Animal Protection > AR Interviews

By Claudette Vaughan
First published in Vegan Voice

Tom Regan has spent a lifetime talking rationally, writing, lecturing, campaigning and protesting on animal rights issues. Regan's influence has earned the movement respect in places and from people not known to champion a cause as important as ours. His new book "Empty The Cages" is out now. We decided to revisit Professor Regan to find out more on how he approaches the topic of animal right's to a generally apathetic mainstream audience.
Claudette: How do you convince 1st Year university students that studying animal rights philosophy is not a colossal waste of time?
Tom: There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this or other, similar questions. That's one thing all of Animal Rights Advocates (ARAs) need to remember. Different people respond to different opportunities. Our first responsibility is to listen and learn where other people are in their own life, their own journey, then try to meet them there. I know this isn't easy. I know it takes a lot of patience. And I know the results are always uncertain. That said, my message to ARAs is always the same: People can't hear us when we're shouting at them. Which is why I'd want to have a conversation rather than a confrontation with the students you describe and see where it would lead.
Claudette: Animal Rights activists talk a lot about speciesism. How would you explain this idea to students?
Tom: If our conversation went in this direction, I would invite them to reflect on more familiar prejudices, like racism and sexism. The faulty logic of these prejudices is the same. People are discriminated against, they are viewed and treated as counting for less, not because of any personal failing or defect, but merely because they belong to some designated group: Aboriginals, say. But no individual should be viewed or treated as counting for less just because they are a member of one group or another. Everybody understands this once they take a moment to think about it.
First Year uni students would get it very quickly. And once they did, I'd ask them why we should think things work differently for animals. If it's illogical to think that this lesbian aboriginal woman should be viewed and counter for less because she is a woman (a member of one group), a Lesbian (a member of another group), and an aboriginal (a member of a third group), it can't be any less illogical to think that cats and dogs, cows and hogs should be viewed and counted for less because they are members of yet another group: animals.
Claudette: So speciesism in your worldview is?
Tom: Speciesism is thinking that animals should be viewed and counted for less because they are animals.
Claudette: People might agree that speciesism is a prejudice and still reject the idea of animal rights. Why should non-human animals have 'rights'? I mean where does human obligations stop and animals having 'rights' begin?
Tom: Let me say something about rights first; then I can answer you question.
Serious advocates of human rights (and I count myself among them) think the following. Suppose many people would benefit if painful, terminal research was done on small children, something that actually happened when the Nazi doctors conducted experiments using Jewish children. Human rights advocates with one voice will say this was wrong even if it turned out that many generations of humans benefited from what the doctors learned. Respect for the rights of the few is more important than advancing the good of the many. This is what it means to say that humans--you and I, for example--have a right to life, or liberty, or bodily integrity. Basically, we are saying, "Look, morally, there are some things you can't do to us just because you or others will gain something. Like, "Don't take my life. Don't steal my liberty. Don't injure my body.'" If you believe in human rights, this is what you believe.
Claudette: And "animal rights"?
Tom: It comes to the same thing. What ARAs are saying is, "Look, morally, there are some things you can't do to animals just because you or others will gain something. Like, "Don't take their life. Don't steal their liberty. Don't injure their body.'" If you believe in animal rights, this is what you believe. At least this represents what I think. So . . .
Claudette: go back to my question about animal rights and human obligations?
Tom: We have lots of obligations that don't involve rights. For example, if you've been especially kind or generous to me, I think I have an obligation to acknowledge your help. But I don't think you have a right to it. Otherwise people could go around creating rights for themselves just by being especially nice to others. Respect for rights is among our obligations, our most important obligation, in my view. But not all obligations involve respect for rights.
Claudette: In animal rights philosophy many philosophers pose the question 'Do animals have the ability to reason?' Would you see this as a loaded question, disadvantaging non-human animals because we impose our idea of who gets rights and who doesn't?
