The Animal Rights Philosophy of Tom Regan, 1938-2017

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(Featured image: Tom Regan, right, and friend in 2010. Credit David Keller, CC BY-SA 2.0 / cropped)


Tom Regan in 2008. Image credit Bryan Regan, public domain.

Philosopher Tom Regan, one of the intellectual founders of the modern animal rights movement, passed away on February 17th, 2017. He died of pneumonia after a two-year struggle with Parkinson’s, at age 78.

In his youth, Tom Regan paid for college by working as a butcher. While protesting the Vietnam War, he became influenced by the non-violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, which together with the death of his dog Gleco compelled him to become vegetarian and study animal ethics. As a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University, he worked closely with fellow animal rights philosopher Peter Singer. In 1983, Tom Regan authored the book The Case for Animal Rights, in which he articulated his own philosophical theory of animal rights.

Regan argued against the view that only moral agents – beings capable of moral choice, that is humans and not other animals – deserve moral consideration. He pointed out that this criterion would exclude even some human beings, such as young children, senile, and mentally handicapped people not considered responsible for their actions.

“A brutal beating administered to a child, for example, is wrong, even if the child herself can do no wrong, just as attending to the basic biological needs of the senile is arguably right, even if a senile person can no longer do what is right. … Moral patients can do nothing right or wrong that affects or involves moral agents, but moral agents can do what is right or wrong in ways that affect or involve moral patients.”

In Reagan’s view, the basis for moral consideration should be whether a given being is a “subject of a life,” that is, a sentient being with:

“…an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and… being the object of anyone else’s interests.”

According to Regan, all beings that are subjects-of-a-life possess inherent moral value, and ethical action requires treating them as such.

“It is not an act of kindness to treat animals respectfully. It is an act of justice. It is not ‘the sentimental interests’ of moral agents that grounds our duties of justice to children, the retarded, the senile, or other moral patients, including animals. It is respect for their inherent value.”

Regan authored numerous other works, and edited volumes on animal ethics, including essays by fellow philosophers as well as religious and scientific views on animals. He and his wife Nancy Regan also founded the Culture and Animals Foundation, which continues to fund academic and artistic projects that promote compassion for animals.


Excerpts from: Regan, Tom. “The Case for Animal Rights.” The Animal Ethics Reader, Second Edition. Ed. Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler. London, UK: Routledge, 2008. 19-25.

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ANIMAL PEOPLE is an animal rights charitable organization dedicated to the principle that animals’ lives have intrinsic value apart from human interests. We believe there is an urgent need to cultivate human compassion for the other creatures with whom we share the earth. To that end, ANIMAL PEOPLE seeks to further animal advocacy by providing a global forum in which people who care about animals can speak and be heard. Click to see author's profile.

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