Commemorating Tom Regan (1938-2017)
An Animal Rights Article from


Animal Liberation Currents
April 2017

tom regan

On February 17 the animal rights movement lost a monumental figure in Tom Regan. Perhaps no one in modern philosophy has dedicated themselves to the defense of the rights of animals with such dedication and intellectual rigor. His influence on the movement is simply historic and his ideas and arguments have remained at the foundation of moral engagement with the question of the rights of animals.

We have invited friends, colleagues and activists to share some brief thoughts reflecting on his passing.

Robert C. Jones
Lisa Kemmerer
Josephine Donovan
John Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D.
Vasile Stănescu, Ph.D.
Matthew Calarco
Stephen F. Eisenman
Kim Stallwood..
Karen Davis, Ph.D.
Carolyn Bailey

Robert C. Jones
Associate Professor of Philosophy
California State University, Chico

Like many animal liberationists, I came to an understanding of the plight of our animal kin through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Many people are surprised to learn that this “father of the modern animal rights movement” did not argue that nonhuman animals have rights, at least not in the moral, philosophical sense. That case was to be made powerfully and convincingly less than a decade later by Tom Regan. In The Case for Animal Rights, Regan presented what was basically one sustained and rigorous argument for animal rights of the actual moral and philosophical kind.

Since its publication in 1983, in many ways, the book has stood in the shadow of Animal Liberation. Yet for those less-than friendly to Singer’s utilitarian framework, The Case for Animal Rights provided a sound foundation upon which animal liberationists could make a case for rights – inviolate rights – for nonhuman animals.

Though broadly Kantian, Regan’s approach rejected the notion (central to Kant’s moral framework) that only “rational” beings (i.e., for all intents and purposes, humans) possess moral value. By contrast, Regan argued that what mattered morally is not rationality per se, but the capacity to be the subject of experiences. However, not just any kind of subjective experience warrants inherent value. To possess inherent value and consequently, moral rights, requires that one has the capacity to be the subject of experiences that matter to oneself, what Regan famously termed being the subject of a life. This view, that the capacity for this kind of subjective experience confers upon its possessor inherent value, is both intuitive and meticulously argued for in the book. I cannot tell you how many times I have referred to that passage on p. 243 of his book (I know the page number by heart) where Regan outlines which physiological, emotional, psychological, and cognitive capacities—over and above mere sentience—make one the subject-of-a-life. So impressed was I by this aspect of Regan’s view that my doctoral dissertation, focused on the moral significance of animal cognition, came about in no small part due to my simply trying to flesh out the moral ramifications of that passage. Of course, critics rightly pointed out how even such a thoroughly worked out view had blind spots, lacunae that Regan himself eventually came to fill then build upon.

Tom Regan was a pioneer in the struggle for the liberation of animals from the bonds of institutional and systemic violence, oppression, and domination. Though I never met the man, by all accounts he was what Aristotle would have called a person of great virtue, a warm, kind, compassionate human being. The world is a darker place now that he has left us, but fortunately Tom Regan left behind a profound and indispensable body of work to act as a beacon for animal liberationists to follow.

Lisa Kemmerer
Professor of Philosophy and Religions, Montana State University, Billings MT

The Culture and Animal Foundation supported my doctoral work at Glasgow University, in Scotland, during which time I researched and wrote a very fat philosophy book titled In Search of Consistency: Ethics and Animals. In the process of researching and writing I came to understand the importance of Tom’s work, which figured heavily in this first book. The Case for Animal Rights is well developed and well written – and ground-breaking. A book any scholar would be proud to write. Thank you, Tom, for your philosophical writing, and thank you to Tom, Nancy, and Culture and Animals Foundation for supporting my studies.

