Tom Regan’s Case for Animal Rights

Jacob Bell
4 min readApr 3, 2020

The Argument

In The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan argues for an inclusive system of morality based on the idea of inherent value. For Regan, all experiencing creatures have inherent value. The “inherent” part of the phrase is most important in Regan’s argument. Inherent value is meant to depict a value that is not based on “one’s talents or skills, intelligence and wealth, personality or pathology, whether one is loved and admired or despised and loathed. The genius and the retarded child, the prince and the pauper, the brain surgeon and the fruit vendor, Mother Teresa and the most unscrupulous used-car-salesman — all have inherent value, all possess it equally, and all have an equal right to be treated with respect…” (Regan).

Regan explains that the basic requirement of sentience is all that is needed for something to have inherent value, and therefore his theory of morality is extended to human beings and animals alike. Regan believes that “…since, in order to arrive at the best theory of our duties to one another, we must recognize our equal inherent value as individuals, reason — not sentiment or emotion — reason compels us to recognize the equal inherent value of these animals and, with this, their equal right to be treated with respect (Ibid).

Analysis of Argument

Regan’s argument is one that, as he has claimed himself, is a product of reason. He wishes to invoke the utmost rationality out of anyone who reads his argument and hopes that this cerebral approach will lead to widespread social change in how we view and treat non-human animals. I will detail two of my objections, one of which takes issue with the primary assumption on which his theory rests, and the second is in reference to his purely cerebral approach to ethical theory which he hopes will produce a change in behavior.

First, any conceptual theory, whether moral or not, must contain at least one unfounded axiomatic assumption in order to begin. The primary assumption in Regan’s argument, as far as I can tell, is the idea that all sentient creatures contain an inherent value that is based on nothing other than the fact of sentience. This inherent value is equal among all sentient creatures, and as such each living thing deserves the same respect as any other. This is a noble idealistic generalization that looks good on paper but is wanting in real life situations.

For example, I don’t think that many people would agree that a sociopath or child molester has equal inherent value, and should be respected in equal kind, as someone who is not a sociopath or child molester. I can think of many people who I have the utmost respect for because they live noble lives, and I can think of many people who I have little or no respect for because they live deplorable lives. Regan asks us to ignore these distinctions, and his entire theory rests on this assumption of equal inherent value, equal respect, and equal treatment which is based on nothing more than sentience. I think this is a colossal failure in approach and leads to his entire argument being thrown into question since this failed assumption sits at the foundation of his entire theory.

My second primary objection to Regan’s argument is his emphasis on reason, and the relegation of emotion and sentiment. Imagine two scenarios: In the first scenario, you receive a plea for help in the mail. The plea asks for $200 to help save the lives of children living in a third world country. In the second scenario, you are driving on a country road, and you hear someone yelling for help. A man who was hiking has had an accident and is covered in blood. He needs you to take him to the hospital if he is going to survive. The moral intuitions of most people lead them to claim that it is okay to refrain from giving help in the first scenario, but there is a moral obligation to help in the second. It isn’t a matter of money, because your car is likely to incur damages exceeding $200 because it will require new upholstery due to the bloodied hiker. If lives are at risk in each dilemma, there should be an equal moral obligation in both dilemmas, but this is not how human beings behave (Greene, 848).

Greene believes that these moral intuitions might have “everything to do with the way our brains happen to be built” (Ibid). In a personal dilemma, such as helping the hiker, brain scans revealed greater activity in the areas of the brain “that are associated with emotion and social cognition” (Ibid). An impersonal dilemma, such as the plea for money via the mail, doesn’t activate the areas of the brain in the same way. In other words, an impersonal dilemma might invoke reason, but doesn’t invoke emotion or a sense of social obligation. This isn’t to say that this is how we ought to behave, but it simply is how we behave.

This leads us right back to my second objection to Regan’s argument, which is his emphasis on reason while discarding emotion and sentiment. If we wish to produce real change, we must take seriously how people respond to moral situations and create a theory that works. The presentation of clear logical information has its value, and can help us orient ourselves rationally, but to produce change, we might have to invoke more than our ability to reason and organize information.

Works Cited
Greene, Joshua. “From Neural ‘Is’to Moral ‘Ought’: What Are the Moral Implications of Neuroscientific Moral Psychology?” Ebscohost, Nature Reviews, Neuroscience, 1 Oct. 2003, web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=bd6c078e-0142–4e33-b664-a4992773f6db@pdc-v-sessmgr04.

Regan, Tom. “ The Case for Animal Rights.” www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/regan03.pdf.

Originally published at http://www.jacobabell.com on April 3, 2020.

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Jacob Bell

I am a philosopher & writer constantly playing with new ideas, concepts, and frameworks of reality. You can contact me here: http://www.jacobabell.com/