Regan's most recurrent strategy for validating animal rights is to
demonstrate that if human beings can be said to have rights, some
animals can likewise be said to have rights.
(3) (1) This argument is based, in turn, on the
propositions that (a) human and animal experiences and interests may
be "comparable" or even "equal", (b) Human and animal experiences
differ in degree but not in kind , and (c) no traits that are
universal among humans are exclusive to them .
(4) There is a large body of published opinion that would
deny (a) and (b), and which would hold that (c), though true, is
unsupportive of Regan's conclusion.
It is crucial, at the outset, to point out that, in attempting to
derive animal rights though an analogy between animals and humans,
both Regan and Singer fail to come to terms with the strongest rival
position: namely, the argument that so-called "human rights" attach,
not to "humans" (a biological category) but to "persons" (a moral
category) and "potential persons." "Personhood" refers to a set of
capacities -- self-consciousness, a self-concept, abstraction and
time perception, rationality, ability to act on principle, etc. --
which are possessed by most members of the species homo
sapiens, and, to the best of our knowledge, by no other animals
in a remotely comparable degree and kind. This close (though
imperfect) correlation between species and the capacity-set called
"personhood" leads to the common, though strictly incorrect, term
"human rights." Regan's analysis takes advantage of this linguistic
inaccuracy. (The error is also rampant in public discussions of "the
right to life" of fetuses which focus on the question of "human life"
rather than "personal life"). The defender of "person-rights" (rather
than "human-rights") will have a much easier time responding to
Regan's arguments, for the simple reason that he will readily accord
these rights to any non-human being (animal, cybernetic, or
extra-terrestrial) shown to possess personal traits. However, it is a
simple empirical fact that no such beings have yet been shown to
It does not follow from this analysis that non-humans possess no
rights whatever. Several philosophers have argued that sentient
animals have a right to humane treatment.
(5) However, no animals can be said to have such
"person-rights" as "freedom of worship," or a "right to a college
education," not because we humans are tyrants, but simply because
these animals lack the capacities to exercise such rights.
What, then, of so-called "marginal cases" of human beings with
only partial or potential person-traits? As with animals, they might
be accorded such rights as they have the capacity to exercise. Also,
potential persons, such as infants or temporarily comatose
individuals, are plausibly accorded rights "in anticipation" of later
capacities. To the best of our knowledge, no animals warrant such
"anticipations." But again, personal capacity, not species
membership, is the key to such an analysis of rights. Surely it is,
to say the least, a prominent presumption among philosophers who deal
with this issue. (6) Yet it
is not the approach adopted by Regan and Singer who repeatedly write
of "humans" (as a species) and only rarely of "persons."
Why should "personhood" loom so large in a philosophical analysis
of human and animal rights? Essentially for these reasons: (a) the
quality of personal life, and of the experience therein, may be
fundamentally different from that of non-personal life; (b) this
qualitative difference is such that personal life may be said to be
richer, more comprehensive, and more valuable to the person, than a
life of a non-personal being to that being; and (c) "personhood"
denotes a set of capacities that appears to be exclusive to the human
species (a contingent fact), though not universal thereto.
If these claims can be sustained, then it follows that the rights
of persons (i.e., most humans) are both more comprehensive and more
morally significant than the rights of relevant non-persons (i.e.,
some animals). This, of course, is a conclusion to which Regan and
Singer strenuously object.
Why, then, should personal life, contrary to the contention of
"animal rights" advocates, be qualitatively different? The key, most
commentators agree, is language, defined, not as "sign
communication," but as a syntactically structured system of
significant symbols. (9)
With language, an organism is able to respond, not only to mental
images of objects of experience (a capacity perhaps attainable
without language), but also to types (abstractions), facts (as
propositions), projections, hypotheses, time frames, argument forms,
and moral principles. Furthermore, all this and more can, through
grammar, be combined and structured in an inexhaustible variety of
ways. Finally, through language, one may acquire a self-concept, and
view oneself as an entity continuing through time.
