs, and no one should sign unless convinced that it is to that person's advantage to do so" (39). Therefore, those who do not enter into the contract have no particular say in such contractarian matters. Those who cannot participate in such contracts at all, such as children or animals, are especially excluded from the matters of simple contractarianism, because they do not know what, specifically, is in their best interests.

The fact that those who are not part of the contract are excluded from the rights or benefits of those who do participate in the contract is a problem. Aside from this problem, there is also the problem of who is stating what is fair and what should be considered a right or benefit. For simple contractarianism, what is just or fair is what the contractors decide upon. This means that the interests of many people might be ignored altogether, while few people reap the benefits of the discriminating contract. In order to give fair advantage to all people equally, a new form of contract should be established: Rawlsian contractarianism.

John Rawls: A Theory of Justice

John Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice in attempts to formulate a global contract that remains fair for all people and societies of the world. Rawlsian contractarianism is brilliant because it has the contractors assume a veil of ignorance. To elaborate on what a veil of ignorance is, imagine the leaders of the world who are devising a contract. Obviously, each leader wants what is best for their self-interest as well as the interests of the land they rule over. What the veil of ignorance does is that it has the leaders assume that they do not know which land or people they will rule over. In doing so, equality and fairness are established; since the leaders do not know what they will be ruling over once the contract has been made. "Since all [contractors] are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain" (43).

While this form of contract seems quite good, we find that it still excludes the interests of animals in what seems to denote speciesist claims of who deserves to have their interests fulfilled and who does not. It would be speciesist to claim that animals do not have interests that they wish to be fulfilled. Two interests that come to mind would be the positive interest to be provided with food and the negative interest in not being harmed in any way.


Chapter 5: Moral Rights and Utilitarianism

Chapter five discusses what kinds of direct duties we owe to humans and animals alike. To begin, Regan posits the cruelty-kindness view which maintains "...that we have a direct duty to be kind to animals and a direct duty not to be cruel to them" (51). The cruelty-kindness view is appealing because it not only overcomes the speciesism of simple and Rawlsian contractarianism but also helps motivate man to be more kind to man. As Immanuel Kant put it, "Tender feelings toward dumb animals develop humane feelings toward mankind," and, "[H]e who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men" (51).

Here is when Regan begins to make progress in his notions that animals should be considered in the realm of moral rights. For since the cruelty-kindness view imposes itself on anyone or anything toward which we can act cruelly or kindly, this view encompasses a morality that includes animals. To put it briefly, we can act cruelly or kindly toward animals, but we cannot act cruelly or kindly to inanimate objects such as a rock. But what, then, is an act of cruelty, one might ask? I believe that Regan takes cruelty to be an act in which a person gains satisfaction or pleasure from the pain or obstruction of freedom in another sentient being. This should distinguish between cruel acts and people acting cruelly. For a person can be forced to kill another person against his will. While the act is cruel, the person is not acting with cruelty, because they gain no satisfaction in the act they are performing.

When discussing a direct duty view, Regan wants to note two forms of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, the maximization of utility or pleasure for the most people possible, may encompass the preferences of animals. Here we get preference utilitarianism and its two principles. "The first is a principle of equality: everyone's preferences count, and similar preferences must be counted as having similar weight or importance" (57). This means that any being that has a preference must have his or its preference counted on equal measurement to other beings. If it can be proved that animals have preferences, then their preferences must be considered equal to that of humans.

The second principle preference utilitarians accept " that of utility: we ought to do the act that brings about the best overall balance between totaled preference satisfactions and totaled preference frustrations for everyone affected by the outcome" (57). This means that when acts come to moral rights or wrongs, they are right if they lead to the best overall consequences and wrong if they do not lead to the best overall consequences. A morally correct act would be one that satisfies an individual's interest and a morally wrong act would be one that frustrates an individual's interest. For preference utilitarians, it is not the individual which matters, but the act that affects the individual. Furthermore, the notion of best overall consequences is one that totals all the satisfactions and frustrations for the action taking place and chooses the act that will bring about the best overall balance of totaled satisfactions over totaled frustrations. Therefore, the best overall consequences do not necessarily have to be the best for the individual.