As I prepared to graduate, a completely unknown young scholar with a focus in animal ethics, Tom and Nancy, out of the goodness of their hearts, planned a vacation to Scotland so that Tom could sit for my defense. What an amazing moment for a young scholar, and one that I will never forget. During my defense, Tom asked a question about metaethics, exploring the very foundations of ethics. I did not know how to answer, and admitted that I had no answer. Later I learned that Tom was checking to see if I had humility—the ability to admit those things that I do not know. I now understand how important humility is for any scholar, and just how difficult it can be to find humble scholars! Working in a new and much reviled area, Tom had more than his share of humility along the way. Thank you Tom and Nancy for coming to Scotland for my defense—it is a moment in my life that I will always treasure.

With doctorate in hand, I started teaching, and one of my staple courses is Introduction to Ethics, a class where I always include readings in animal ethics. Empty Cages remains my book of choice, as it has been for years. Not long after, I published Animals and World Religions, and was invited to speak at the annual CAF conference. It was my first invited talk, and I was so proud that Tom found me worthy of such an honor.

Thank you, Tom, for your abundant and thorough research and writing. Thank you Tom and Nancy for the Culture and Animals Foundation, for the many conferences you have hosted, for the many scholars and artists you have assisted, and for great honor of being in Scotland for my defense. I now have nine books published and speak at conferences in cities around the world. You were very important to what I have become. I continue to teach animal rights as pioneered by Tom Regan. It is a great joy to share your work, and something I will be doing as long as I teach and write. I am passing your philosophy of animal rights to my students and to activist around the world.

Thank you. I send you all of my love and well-wishes, and look forward to when we meet again.

Josephine Donovan
Professor Emerita,
University of Maine, Orono

I was saddened to learn of the death of Tom Regan. It is a great loss to Animal Studies, a field he helped to found. The Case for Animal Rights is and will remain a monument in the field.

Regan’s insistence that all “subjects-of-a-life” have ethical status is now an indispensable touchstone in Animal Ethics. And his courageous characterization of certain environmental theories, such as deep ecology, as “environmental fascism” remains an important assertion of the importance and value of all individual creatures who are such subjects.

While I criticized some of Regan’s positions–namely some difficulties I saw in the concept of rights as applied to animals and his privileging of rationalism–I always admired the rigor, density, and clarity of his thinking and the passion of his commitment. His many other writings and edited books, as well as the institutionalized programs he initiated, helped establish Animal Ethics as an intellectual movement to be reckoned with.
All of us who care about animals owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tom Regan whose legacy we now honor.

John Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Department of Humanities and Arts
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

If a Sequoia falls in a forest, does it make a sound? Not if it wasn’t covered by the New York Times, it doesn’t.

On February 17, 2017, the philosopher and animal liberationist Tom Regan died at age 78. Despite Regan’s giant status as one of the two most important philosophers writing on animal rights in the last century, his death received virtually no coverage in the national press. The substance of the Associated Press story, carried verbatim in both the Washington Post and New York Times, read: “Regan is known for ‘The Case for Animal Rights,’ which is described on the web page as stating non-human animals bear moral rights. He wrote that a crucial attribute that all humans have in common, he argues [sic], is not rationality, but the fact that each of us has a life that matters to us.” The AP story thus left the impression that Regan was saying that only humans have lives that matter, when in fact, Regan’s point was that other animals have lives that matter, too.

It is almost impossible to imagine the national press treating the death of another public figure of similar historical significance or professional stature with such sloppy indifference, or so mangling his/her life’s work. But then, Regan was dangerous. He represented the kind of threat that only irrelevance can cure.

“Language which appeals to mere truth only arouses impatience to get down to the real business behind it,” as Horkheimer and Adorno observed of the culture industry. “Words which are not a means [to the end of capital] seem meaningless…[mere] fiction, untruth.” In a culture in which the Star Wars franchise, Justin Bieber, and the Super Bowl are taken as vivid and necessary truths, and in which the murder of billions of nonhumans goes unremarked, nothing Tom Regan said about animals in the course of his lifetime could be heard by the wider society.

