24 July 2012

Tom Regan on Utilitarianism

Tom ReganThe initial attractiveness of utilitarianism as a moral theory on which to rest the call for the better treatment of animals was noted in an earlier context. . . . Because animals are sentient (i.e., can experience pleasure and pain) and because they not only have but can act on their preferences, any view that holds that pleasures or pains, or preference-satisfactions or frustrations matter morally is bound to seem attractive to those in search of the moral basis for the animal rights movement. Especially because animals are made to suffer in the pursuit of human purposes—in the name of "efficient" factory farming, for example, or in pursuit of scientific knowledge—the utilitarian injunction to count their suffering and to count it equitably must strike a responsive moral chord. But utilitarianism is not the theory its initial reception by the animal rights movement may have suggested. It provides no basis for the rights of animals and instead contains within itself the grounds for perpetuating the very speciesist practices it was supposed to overthrow. To secure the philosophical foundation for animal rights requires abandoning utilitarianism.

(Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, updated with a new preface [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004], 315 [italics in original; ellipsis added] [first edition published in 1983])

14 July 2012

Tom Regan on Rights

Tom ReganWhether individuals have legal rights depends on the laws and other legal background (e.g., the constitution) of the society in which they live. In some countries (e.g., the United States) citizens meeting certain requirements have the legal right to vote or run for elected office; in other countries (e.g., Libya) citizens do not have these rights. Moreover, even in those countries that give this right to its citizens, the requirements are not always the same and are subject to change. In the United States, for example, citizens once had to be twenty-one years of age to vote in federal elections; now they must be eighteen. At one time one could not vote if one were black or female or illiterate; now one has this right regardless of race or sex or educational achievement. Legal rights thus are subject to great variation, not only among different countries at the same time but also in the same country at different times. When it comes to legal rights, not all individuals are equal. This should not be surprising. The legal rights individuals have arise as the result of the creative activity of human beings. Those rights set forth in the Bill of Rights, for example, were not rights that citizens of the United States could claim as legal rights before these rights were drawn up and the legal machinery necessary for their enforcement was in place.

The concept of moral rights differs in important ways from that of legal rights. First, moral rights, if there are any, are universal. This means that if any individual (A) has such a right, then any other individual like A in the relevant respects also has this right. What counts as the relevant respects is controversial. . . . What is not controversial is the exclusion of some characteristics as relevant. An individual's race, sex, religion, place of birth, or country of domicile are not relevant characteristics for the possession of moral rights. We cannot deny that individuals possess moral rights, as we can in the case of the possession of legal rights, because of, for example, where they live.

A second feature of moral rights is that they are equal. This means that if any two individuals have the same moral right (e.g., the right to liberty), then they have this right equally. Possession of moral rights does not come in degrees. All who possess them possess them equally, whether they are, say, white or black, male or female, Americans or Iranians.

Third, moral rights, unlike legal rights, do not arise as a result of the creative acts of any one individual (e.g., a despot) or any group (e.g., a legislative assembly). Theoretically, one could, it is true, create legal rights that accord with or protect moral rights, but that is not the same as creating these moral rights in the first place. If there are moral rights, they do not "come to be" in the way legal rights do.

(Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, updated with a new preface [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004], 267-8 [ellipsis added] [first edition published in 1983])

09 July 2012


A professional football player has gone vegan. It's not clear whether he's doing it for moral reasons, for health reasons, or both.

08 July 2012

Tom Regan on Cruelty

Tom ReganCruelty is manifested in different ways. People can rightly be judged cruel either for what they do or for what they fail to do, and either for what they feel or for what they fail to feel. The central case of cruelty appears to be the case where, in Locke's apt phrase, one takes "a seeming kind of Pleasure" in causing another to suffer. Sadistic torturers provide perhaps the clearest example of cruelty in this sense: they are cruel not just because they cause suffering (so do dentists and doctors, for example) but because they enjoy doing so. Let us term this sadistic cruelty.

Not all cruel people are cruel in this sense. Some cruel people do not feel pleasure in making others suffer. Indeed, they seem not to feel anything. Their cruelty is manifested by a lack of what is judged appropriate feeling, as pity or mercy, for the plight of the individual whose suffering they cause, rather than pleasure in causing it; they are, as we say, insensitive to the suffering they inflict, unmoved by it, as if they were unaware of it or failed to appreciate it as suffering, in the way that, for example, lions appear to be unaware of, and thus are not sensitive to, the pain they cause their prey. Indeed, precisely because one expects indifference from animals but pity or mercy from human beings, people who are cruel by being insensitive to the suffering they cause often are called "animals" or "brutes," and their character or behavior, "brutal" or "inhuman." Thus, for example, particularly ghastly murders are said to be "the work of animals," the implication being that these are acts that no one moved by the human feelings of pity or mercy could bring themselves [sic] to perform. The sense of cruelty that involves indifference to, rather than enjoyment of, suffering caused to others we shall call brutal cruelty.

Cruelty of either kind, sadistic or brutal, can be manifested in active or passive behavior. Passive behavior includes acts of omission and negligence; active, acts of commission. A man who, without provocation, beats a dog into unconsciousness is actively cruel, whereas one who, through negligence, fails to feed his dog to the point where the dog's health is impoverished is passively cruel, not because of what he does but because of what he fails to do. Both active and passive cruelty have fuzzy borders. For example, a woman is not cruel if she occasionally fails to feed her cat. She is cruel if she fails to do so most of the time. But while there is no exact number of times, no fixed percentage, such that, once it is realized, cruelty is present, otherwise not, there are paradigms nonetheless.

We have, then, at least two kinds of cruelty (or two senses of the word cruelty) and two different ways in which cruelty can be manifested. Theoretically, therefore, cruelty admits of at least four possible classifications: (1) active sadistic cruelty; (2) passive sadistic cruelty; (3) active brutal cruelty; and (4) passive brutal cruelty.

(Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, updated with a new preface [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004], 197-8 [italics in original; endnote omitted] [first edition published in 1983])

01 July 2012


This blog had 1,880 visits during June, which is an average of 62.6 visits per day. A year ago, the average was 62.4.