With all that said, Regan dislikes preference utilitarianism, because it requires that we count evil preferences which might result in an evil action taking place. This means that in certain cases it might be morally justifiable to impede on a person's or animal's negative moral rights. Regan gives us an example of this where it might be morally justifiable for the preference utilitarian to have sex with an animal or child if the sex is mutually satisfying for both parties. To further elaborate on why Regan dislikes preference utilitarianism, imagine all of the animals slain in order to feed them and satisfy the gustatory sensationalist humans throughout the globe. Even though the animals being cruelly destroyed are taken into account, so too are the cravings for their meat from the general populace. Since this theory must take into account the majority of people, 98% of meat-eaters, in this case, Regan believes that preference utilitarianism is a bad theory to adopt if one is looking for radical social change and the acceptance of animals' rights.

Chapters 6 & 7: Animal Rights

In chapters six and seven, Regan finally begins theorizing about what kinds of rights humans and animals do have. Following the previous two chapters, Regan relates that we should first observe the duty of respect to our fellow human beings. Regan prefers the duty of respect over preference utilitarianism and the cruelty-kindness theory because it avoids the weaknesses of the latter theories and maintains the strength of utilitarianism. As a valid principle of direct duty to all human beings, the duty of respect should allow for the least amount of negative actions while still allowing for the positive preferences of morally correct actions. Furthermore, the duty of respect to human beings accounts for intrinsic value in human beings and consistently requires that people treat other humans as an end and not necessarily a means to an end.

Here, a question one might have is whether or not it is okay to kill someone or something if they were treated with respect. Regan gives the example of prolonged torture before death or a drink laced with tasteless poison and a calm soothing death. It should be noted that in both cases the being is not being treated with respect of any kind. Even if a murder is done humanely, it should not be considered respectful to the being's right to life and personal integrity.

Who, then, deserves to be treated with a duty of respect? Regan creates the term "subjects-of-a-life" to denote those whom he thinks deserve rights and a duty of respect. A subject-of-a-life is something that is conscious; both aware of the outside world and the world within. Any being who has an experiential life is one that should be considered a subject-of-a-life. Any being that is not a subject-of-a-life is a being that does not have a right to the duty of respect.

With that being said, Regan turns his view to the rights of animals. While Regan believes that animals have rights and should be owed the duty of respect because they are subjects-of-a-life, he does not merely assume that others take his notions to be true. In order to rationalize why animals should have rights, he evaluates questions of fact, questions of value, questions of logic, and practical questions. When it comes to animals' rights, the question of fact is whether or not animals have minds like ours. Regan believes that they do, because their behavior is quite similar to ours, both when expressing pain and when fulfilling their preferences and welfare interests. He also notes that their physiological anatomy resembles ours in the way that their central nervous systems and brain stems create psychological activity within their brains.

When it comes to questions of value, it is more difficult, because animals cannot tell you about the world that is going on inside of their mind. However, this should not matter too much, for we accept that young children have inherent value in their lives because they too are subjects-of-a-life. Therefore, Regan believes, any being that is a subject-of-a-life is one that experiences the inner world of their own life. For if that is all humans are, conscious subjects-of-a-life, then it would be speciesist to believe that other subjects-of-a-life do not hold value for their own lives. Also, like human subjects-of-a-life, there is no hierarchy as to whose life holds more value, for all humans think their lives hold the most value. If humans have this equality because they are subjects-of-a-life, then it would again be speciesist to believe that our lives hold more value over animals; just as it would be prejudiced to believe that a White man's life holds more value than a Black man's life.

When Regan evaluates animals' rights from a logical perspective, he gives a lengthy proof that attempts to prove that other than humans, animals' interests matter just as much. Within the proof, Regan reviews the rights view and the duty of respect view. These respects are owed to all beings who are experiencers of life. If there is a theory of morality that discredits animals as experiencers of life, then that theory is inadequate. Regan then concludes the proof by expressing that "...the relevant similarity shared by humans who have inherent value is that we are subjects-of-a-life" (96). Since animals too are subjects-of-a-life, they too possess inherent value. "Because all those who possess inherent value possess the equal right to be treated with respect, it follows that all those human beings and all those animal beings who possess inherent value share the equal right to respectful treatment" (96).


Chapter 8: Animal Rights Apologist

In chapter eight, Regan reviews and critiques common objections and replies to the animals have rights argument. Several general objections include the ideas that animals are not human, the extension of rights to lower animal species such as amoebas, and the extension of rights to plant life. Regan also includes religious objections such as the notion that animals do not have souls and God-given rights to humans.