At least, not directly. Regan’s message that nonhuman animals, as “subjects-of-a-life,” had inviolable rights, ended up being quietly filtered and circulated through the myriad capillaries of grassroots activism and academic discourse, until it conditioned public discourse in unexpected ways. It is because of Regan’s work, in part, that documentaries like Blackfish and The Cove were produced, that Spain established “human rights” for chimpanzees in 2008, that Ringling Brothers is phasing out its use of elephants in its acts. There were many other courageous activists and scholars who contributed to these victories too. But as the outpouring of movement testimonials since his death attests, Regan was without question one of the movement’s lodestones.

Various philosophers had defended ethical vegetarianism over the centuries. But Regan was the first to provide a systematic, rigorous account of animal rights as such. His landmark 1983 book, The Case for Animal Rights, was particularly significant as a broadside against the utilitarian position of Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, first published in 1975. Though Regan had written an earlier deontological defense of animal rights (an essay entitled “The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism,” published in the same year as Animal Liberation), The Case for Animal Rights was a far more thorough-going treatment of the subject. And it served for years as an important counter-weight to Singer’s ideological influence within the animal rights movement.

Regan’s conception of animal rights was more radical than Singer’s notion of animal liberation in two key ways. First, in place of Singer’s rather crude depiction of animals as little more than receptacles of aggregated pains and pleasures, Regan offered a more complex, phenomenologically nuanced account of nonhuman subjectivity. Second, while Singer had focused only on the problem of suffering, arguing that we had a moral obligation to eliminate, or perhaps merely to minimize, nonhuman animal suffering, Regan showed that killing them was wrong, too–and that has proved crucial. By defending the notion that other animals had inviolable rights, Regan’s theory provided a kind of moral “backstop” to the ways in which we humans should be permitted to treat nonhumans. By contrast, Singer’s inability to find anything intrinsically wrong with killing or exploiting animals has led him in recent years to give equivocal support both to “humane” farming and (in theory, at least) some forms of animal experimentation. Despite Singer’s tremendous contribution to the cause of animal liberation, then, his philosophical position has had the inadvertent effect of weakening the cause of abolition. By drawing attention to the specific conditions of speciesist exploitation, rather than to the fact of it, Singer may even have created an opening for today’s shocking renaissance in meat culture.

Regan was by no means beyond criticism himself. His initial theory of animal rights focused exclusively on mammals, and it took him decades before he was comfortable expanding his conception of a “subject-of-a-life” to avians and fish (which, however, he finally did). Ecofeminists like Josephine Donovan and Carol Adams also roundly criticized him (and rightly) for his unwavering commitment to a masculinist tradition of analytic moral philosophy that eschewed compassion and feeling as proper bases of moral deliberation and action. The irony, though, was that though Regan defended a moral philosophy built an abstract, passionless reason, he himself was a person of great feeling and empathy, and his writing was suffused with both.

Vasile Stănescu, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor & Director, Program in Speech and Debate
Department of Communication Studies & Theatre
Mercer University

I would like to say a few words about the importance of Tom Regan to me as a young scholar. When I was first starting work on my Ph.D., the field of animal studies was not yet a recognized discipline. As such, academic work in this field was not recognized as valid; all of us who engaged in this area had to fight to have our work recognized. Likewise, at this time, in the activist community the overwhelming consensus seemed to be one that was wholly supportive of “humane meat” and of the idea that it might be possible to ethically raise and kill farmed animals. It was in this double- erasure (studying the question of animals as serious academic work; studying the question of humane meat) that I applied to Tom’s organization: The Culture and Animals Foundation for a grant to support my research critiquing humane meat. He provided me with a grant to support my work; more importantly, he included a handwritten note expressing his belief in my work. He told me that I would face opposition but never to give up.

I cannot overemphasize the importance that receiving that kind of encouragement meant to me. And I have learned that I was not alone in this kind of life-changing encouragement that Tom gave to so many young scholars and activists as we were starting out. After his death, my Facebook has been filled with heart-filled stories all the same as mine: I was just starting out; no one believed in me; Tom was the first person to make me think that my work had value and that I should follow through with it. What I think made Tom’s work so unique and important was not only its academic rigor and profound ethical commitments, but it was, I think, his unwavering belief in all of us. I think the greatest honor people could ever give me would be to just say that I reminded them of Tom Regan. Tom Regan will be deeply missed; he directly inspired an entire generation.

