The Case for Animal Rights

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The Case for Animal Rights
The Case for Animal Rights, first edition.jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorTom Regan
CountryUnited States
SubjectsAnimal rights
PublisherUniversity of California Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages474 (2004 paperback edition)
Preceded byAll That Dwell Therein: Essays on Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics 
Followed byAnimal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science 

The Case for Animal Rights is a 1983 book by the American philosopher Tom Regan, in which the author argues that at least some kinds of non-human animals have moral rights because they are the "subjects-of-a-life," and that these rights adhere to them whether or not they are recognized.[1] The work is considered an important text within animal rights theory.[2]


Regan's position is Kantian (though Immanuel Kant himself did not apply it to non-humans), namely that all subjects-of-a life possess inherent value and must be treated as ends-in-themselves, never as a means to an end. He also argues that, while being the subject-of-a-life is a sufficient condition for having intrinsic value, it is not a necessary one: an individual might not be the subject-of-a-life yet still possess intrinsic value.[3]

The argument is a deontological one, as opposed to consequentialist. If an individual possesses a moral right, that right may not be sacrificed even if the consequences of doing so are appealing.[4] He describes his "subject-of-a-life criterion" as follows:

[It] involves more than merely being alive and more than merely being conscious. ... individuals are subjects-of-a-life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference- and welfare-interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else's interests. Those who satisfy the subject-of-a-life criterion themselves have a distinctive kind of value – inherent value – and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles."[5]

Regan argues that normally mental mammals over a year old satisfy the conditions, including most human beings, with the possible exception of those in persistent vegetative states, as do several species of birds, and possibly fish.[1] The key attribute is that – following Thomas Nagel's "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974) – there is something that it is like to be those individuals; they are the subjects of experience whose lives matter to them, even if they do not matter to anyone else.[6]

In addition, Regan rejects the idea of contractarianism, as he makes the argument that children are "unable to sign contracts and lack rights". Similarly, animals do not have the capacity to sign contracts, so why should children have an advantage over animals? Furthermore, he makes the argument that if he were to approach animal rights through a contractarianism, when somebody kicks your dog, it is morally wrong because it upsets you but not the dog. Intuitively, this does not make sense, and contractarianism can be dismissed. His argument against utilitarianism is a bit more complicated.[7]

[Tom's] Aunt Bea is old, inactive, a cranky, sour person, though not physically ill. She prefers to go on living. She is also rather rich. I could make a fortune if I could get my hands on her money, money she intends to give me in any event, after she dies, but which she refuses to give me now. In order to avoid a huge tax bite, I plan to donate a handsome sum of my profits to a local children's hospital. Many, many children will benefit from my generosity, and much joy will be brought to their parents, relatives and friends. If I don't get the money rather soon, all these ambitions will come to naught [...][7]

He goes on to describe the plot in which he murders his Aunt. Would it be okay to do so? Most people, he assumes, would say no.[7]


The moral philosopher Mary Midgley notes in the London Review of Books that Regan builds on the work of Peter Singer, commenting that "utilitarianism [Singer's position], though strong today, is only one side of our current morality". Midgley states, "Essentially I think he [Regan] is right ... Persuasion is needed, not in the sense of illicit emotional pressure, but of imaginative restatement. From this angle, the strategy of Regan’s book is faulty. It is too abstract and too contentious. As tends to happen with American academic books in the Rawlsian tradition, the relation between theory and practice is oversimplified. There is too much attention paid to the winning of arguments and too little to the complexities of the world."[2]

Midgley also notes, "Ought it [the Kantian idea of morality] really to be used – as it still very often is – to exclude animals from serious consideration? This is Regan’s question and he deals with it soundly. He does not find it hard to show that the notion of humanity which this Kantian view encapsulates is far too narrow, hard to defend at any time, and increasingly so today.", and "The core of Regan’s argument is, then, this concept of an independent, conscious being. Reversing the traditional approach, he puts the burden of proof on those who claim that some such beings do not matter"[2]

With regard to future debate, Midgley states:

It would certainly be better to relate ‘rights’ more clearly to a background of other moral concepts, with much more attention to the priority systems by which we deal with conflicts. And – to consider the future – we urgently need now to move the controversy in the direction of asking what we mean by rights and by equality, rather than continuing with any more simple yes-or-no battles about whether animals have them. Regan’s book is certainly important and in many ways admirable – a serious, substantial contribution to giving animals their proper place on the philosophical map.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rowlands 1998, pp. 59–60.
  2. ^ a b c d Midgley, Mary (7 June 1984). "The Limits of Humanism". London Review of Books. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
  3. ^ Rowlands 1998, p. 61.
  4. ^ Francione 1996, p. 14.
  5. ^ Regan 1983, p. 243.
  6. ^ Regan 1989 Archived 2012-04-28 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ a b c Regan, Tom. "Animal Rights." Doing Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues. By Lewis Vaughn. Second ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. 575-82. Print.


Further reading[edit]