In view of all this, Regan's treatment of "the language
difference" is remarkably restrictive. Though the point of view that
we have sketched above has been extensively and recently argued by
philosophers (such as Mead, Dewey, Cassirer, Langer, Wittgenstein)
and many linguists, psychologists and anthropologists, Regan chooses
instead to take on Rene Descartes -- and no one else. (6-7) Regan
writes: "one might dispute the view that being able to use a language
is a necessary condition of being a conscious being." (6) Later he
asserts: "whether or not a person is experiencing pain. . . does not
depend on his being able to perform one or another linguistic feat."
(7, cf 32) However, by "linguistic feat," Regan seems to mean the
capacity to speak or write -- i.e., to "produce" discourse. He thus
dismisses "the linguistic difference:"
Imagine a person whose vocal cords have been damaged
to such an extent that he no longer has the ability to utter words
or even to make inarticulate sounds, and whose arms have been
paralyzed so that he cannot write, but who, when his tooth
abscesses, twists and turns on his bed, grimaces and sobs. We do
not say "Ah, if only he could still speak, we could give him
something for his pain. As it is, since he cannot speak, there's
nothing we need give him. For he feels no pain." We say he is in
pain, despite his loss of the ability to say so. (6-7)
Here Regan attacks a position with no adherents, and draws our
attention away from a significant rival position. Of course, animals
and language-deprived humans can suffer pain, and may therefore be
said to have a right not to endure gratuitous pain. However,
paralyzed humans who cannot "perform linguistic feats" may not be
language-deprived, since there may be a great deal "going on inside."
Speaking and writing, in fact, are not even the most significant
"linguistic feats." They are, instead, the outward manifestations of
an inward accomplishment which supports advanced thought -- the basis
of uniquely personal (presumably human) experiences.
With language and personhood, life-quality is transformed. The
life and experiences of persons and of non-persons are no longer
"comparable;" they are "different in kind." Regan and Singer would
have us believe otherwise. Their advocacy of "animal rights" and
"animal liberation" stands repeatedly on the contention that human
and animal experiences might be regarded as "comparable," or even
"equal," and thus that human and animal "interests" and "rights"
might be "equal." Such a contention seems to rest upon a presumption
that human and animal lives, like safe-deposit boxes containing coins
and notes of debit, are composed of discrete and transferable
experiential (and derivatively moral) counters. But surely, this is
not how it is. On the contrary, because human experiences are
interactive, organic, intentional and systemic, an "autobiography" is more than a
sum of discrete sequential experiences. Because human experiences are
contextual, they come out of an ongoing life, and effect the future
of that life. Experiences which "happen to" a life -- a stubbed toe,
a toothache, an unexpected prize, etc., have sense, meaning, value,
in the context of that life. Thus the quality of a pleasure or pain
can not be assessed apart from the quality of the life it happens
"in" or "to" -- apart from the matrix of attitudes, expectations and
evaluations that make up that life. Now if, as Regan and Singer
contend, the differences between human and animal lives are simply
matters of degree (not kind, cf. Regan 159) among isolated phenomenal
bits, then some sense and use may be made of this arguments by
analogy. Our account of "personhood" seems to suggest, however, that
this position is radically mistaken. Humans, qua persons,
deal with each other in conversation and with themselves in thought,
with and through concepts articulated through syntactical language.
They think abstractly of themselves, of others, of community, of
time, of their past and future, of concepts such as rationality and
of morality. As persons, humans experience unique dimensions of
mental and emotional pain; self-reproach, dread of impending loss,
regret for abandoned projects, fear of death, and such moral
sentiments as guilt and shame. Persons also uniquely enjoy such
pleasures as self-respect, intellectual and creative accomplishment,
patriotism, irony, humor and pride. In sum the transcending and
transforming fact that human beings are persons gives them a moral
considerability far beyond that of animals. Thus, once we seriously
reflect upon and evaluate the human condition of personhood, talk of
"comparability" or even "equality" of experiences of animals and
human beings becomes unsupportable.