Tom: It's the wrong question, that's for sure. A way to think of it is this way. Both my granddaughters were born in 2003. Were they able to reason when they were two days old, two weeks old, two months old? I love them dearly but truth to tell I don't think they were able to reason then. Do I think that it would have been perfectly all right to take their life or injure their body because you or others would benefit? Of course not. None of us thinks this way when we ask about how humans should be treated. Why think any other way when animals are on the receiving end? Granted, you could think this way if you are a speciesist. But, as we've seen a moment ago, speciesism is nothing more than prejudice.
Claudette: But aren't we still imposing our idea of who gets rights and who doesn't?
Tom: If you mean, "Aren't we still trying to decide whether animals have rights based on how we understand human rights?," my answer would be, "Yes, of course. What other basis could we possibly have?" In all our thinking, I believe we should reason from what we know best to what we want to discover, what we want to learn. Myself, when it comes to rights, I think we understand human rights best. More, I think we can learn about the rights of other animals by starting there: with our rights. Like I said, I don't think this is a case of imposing anything. I think it's a case of discovering something.
Claudette: You must be proud of crusading the animal rights debate through your book, The Case for Animal Rights especially now since the legal personhood rights of animals is a topic of hot debate among commentators that normally wouldn't be interested in such subject matter.
Tom: Thank you for your kind words about The Case. I hope it's done some good. You never know about such things. Paradoxically, though, "legal personhood"--any kind of personhood--I find problematic.
Claudette: Why is that?
Tom: Because the argument for granting legal personhood to other animals is couched in terms of whether any of them are able to reason. The argument goes like this. "We have legal rights because we can reason. Nonhuman primates (and maybe a few other nonhuman animals) can reason. Therefore, nonhuman primates (and these other animals) should have legal rights."
If being able to reason is not a proper standard for determining which humans have rights (remember my granddaughters), the ability to reason can't be a proper standard for determining which animals have rights. So, no, I'm not hot over the current excitement about whether some animals are legal persons--though I am encouraged by the fact that people who haven't done so before are willing to explore this way of thinking. For ARAs, a gain of an inch is like a gain of a mile.
Another thing. The mistake is not to reason from human rights to animal rights. The mistake is to select the incorrect basis of human rights, then to conclude that animals do not have rights because they don't satisfy that basis. Belonging to our species is an example of an incorrect basis. So is the ability to reason. The correct basis, I think, is simpler and far more pervasive. It's whether you are a somebody, not a something. Whether you have a biography, not merely a biology. Whether what happens to you, what you experience, matters to you, whether anybody else cares about this or not. You and I are like this, Claudette. And so are my granddaughters.
Claudette: And of course other animals too?
Tom: Yes, and other animals, too. Billions and billions of them, whether they can reason or not, and whether they are members of our species or not. Like us, they are the subjects of a life, not a life without a subject. If I have contributed anything of lasting importance to the struggle for animal rights (and who knows where the truth lies on that score) it is this idea: that basic moral rights are shared by those humans and other animals who are the subjects of a life.
Claudette: Activists around the world are raving about the book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy. I suspect some of it is because here is a right-wing ex President Ronald Regan speech-writer who is calling for mercy for the animals and identifies himself as "a friend of pro-animal people". Yet in my experience it's the old (and new) Lefties doing most of the work in our movement. What makes me uneasy with Scully is he outrightly rejects the Rights position for non-human animals and when you do this you might as well only talk welfarism. What do you think?
Tom: I've read Dominion and met Scully. He's a fine writer. I learned important things from his book. A truly decent human being (even though I can't abide his politics; he's writing speeches only now for President Bush). But, yes, in his case, the messenger in some respects is as important as the message. Most ARAs are politically progressive on a broad range of topics. You won't find us railing on against same sex marriage, for example. But when it comes to mercy, who can be against it? I don't ever remember hearing someone complaining about there being too much mercy in the world. That's the appeal of Scully's book: it identifies a value everyone can embrace, regardless of political orientation. It's hard to be categorically against this (but it's important to make sure that our message, the animal rights message, doesn't get drowned-out or dumbed-down in the bargain).
Claudette: Tom tell us about your brand new book Empty Cages: Facing the Challange of Animal Rights.