Matthew Calarco
Professor of Philosophy
CSU Fullerton

Tom Regan has been one of my chief intellectual guides for the past thirty years. When I first became interested in animal rights in my youth, I read his work in search of a deeper understanding of the ethical and philosophical implications of the emerging animal rights movement. I recall feeling simultaneously captivated and overwhelmed by the passion and rigor of his work, and it stood as a shining model for me as I made my first, fledgling steps on the path toward becoming a pro-animal philosopher and activist.

I have taught Tom’s writings in some form every semester since I began teaching twenty years ago. His work motivated countless numbers of my students to think more carefully and respectfully about our obligations to animals. Indeed, I know several students who converted to veganism and became involved in activism thanks to his work, which is perhaps the highest tribute one could pay to Tom’s life.

My sadness over Tom’s passing will be tempered in part by knowing that he has left behind for so many people an example of a life well lived. Thank you, Tom, for everything you did on behalf of animals and on behalf of our shared discipline of philosophy.

In love and admiration

Stephen F. Eisenman
Professor of Art History,
Northwestern University

When I first read Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights (1983), I was confused by his formulation that “animals are the subjects of a life.” The awkward phrase seemed to be mere jargon. Animals like humans, Regan argued, are conscious, experience pleasure and pain, and have wants and expectations. Therefore they have an interest in living — they are “subjects of a life”.

But if you believe to begin with that animals possess those attributes, then you don’t need a theory of rights to explain your opposition to animal agriculture and the rest. And if on the other hand, you don’t believe animals are conscious and experience pleasure, then no assertion that they are “subjects of a life” is going to persuade you to stop eating them.

But somewhere around the year 2000, Regan’s phrase began to make more sense to me. At about that time, researches started to take seriously the idea that many non-human animals possess consciousness. And not just basic awareness of the world, but self-awareness and even intuition of the thoughts of others. The public in increasing numbers also began to recognize this, according to surveys and interviews. And in this new context, the argument that they are “subjects of a life” acquired greater salience. The phrase summarizes the necessary next step in animal liberation: acceptance that animals are individuals with “inherent value” who must not be treated as things.

The understanding that “animals are the subjects of a life” has not yet translated into a generalized regime of veganism. But it will. And when it does, Tom Regan will be celebrated as one of the handful of figures who helped bring it about.

Kim Stallwood

I first met Tom and Nancy Regan at the RSPCA’s Rights of Animals symposium at Trinity College Cambridge in 1977. I was the campaigns organizer at Compassion in World Farming.

Compassion’s founder, Peter Roberts, took me to the symposium. The symposium was a special moment in the history of the animal rights movement. With the notable exception of Peter Singer, all the leading philosophers, advocates, authors, and politicians at that time came together for two days to consider animal ethics and the emerging animal rights movement. I was an angry young vegan who, unbeknown to myself, was beginning a career with some of the world’s leading animal rights organizations. Tom was already an acclaimed moral philosopher and a prominent speaker in animal rights. But not everyone present at the conference was a card carrying vegan animal rights advocate.

As I recall in my book, Growl, I remember Tom and Nancy, and Peter Roberts and myself, and other vegans being exiled to what was called the ‘vegetarian table’ in Trinity College’s baronial dining hall. We were fed meagre rations of dull 1970s veggie food. Everyone else at the conference dined on venison that was the charred remains of body parts of deer who had once grazed the college’s grounds. We ate our veggie food in disgust, tut tutting our fellow conference attendees and speakers.

Since then, Tom and Nancy’s and my life have crossed many times and, in particular, after I moved to the USA in 1987. I heard Tom speak often at animal rights conferences throughout America. He was always an inspirational speaker. In particular, I appreciated how he situated a commitment to nonviolence as central to his animal rights declaration. The fundamental demand of his philosophy is to treat humans and nonhuman animals with respect. He spoke about how nonhuman animals were subjects (not objects) thereby introducing us to the concept of ‘subjects of a life.’