Finally, he concludes the chapter with philosophical objections from Carl Cohen, which include arguments for animals living in an amoral world. Out of all of these objections, I think that Carl Cohen's philosophical arguments hold the most weight. His arguments parallel those of the general arguments in which animals live in the wild and therefore do not adhere to the morality of human society. However, as Regan argues, these objections do not hold much weight at all in lieu of his theory of the right to respectful treatment.

Regardless of a subject-of-a-life acknowledging the morals of society, that subject-of-a-life is owed respectful treatment if they are indeed a subject-of-a-life. A common objection would be the mentality of a young child or of a senior experiencing senility. While neither can fully grasp the morality of society, especially that of respectful treatment, they are still owed respectful treatment because they are experiencers of a life.

Respectful Treatment of Subjects-of-a-Life

Finally, Regan wraps up Animal Rights, Human Wrongs with a plea for change in the realm of rights and morality. As argued throughout the rest of the book, it is noted that the way we treat animals will eventually be reflected in the way we treat our fellow humans. This last chapter is an attempt to abolish the ways of the old, indulging in eating animal flesh purely for the gustatory sensations, and asks that people consider new means for clothes, medical research, and dietary needs. While there is much work to continuously be done in the field of animal ethics, it should be noted that huge strides have been made in the changing of attitudes toward animal rights and the ways we treat our fellow conscious beings.

In conclusion, I feel that Regan's arguments for the respectful treatment of other subjects-of-a-life should be regarded as the strongest presented throughout this entire book. This argument stems from the types of rights conscious beings are owed, and the duties to which other conscious beings owe them. While respectful treatment may be the strongest of the arguments, I also thought that the cruelty-kindness argument had several strengths of its own. Since it has been shown that subjects-of-a-life who cannot acknowledge our moral systems, such as infants and senile adults, should be treated as equal in the realm of morality, I think that it proceeds with our duty to treat all subjects-of-a-life with kindness and to abstain from treating these subjects with cruelty.

In any case, like Kant similarly stated, it should be our fellow conscious beings that we put our time and effort into treating fairly and equally. While this seems to be the path that our morality is headed toward, there will always be much more work to do in the understanding of just how much our actions affect others and the world as a whole.

Non-Human Animal Rights

© 2018 JourneyHolm


Jennifer Mugrage from Columbus, Ohio on March 04, 2018:

Wow ... So many thoughts here ...

First of all, by "Singer" do you mean Peter Singer? And isn't this the same Peter Singer who uses his "ethics" theory to justify practicing abortion on human babies and beastiality on animals? And if so, shouldn't we be calling this man out in the loudest possible terms?

I agree that negative rights are much easier to defend than positive rights. If you have a positive right to some kind of good or service, that you means you have a morally enforceable claim on other people to make them provide you with said good or service. Which can quickly come to mean that you have a right to compel their labor or take their property.

Actually, I have a bit of a problem with the whole language of rights. I think it's clearer to say that some actions are wrong for the perpetrator, than that they violate some right of the victim's.

We can say that it's wrong to cause physical suffering without saying that every living being has a right to be free from physical suffering. It's possible to refrain from cruelty, but it's not possible to prevent or relieve all pain.

I agree that utilitarianism has some major problems. It leads to dilemmas like "Would you push the fat man in front of the train to save 100 other people?". As flawed people, our perception of what "the greatest good" is, and who should count among "the greatest number" is always going to be skewed in our own favor. This is perfectly illustrated by your example of a molester claiming that the abuse is OK because he believes the child or animal enjoys it.

That's why I believe we need an ethical system that comes from outside ourselves ... such as one revealed by God. The Bible says "Thou shalt not murder" and says nothing about whether murdering one person would save 100. That makes the fat man dilemma easy: don't push.

In the Bible, God does give humans permission to eat animals, but He also enjoins us not to be cruel to them. In view here is a farmstead where people raise their own livestock and slaughter them every once in a while. Much more humane than the modern commercial farms you describe. Also, there are ways to get clothing from animals without killing them. (Shoutout to sheep!)

Common sense tells us that the higher animals are sentient, and that the way a person treats his or her domestic animals reveals that person's character and is a good predictor of how he or she will treat humans as well. I think this is something that everyone knows who has been around animals at all.

However, I'm not down with the whole "live without killing anything ever" philosophy. Trees? Wheat fields? Cold germs? Cancer cells?

Sorry for this super long comment. Your Hub was very thought provoking.