Tom: Let me begin by saying something about who doesn't need to read it. People I call DaVincians (after Leonardo DaVinci) can skip it. Like Leonardo, DaVincians are born with a sensitivity to animals they never lose. Animals are their friends, and DaVincians protect their friends. Someone puts animals in a cage, DaVincians want to get them out. Someone cooks dead animals to eat, DaVincians don't dine at that table. No argument is needed, no philosophy. Their sympathy, empathy, solidarity with animals is a special gift DaVincians bring with them (don't ask me how) when they enter the world.
Then there are those I call the Damascans (after the apostle Paul). The story in the Bible goes like this. Friends ask a man named Saul to come to Damascas to help them bad mouth another man named Jesus. On the road to Damascus, so the story goes, Jesus miraculously appears to Saul and asks him to chill out. This single experience, this one event, is enough to change his life. Saul, the detractor of Jesus, becomes Paul, the apostle of Jesus. Just like that.In the blink of any eye.
The same kind of thing sometimes happens to some ARAs. Maybe they read something, or watch a video, or visit a slaughterhouse. The possibilities are numerous but the plot is the same. Like Saul, they experience something and, pow!, there and then they are changed forever. No big time philosophical argument. No marshalling of facts. The transformational is experiential, not logical, on the spot not over time.
Claudette: Is this your audience: the Damascans out there?
Tom: I wish. It would be wonderful if everyone who read Empty Cages was instantly changed into an ARA. If that were true, we could change the world just by getting people to read it. But I don't think this will happen very often, if at all. No, my audience consists of all those folks I call Muddlers: people who ask some questions, find some answers; then ask some more questions, and find some more answers; and so on. People whose life is a slow journey, not a bolt of lightning. People who just muddle along, inching ever closer to becoming an ARA. Empty Cages is written for them. As a Muddler myself, I think I know what it's like to grow slowly into animal consciousness.
Claudette: So Empty Cages is not a replay of The Case for Animal Rights?
Tom: No. The Case is a book in moral theory. Rigorous. Demanding. Empty Cages is more about what is happening to animals and why people should not believe what animal exploiters and government spokespersons tell them.
Claudette: For example?
Tom: Here are a few. All the major animal abusing industries say the same thing. They say they support (and I'm quoting) the "humane care and responsible use of animals." The people who raise calves in crates say this. The people who raise fur-bearing animals in fur mills say this. The people who blind, drown, suffocate, paralyse and dismember animals in laboratories says this. Spokespersons for circuses and marine parks, greyhound racing and "sport" hunting: they all say this. What I document in Empty Cages, in all these cases and more, is that nothing could be further from the truth. None of these animals is treated humanely.
Claudette: This isn't news to Animal Rights Advocates.
Tom: That may be true (though I dare say that even the most experienced ARAs in the world will learn things they don't know about what is being done to animals). The more important point, though, is that all those people who are not already ARAs, all those Muddlers: they believe what the industries and the government tell them, they trust these people. They won't put their belief in trust in these people after they've read Empty Cages. They will understand (this is the way I put it) that they are the victims of "a special interest mind job."
Claudette: Obviously, you think this new awareness will help.
Tom: Absolutely. You see, the way the cards are stacked, the abusers and government spokespersons are the ones who are believed, not ARAs. Which is why we will never have our message heard and believed. One of the central objectives of Empty Cages is to reverse this dynamic, so that we are the ones who are trusted, not the abusers and government types.
Claudette: People who've read the book seem to agree. Howard Lyman says Empty Cages will do for the animal rights movement what Silent Spring did for the environmental movement." Jane Goodall says: "Every so often a book is written that is destined to change the way people think. Tom Regan has written just such a book." J. M. Coetzee, the 2003 Nobel Laureate for literature, says that "Tom Regan delivers a searing indictment of the way we treat animals . . ." And Jeffrey Masson calls it "the best introduction to animal rights ever written."
Claudette: There's a website that goes with the book?
Tom: Yes. It's Let me encourage everyone who reads this interview to check it out. Laura Moretti of Animals Voice designed it. The amount of information it contains is just incredible. Nothing is held back. It's all there, for all the world to see.
Go to first Tom Regan Interview