Regan’s Defense of Mammals

Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights is actually a case for mammalian animal rights. He qualifies the animals hat he is defending by repeatedly specifying that they are normal, mammalian, and over one year of age. Regan’s eventual argument for the rights of nonhuman animals is, therefore, disappointing in its exclusion of countless species.

It is only after providing a detailed description of why other animal rights theories are inadequate that Regan posits his own: the subject-of-a-life approach, or the Rights View. By his own definition: “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; 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 … [they also] have a distinctive kind of value- inherent value- and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles” (Regan, 243). He makes clear that not all humans or nonhumans animal qualify. “Normal mammalian animals, aged one or more, as well as human like these animals in the relevant respects,” writes Regan, “can intelligibly and nonarbitrarily be viewed as having inherent value” (Regan, 247). As for non-mammalian animals and every being under age one, Regan is unwilling to take a solid stance. He writes that, “it remains possible that animals that are conscious but not capable of acting intentionally, or say, permanently comatose human beings might nonetheless be viewed as having inherent value” (Regan, 246). He will not state that they do have inherent value, only that it is possible. And what about those human and nonhuman animals who, while not meeting all of Regan’s subject-of-a-life criteria, are alive, aware, and a far cry from comatose? He writes that “it may be that animals, for example – which, though conscious and sentient (i.e., capable of experiencing pleasure and pain), lack the ability to remember, to act purposively, or to have desires or form beliefs – can only properly be viewed as receptacles of what has intrinsic value, lacking any value in their own right” (Regan, 246). “Mere receptacles,” in this context, is defined as treating said receptacles “as if their value depended upon their utility relative to the interests of others” (Regan, 248-49).

This is where Gary Francione takes issue with Regan’s theory. He also finds the idea that only some animals deserve to be subjects-of-a-life to be reprehensible. Francione points out that “although it is easier to identify the constellation of qualities that Regan describes as present in normally developed mammals of a particular age, there is no doubt that chickens and other birds are intelligent, sentient beings with an experiential life. And although most of us do not even think of fish as conscious of pain, researchers have concluded that fish ‘have subjective experiences and so are liable to suffer’” (Francione, xxxiii).

I cannot personally attest to the value of fish, insects, and other non-mammalian animals beyond the recognition of their sentience. But I have had the pleasure of interacting with many chickens.

I often think of the chickens at the sanctuary where I spent two years. They are a motley flock of breeds, sizes, intelligence, and personality. There was Effie, the independent adventuress who enjoyed hopping onto the shoulder of unexpecting visitors. Bert, the loner rooster with the bum leg that I had rescued personally from neglectful owners. Phyliss, the blind hen that chose to live with the goats. Sylvia, the brave bantam who could usually be found exploring the pig yard. Rock, the mischievous fledgling who broke every rule. Splish, the best friend of a chubby duck named Splash. Old Man Rooster, who would run up to greet me at the gate to the Chicken Barn. Each was a unique individual with his or her own personality and preferences.

Nevertheless, according to Regan, none of these chickens deserves basic rights. They do not qualify under his selective definition as a subject-of-a-life. Therefore, they may not have inherent value. They may only exist in their utility to those of us who do have inherent value. If that were indeed true, than the torture and massacre of billions of chickens annually to please American taste buds would be justifiable.

I was further disappointed to read Regan’s analysis of the “lifeboat situation” from the perspective of his Rights View. In his pretend shipwreck, there are “four normal adults and a dog,” yet the lifeboat can only hold four. “Which one ought to be cast overboard?”  Regan responds, “the rights view’s answer is: the dog” (Regan, 351). Regan argues that even if the number of dogs was greater than one (“suppose they number a million”), it is still justified to save the humans. Regan claims that this “is not speciesist.” He writes that the choice is “based on assessing the loses each individual faces and assessing these losses equitably” (Regan, 324). It appears that Regan is contradicting himself. The fact that he believes the ‘equal’ inherent value of humans to be superior to that of dogs is a speciesist belief.

I realize that this hypothetical has no easy solution. Much as Francione described in his burning house analogy, in the unlikely event that this situation did occur outside of our imaginations, human nature would almost definitely result in the death of the canine.

But consider the implications of applying this logic to other ‘burning house’-type situations. Regan is providing justification for humans to rank their inherent value over that of other animals whenever they feel that their life might be endangered. Indeed, he is justifying giving superior value to the lives of a small number of humans to a comparatively huge number of nonhuman animals. Again, how is this not utilitarian and, more importantly, how is this not speciesist?

Despite these major shortcomings in his Rights View, Regan’s book does make significant contributions to animal rights philosophy. He painstakingly debunks the philosophical treatment of animals in the work of numerous philosophers (including particular attention to Descartes and Singer). Most importantly, he argues for the rights of (some) animals, something that was absent from previous animal defense arguments.

Still, I find the suggestion that some animals do not have inherent value to be exceedingly offensive. In my opinion, sentience should be the only requisite for the right to live as an individual and not as objects, commodities, or in servitude to the interests of another. While Regan’s work was a groundbreaking beginning for animal rights philosophy, its trivialization of the suffering of billions of non-mammalian animals makes it insufficient for the animal rightists of today.

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