His unique contribution to moral philosophy is, of course, much more than animal rights and particularly The Case for Animal Rights published in 1983. In addition to nonviolence, his writings on environmental ethics were instrumental in challenging environmentalists to consider animal rights. When I discovered we shared an interest in Virginia Woolf and all things Bloomsbury, he very kindly gave me a personally inscribed copy of his book, Bloomsbury’s Prophet: G. E. Moore and the Development of His Moral Philosophy.

With our respective organizations, the Animals and Society Institute and the Culture and Animals Foundation, we coproduced the International Compassionate Living Festival throughout the 1990s. Tom helped me to understand the importance of bringing together animal advocates with moral philosophers, authors and artists engaged in animal issues, and business leaders with musicians. Compassionate change is needed on many fronts, he always said. Tom and Nancy and their fellow directors at the Culture and Animals Foundation have worked tirelessly since its foundation in 1985 to promote cultural change for animals. I am proud to say that I recently joined the CAF board of trustees.

In 1967 Tom started to teach at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and became a professor in 1978. He was head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion from 1995 to 1999. On his retirement in 2002, NCSU established the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive, which is the only archive of its kind in the world. Tom introduced me to the librarians and archivists at NCSU Libraries. Thanks to him, we convinced NCSU Libraries to accept the valuable collections I had established at the Animals and Society Institute. This included The Animal Rights Network Archive, The Animals’ Agenda Archive, the Argus Archives, the Animal Welfare Institute Archives, and the Claire Necker Collection of Cat Books and Collectibles.

The animal rights movement resembles other social justice movements in that it is a complex of ideas, strategies, and personalities sometimes in harmony and often times not. Indeed, my own understanding of animal rights—in the broadest sense of its definition—continues to evolve over time as new ideas emerge to challenge existing concepts. Tom’s influence in my thinking began in 1977 when we first met and will continue with me for the remainder of my life. Tom’s animal rights ethic endures as the capstone to my action for animals particularly in the moral and political worlds. Rights ideology is vulnerable to critique, as surely no way of thinking is perfect. The more I reflect upon Tom and his ideas, the more I regret how animal rights is being overshadowed by the ascendancy of pragmatic ideologies and their manifestations in various initiatives. Surely, pragmatism has a role to play but we need to remember to lift our eyes from where we stand to look up to the horizon to know where we are going.

It helps me to think of social movements as orchestras. Each section makes a unique contribution to the music being played. Of course, there needs to be a conductor. The leader whose direction inspires this disparate group of musicians to play together until the final notes echo into the distance. I can think of no better conductor than Tom but he is no longer with us. Thankfully, we have his writings and ideas to inspire us and inform our work for animals.

As grateful as I am to have known Tom, I am also particularly appreciative of my friendship with Nancy. Tom’s greatness is not only due to him but also to the even greater greatness of Nancy.

Karen Davis, Ph.D.

I met Tom Regan in the early 1980s right around the time that his book The Case for Animal Rights was published in 1983. Since that book was more academic than Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, published in 1975, was, it probably was more dipped into by activists than read cover to cover. But Regan transcended Singer by arguing that nonhuman animals not only have interests, but rights and inherent value. Sentient beings, in his famous phrase, are Subjects-of-a-Life 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.”

Accordingly, he wrote, nonhuman animals “have a distinctive kind of value – inherent value – and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles,” a point he stressed at length in The Case for Animal Rights and throughout his career.

In later years, Regan criticized Singer’s increasing acquiescence in scientific experiments on nonhuman animals if the experiments were claimed by the experimenters to have a potential to save more human lives or to mitigate more human diseases. Regan challenged the media’s reflexive reference to Singer as the “father of animal rights” which, he said in a discussion about making monkeys suffer for human benefit, is not so. He wrote: “The Peter Singer interviewed on the BBC2 program does not believe that nonhuman animals have basic moral rights. As early as 1978, three years after the publication of Animal Liberation, he explicitly disavowed this belief.”

