- Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights, and: Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy
In Animal Rights, Human Wrongs, Tom Regan writes, "I am a human rights advocate (especially for infants, children, and other powerless, vulnerable members of the extended human family) first, an animal rights advocate second."1 Regan adds that his "commitment to human rights is, if anything, more central to [his] thinking than [his] commitment to animal rights."2
Regan's latest books, Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy and Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights, were intended as companions. Regan explains the overarching goal of these two small books: to demonstrate that the "ascription of rights to animals is supported by a way of thinking about morality that is principled, nonarbitrary, nonprejudicial, and rationally defensible."3 Taken together, these books offer a first-hand account of Regan's philosophical quest, and an in-depth account of issues central to animal rights. Regan accomplishes this with little repeated information because, while both books are philosophical in nature, Animal Rights focuses on theory while the focus of Empty Cages is on animal industries.
Both books relate bits of Regan's conventional American upbringing, explaining his slow shift toward animal rights. In his youth he begged to go hunting, willingly dissected animals, and eagerly consumed whatever flesh landed on his plate; during his college years he worked as a butcher:
On a daily basis I entered the dead bodies of cows, calves, and pigs, up to my elbows, I sliced. I diced. I cubed. I ground. I trimmed. I hacked. I sawed. Their cold flesh conformed to my cold will. Back then, I did not find butchering bloody, only bloody hard.4
When Regan married, he bought fur hats for his wife, Nancy.
Regan's interest in rights was stirred by the Vietnam war, by a sense of wrong done to young soldiers drafted and sent overseas, who so frequently came back in body bags. The war in Vietnam turned Regan toward civil disobedience and nonviolence; he read the works of Gandhi, who—like most Hindus down through history—was a vegetarian. Gandhi's writing raised a most unexpected question: if the young soldiers have a right [End Page 271] to life that precludes the draft, why do Hereford cows not have a right to life that precludes eating them for lunch?
Faced with this unforeseen question, young Regan realized he did not even understand human rights, and that he must begin with more basic questions: what are rights, who has them, and why do they matter? Regan's explorations into the nature of human rights was off and running, focusing his attention on citizen's rights and the rights of young men drafted into the US army regardless of their dreams, irrespective of their dispositions.
What Regan learned from these early explorations, and how he built his theory of rights for nonhuman animals, is thoroughly presented in Animal Rights. He begins by explaining and critiquing moral theories. For instance, Regan explores utilitarianism, focusing on preference utilitarianism, most famously supporting the cause of nonhumans by Peter Singer in contemporary times. But if consequences distinguish right from wrong, as is the case in utilitarian theories, then individuals are expendable. Regan notes that such a theory permits—even requires—that some individuals be sacrificed for the "greater good." Regan rejects a moral theory where individuals are expendable—why not maintain slaves in the American south if it helps the overall economy? For Regan, catering to the majority at the expense of a minority is not compatible with a legitimate moral theory.
After critiquing a handful of theories, Regan embarks on his own investigation of human rights, focusing on the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies conducted on poor African Americans, and the hepatitis studies conducted on severely retarded children at Willowbrook. Regan poses a...