Having said all this, we must not coast off the deep end. In
particular, acknowledgment of these significant differences does not
entail that animal experiences do not morally "matter," and that
gratuitous torture of animals is not morally reprehensible. However
different and even unknowable animal pain may be, it is pain
nonetheless. Furthermore, this point of view need not be regarded as
what Singer calls "species chauvinism." If homo sapiens is
the only terrestrial personal species, this is a contingent fact.
Personal capacities, and the entailed transformation of experience,
are logically attributable to any creatures. The limitation thereof
is based upon empirical fact and circumstance. If we were to discover
that chimps or dolphins could be educated to personhood, our moral
stance toward them would and should be radically transformed. So too
if we were to encounter an extra- terrestrial person. Indeed, if
recent experiments with "ape language" are as significant as some
claim then a reassessment of our moral stance toward these cousins is
In an persuasive defense of human rights, Regan points out that:
"The world contains individuals (e.g., human beings) who not only are
alive but have a life; these individuals are not mere things
(objects), they are the subjects of a life; they have, in James
Rachels' helpful phrase, autobiographies." (70, cf. 94, 135)
Predictably, he then attempts to extend this argument to
It won't do. While some non-personal animals may be said to "have
a life," being without time- and self-consciousness they can scarcely
be said to have "autobiographies." Given these dimensions of
consciousness in personal life, the significance of one's life to
oneself is utterly transformed. A steer does not look upon its
scheduled slaughter with the sense of dread and foreboding suffered
by a condemned prisoner. "Capital punishment" for beasts simply makes
no sense (as Regan himself tacitly admits, 150-2). To a person, a
life -- his life -- is a continuity and a unity, of which he is
perpetually aware and concerned. This phenomenological fact entails
rights to life that are unique to persons.
Regan asks: "on what grounds, precisely, might it be claimed that
no animals can reason, make free choices, or form a concept of
themselves?"(13) The answer is richly represented in recent
philosophical, linguistic and psychological literature: on the
grounds that animals lack articulate languages -- a rejoinder that
Regan has utterly failed to address. He continues, "what one would
want [to support this claim] are detailed analyses of these
cooperative concepts together with rationally compelling empirical
data and other arguments that support the view that all non-human
animals are deficient in these respects." (13) Again, there are such
arguments, based upon well-known studies of problem-solving skills
with and without language, studies of aphasia, of animal behavior, of
children raised without language, of language-using blind-deaf (e.g.,
Helen Keller), and more. In addition, there is a vast philosophical
literature on the function of language in personality. Among the
prominent contributors to this field of study are Mead, Dewey,
Cassirer, Langer, Wittgenstein and Chomsky (to offer only a small
sample). None of the above are indexed in Regan's book and, after two
careful readings of the book, I can recall none of them being
mentioned in this regard. All these studies, and more, are crucially
relevant to Regan's arguments and theories. His failure to face them
and respond critically must seriously compromise his case.
To close my argument, I will move beyond these scholarly and
scientific studies to a case study of much greater familiarity: that
of Lassie. Those who can remember far back into the ancient
history of commercial television will recall the plot line of (it
seems) most of the episodes. Timmy and Lassie go outside to play.
Timmy gets into some kind of trouble - he is stranded in a tree or by
a flash flood, or falls down a mineshaft - whatever. Timmy
says, "Lassie, get help!" Lassie runs back to the ranch, barks at the
door, leads Mom and Pop to Timmy. Saccharine theme music. Credits.
The following is a plot that we never saw: Returning for help,
Lassie encounters an impassable gorge or swollen river. However, on
the other side within earshot is "Rover." Lassie "tells" Rover,
"Timmy is caught in a mineshaft on the side of yonder hill. Go to the
ranch and tell Mom, and lead them to the mine." Rover does exactly
what he is told. Timmy is saved.