Tom Regan in his work following The Case for Animal Rights evinced a lyrical gift, writing expressively and movingly about animals and about his own early life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and his evolution from being an avid fisherman to becoming a passionate advocate for animals and animal rights.

Tom Regan is a true pioneer of the animal rights movement. He laid the philosophical groundwork even for those who may not now know him as well as they should and, I hope, will. Regan had an emotional and artistic sensibility which he combined with his academic polemics to produce powerful speaking and writing for animals and animal rights.

I attended his outdoor presentations in the 1980s and later where he said of the establishment versus himself: “They say we’re extremists for caring about animals! I am an extremist: I am extremely against animal abuse, and I am against it all the time!”

This is a paraphrase of a speech I heard him give one year. It was passionate and fiery and interesting too when you compare that oratory with his earliest foray into animal rights in a clip from The Animals Film where he appears reading from a paper with his head down, but delivering words that echo in all of us who are working for animals and animal rights to this day and always will.

I am eternally grateful to Professor Tom Regan for his establishment, in philosophy and the arts, of the case for animal rights. And I am honored by his kind words of appreciation for my own animal rights work through United Poultry Concerns in his must-read 2013 interview with the Eugene Veg Education Network [EVEN Interview with Tom Regan].

Carolyn Bailey
Animal Rights Zone

The animal rights movement has lost a true pioneer in Professor Tom Regan. Tom and his wife Nancy came to animal rights via their work in human rights. Being concerned with the well-being of others, and trained as a philosopher, Tom became interested in just what it was that grounded our whole idea of human rights and whether some rights belonged to those other than human. Tom reasoned that if some of us have dignity and are worthy of respect, then all who have such dignity must be worthy of the same respect. He realized that those who have dignity and deserve respect are those who, in his words, “have a biography and not just a biology”. In other words, when what happens to us matters to us, regardless of whether it matters to anyone else, then we are the subject of our own life and we deserve respect and the Rights which protects it. As a result of this thinking, Tom came to care in a new way for all living beings, and he began a lifelong mission of advocacy on their behalf.

Tom’s seminal work in his book, The Case for Animal Rights was truly ground-breaking, changing forever the terms of the debate about other animals. A rigorous exploration of rights in general and why they haven’t, at least up to now, been applied to other animals, The Case for Animal Rights was the first and still one of the very best analytical treatments of the question. While not everyone is satisfied with the answers Professor Regan developed, no one doubts the keen curiosity, intellectual honesty or complete sincerity with which he sought them. It was and remains a landmark for the animal rights movement.

Tom was the first animal rights theorist in the modern movement to use the term “abolitionist” as the only acceptable solution to such horrific practices as vivisection, the fur trade and animal agriculture. As he said, it’s not bigger cages, but empty cages that other animals deserve. This notion of abolishing entire systems of the use of other animals by humans motivated a generation of advocates and activists and his work continues to influence many animal rights thinkers and advocates to this day.

But Tom was more than just an animal rights philosopher, he was a person who never forgot his early work on human rights and who remained committed to compassion and justice throughout his life. He lived his philosophy, showing great respect for all human beings, especially those with whom he had personal dealings. Tom Regan possessed a quiet grace and displayed what can only be described as class, even when he spoke with those he most certainly disagreed. That was the Professor Regan I saw in the video-taped debate that introduced me to his work, and that is the Tom I eventually came to know personally. He represented the Animal Rights movement as a movement of thinkers, of compassionate caring people, of those committed to fairness and to just treatment for all others. Tom Regan displayed humility, he was always courteous and grateful, always willing to listen closely to those who held different convictions, and above all, he remained a kind and decent human being.

Tom will be missed for the unparalleled philosophical, theoretical contributions he has made to the animal rights movement, but he will equally be missed for the example he set for all of us – an example of decency and fairness toward all others, of humility, of compassion, of justice and of respect.

We should never forget this part of Tom’s legacy.

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