Regan Answered

Comments on "The Case For Animal Rights" by Tom Regan, 1983.


This paper is an answer to some of the points made in Regan's work, named above. As such, it will be useful only to those who have read the work in question. Though the bulk of this paper will be critical of Regan's approach, and his views and criticisms as expressed in the book, I ought first make clear that this should not to taken to imply a belief that all of Regan's work is useless or generally bad - far from it, some parts of the book are actually very good, and I would recommend at least the first 4 chapters to anyone who was studying the position of non-human animals in ethics. These early chapters cover the nature of the experience of the lives of animals, the historical arguments used to deny non-humans fair consideration (and refutations of them), and an introduction to ethical thinking and theory quite as good as any likely to be found elsewhere. However, I believe that Regan has made a number of important mistakes in the later chapters of the book, and it is the purpose of this paper to indicate them.

Regan's attacks fall short of the mark

Section 2 of chapter 6, and later, gives a false account of hedonistic utilitarianism, preference utilitarianism, and the utilitarian grounds for vegetarianism. It is here that I would start.

It is a mark of intellectual dishonesty on the part of Regan, to suggest as he does (p203), that consideration of the interests of the community is a special "ingenious" argument which has been invented by utilitarians specifically to answer this issue of the rightness or wrongness of killing - readers of Bentham will know that utilitarianism is about little else. If the application of a core general principle to a specific situation strikes Regan as "ingenious", then this is a testament only to the ease with which Regan is impressed and to how very commonplace this kind of ingenuity must be.

Regan's approach to the issue of killing (p202-205) is more understandable if we assume that he has a non-reductionist approach to personal identity. Those who have taken on board the arguments of Derek Parfit on personal identity (see Reasons and Persons) will have no confidence at all in intuitions of the rightness or wrongness of killing, since our intuitions of what a person is are clearly wrong.

I would also note that Regan's remark that the "secrecy" of those who murder "adds to the moral offensiveness of what they do" (p204) is plainly a plea to the principles of sympathy and antipathy, and we would hope for better from someone who opposed the "cruelty-kindness view". I would also ask Regan where exactly it is that he sets forth his theory of who "deserves" punishment and who does not - or is this mere rhetoric, designed only to resonate with rationalized conditioned attitudes, and then be forgotten?

Regan has problems (p211 and to the end of 6.3) with what he calls "Singer's Dilemma" - he cannot understand how to classify the principle of equality, in its relation to Utility. I admit that I am at a loss to help, but I will suggest that a utilitarian's view of equality is that the value of an interest does not depend on some arbitrary feature like the identity of the being whose interest is it. Stated in this negative way, it suggests that the principle should go in the same category as such principles (never or rarely stated for being too obvious) that "the value of an interest does not depend on the time or place at which it occurs", or any of an infinite number of similar principles stating those things which have no effect.

If it isn't obvious to Regan (p220 and restated as preferences in p222) that the interest that hundreds of animals have in their lives, their very conditions of being, are sufficient to outweigh the interest that one man has in the taste of their flesh, I suggest that he should give himself a good hard slap to see if this clears his mind. Of course, it is obvious, and Regan only suggests otherwise for the feel of it - there being no legitimate criticism from this angle.

It is indeed relevant to the discussion (p221) to notice what the purpose of factory farming is, since Singer is concerned with establishing the plausibility or probability of the case that factory farming is sub-optimal in terms of utility: he does not need to prove the case (as Regan suggests he does) since the utilitarian acts to maximize expected utility - as anyone who understood consequentialism would know.

"Singer's paradox" (p224) is no paradox. Regan confuses the subjective and objective senses of "ought" (see Reasons and Persons, section 10), denies that the effects of a good action can be undone by a bad action, and then goes on to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding by taking for a weakness in Singer's argument for vegetarianism a mistake that he himself has made - an established and documented Mistake in Moral Mathematics which can be made in many situations under many consequentialist theories - see section 26 of Reasons and Persons.

Returning fire

Unfortunately I lack the time for an in-depth criticism of Regan's philosophy, my main task here was only to show how utilitarianism emerges unscathed from Regan's ill-directed criticisms. I cannot, however, leave some questions unasked nor a couple of points unmade - one for the intuitionists, one for anyone who would try to understand Regan's views.

  1. Since Regan's definition of "moral agent" implies free will, is it not the case that there are no moral agents?
  2. What is the criterion of psychophysical identity over time, required by the "subject-of-a-life" criterion?
  3. What inaccuracy would be introduced by viewing beings as "mere" receptacles for two types of value, the value of their experiences and another type being labeled "inherent"?
  4. The value of life which is not dependent on the value of experiences, this so-called "inherent value", is actually worth something to whom?
  5. Isn't the refusal to consider side-effects entirely arbitrary, and liable to result in terrible consequences?

1. The horrors of non-consequentialism

There is no amount of aggregate harm the rights view will not cause, provided that it saves a harm which is greater than any harm it causes to one individual. Regan's view speaks for itself in the lifeboat ethics scenario:

"the rights view still implies that, special considerations apart, the million dogs should be thrown overboard and the four humans saved." Tom Regan, section 8.13, page 325.

Of course, not only can we substitute, say, cats for dogs, we can throw them in as well! The rights view clearly implies that, in this sort of situation, it is better to kill a million dogs and a million cats, a million pigs, a million horses, and so on (fish, birds, reptiles included not just mammals) than it is to kill one single human.

2. The gift

Imagine this case:

I have some little trinket, which is worth little to me, and even less to almost everyone else. However, there is one exception: there is a somebody to whom I know it would bring great joy to gain possession of this little trinket. Naturally, being a utilitarian, I give this little trinket to that somebody - a small loss to myself, a large benefit to them... aggregate utility is increased.

Why do I mention this scenario? Only because, according to Regan's views, I have treated that somebody as a "mere receptacle" of value in order to maximize aggregate utility, and this is a terrible crime because it is contrary to the respect principle (see, for example, p332).

Or, at least, I think it is contrary to the respect principle (and Regan certainly says so) - it is hard to be sure since Regan never gives a good account of this concept, despite it being the basis for a large part of his views. I suppose that this is because it would be very hard to explain how a certain kind of action could be "disrespectful" to inherent value, even though it is clearly also maintained (section 7.2) that the action can have absolutely no effect on this value whatsoever.

If anyone can shed any light on this matter, please do write in.