We never saw this episode because we all know that it was utterly
incredible. To be sure, animals do "communicate." But they are
incapable of conveying such simple abstractions as "third-person"
messages. Lacking this capacity, animals are incapable of "funding
knowledge," and thus they lack "culture" and a species "history." The
behavior of wild squirrels, wolves and hawks today is essentially
identical to the behavior of their ancestors hundreds of years ago.
If there is any change in that behavior, it is due, not to the
"funding" of their knowledge and experience through language, but
through alterations in their genome through natural selection.
We homo sapiens are, in short, very different sorts of
critters - and for reasons that can be readily understood and
appreciated. No "natural history" or philosophy which fails to take
these differences into account deserves to be taken seriously.
And yet, the basic strategy of such "animal rights" philosophers
as Tom Regan and Peter Singer, is to stress the similarity between
humans and non-human animals while, at the same time, de-emphasizing
and perhaps devaluing that which sets humans apart from the animals;
namely, the moral significance and dignity of personhood. That, I
submit, may be an exorbitant and unacceptable moral cost --
especially so, since there are other grounds upon which to articulate
and justify a humane treatment of animals.
Copyright 1984, 1999, by Ernest Partridge
1. Ernest Partridge, "Three Wrong Leads in a
Search For an Environmental Ethic: Tom Regan on Animal Rights,
Inherent Values and "Deep Ecology" Ethics and Animals, V. 3,
2. University of California Press, 1982.
3. Tom Regan,
That Dwell Therein, University of California Press, 1982, p. 1.
4. This characterization of Regan's position is
supported by the following quotations from the book: (a) ". . .
because [animals'] interests are frequently as important to
them as comparable interests are to human beings,
their interests must be given the same weight as
comparable human interests." (86, see also pp. 8, 12, 31-2, 50), (b)
". . . attempts to mark a qualitative chasm that separates man from
the beasts must fail. . ." (159) (c) "In is not clear, first, that no
non-human animals satisfy any one (or all) of these [rights-
conferring] conditions, and second, it is reasonably clear that
not all human beings satisfy them." (28, see also p. 36).
5. Notably, Joel Feinberg in his essay, "The
Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations," in Blackstone (ed), Philosophy and Environmental Crisis, Athens, GA: University
Georgia Press, 1974.
6. This is not the place to discuss the idea
that manifestly "unequal" persons deserve "equal rights." The
literature on the topic is vast, of course. The best recent
treatments, in my opinion, are by Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls.
7. Regan's indexed references to "persons"
(152-3, 156) deal exclusively with "person" as a legal concept --
i.e., entities with juridical standing. He makes little use of the
concept of "person" as an integrated and continuous set of
8. Some researchers claim that some
experimental apes have broken this barrier (e.g., the Gardiner's
"Washoe" and Paterson's "Koko"). Still others, (e.g., John Lilly)
believe that Dolphins may be "persons" with an articulate language.
If so, and if this can be demonstrated, then these animals are
welcome to the club (i.e., to our "moral community"). The issue,
however, is in doubt, to say the least. (Cf. Herbert Terrace's work
with "Nim Chimpsky").
9. By (a) "significant" is meant that a symbol,
"x", evokes the same response (or image) in all parties to the
communication. Other criteria of language are (b) syntactical
(grammatical), (c) conventional, and (d) arbitrary. Cf. Fromkin and
Rodman, An Introduction to Language, (NY: Holt, Rinehart
& Winston, 1983), Ch. 1.
10. This, however, is not Regan's sole
criterion of "rights." He further contends that inanimate beings have
"rights," due to their "inherent value." (Clearly plants, rocks and
rivers do not "have autobiographies."). My criticism of Regan's concept of
"inherent value" appears later in the paper from which this section is
excerpted. ("Three Wrong Leads..." loc. cit.).