Professor Tom Regan: A Case for Animal Rights Speech


Here, with what is still seen as one of the greatest animal rights speeches of all time, is  Professor Tom Regan  (1938 – 2017) who opened the debate “Does the Animal Kingdom Need a Bill of Rights” at the Royal Institute of Great Britain in 1989.

I have lost count of how many times I’ve listened to this over the years. The talk is as spellbinding as it is quotable, but I couldn’t find an accurate transcript. I therefore decided to transcribe it myself, so the punctuation and emphases are mine.

It is truly astonishing and also rather tragic to find how timeless it is. Sadly, as we go through his ‘question and answer’ responses to the opponents of Animal Rights, we find the same tired old justifications are STILL being used. The difference is that the sheer number of our species’ victims is escalating year on year, so as advocates we can’t afford to relax even slightly. Let us draw inspiration from those like Professor Regan whose life’s work work paved our way. 


‘The other animals humans eat, use in science, hunt, trap, and exploit in a variety of other ways have a life of their own that is of importance to them, apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world they are aware of it and also of what happens to them, and what happens to them matters to them. Each has a life that fares experientially better or worse for the one whose life it is. Like us they bring a unified psychological presence to the world; like us they are somebodys not somethings.

In these fundamental ways, the non-human animals in labs and on farms for example, are the same as human beings, and so it is that the ethics of our dealings with them – and with one another – must rest on some of the same fundamental moral principles.

At its deepest level an enlightened human ethic is based on the independent value of the individual. To treat human beings in ways that do not honour their independent worth, to reduce them to the status of tools or models or commodities for example, is to violate that most basic of human rights; the right to be treated with respect.

The philosophy of animal rights demands only the logic be respected, for any argument that plausibly explains the independent value of human beings, implies that other animals have the same value and have it equally; and any argument that plausibly explains the right of humans to be treated with respect, also implies that these other animals have this same right, and have it equally.

Also, as a result of selective media coverage in the past – to which this evening’s debate is a notable and praiseworthy exception – the general public has tended to view advocates of animal rights in exclusively negative terms. We are ‘anti-intellectual’, ‘anti-science’, ‘anti-rational’, ‘anti-human’. We stand ‘against’ justice and ‘for’ violence.

The truth, as it happens, is quite the reverse. The philosophy of animal rights is on the side of reason, for it is not rational to discriminate arbitrarily. And discrimination against nonhuman animals is demonstrably arbitrary. It is wrong to treat weaker human beings – especially those who are lacking in normal human intelligence – as tools or models for example. It cannot be rational therefore to treat other animals as if they were tools, models, and the like, if their psychology is as rich as, or richer than, these human beings.

The philosophy of animal rights is pro- not anti-science. This philosophy is respectful of our best science in general, and all evolutionary biology in particular. The latter teaches that, in Darwin’s words, ‘Humans differ from many other animals in degree and not in kind.’

Questions about line drawing to one side, it is obvious that the animals used in laboratories, raised for food, and hunted for pleasure, or trapped for profit, for example, are our psychological kin. This is not fantasy. This is fact, supported by our best science.
The philosophy of animal rights stands for not against justice.

We are not to violate the rights of the few so that the many might benefit; slavery allows this, child labour allows this, all unjust social institutions allow this. But not the philosophy of animal rights whose highest principle is that of justice. The philosophy of animal rights stands for peace and against violence. The fundamental demand of this philosophy is to treat humans and other animals with respect. This philosophy therefore, is a philosophy of peace. But it is a philosophy that extends the demand for peace beyond the boundaries of our species. For there is an undeclared war being waged every day against countless millions of nonhuman animals. To stand truly for peace, is to stand firmly against their ruthless exploitation.

And what, aside from the common menu of media distortions, what will be said by the opponents of animal rights?

Will the objection be that we are equating animals and humans in every respect, when in fact humans and animals differ greatly?

But clearly, we are not saying that humans and other animals are the same in every way; that dogs and cats can do calculus; or that pigs and cows enjoy poetry.
What we are saying is that, like humans, many other animals have an experiential welfare of their own. In this sense we and they are the same. In this sense therefore, despite our many differences, we and they are equal.

Will the objection be that we are saying that every human and every animal has the same rights? That chicken should have the right to vote and pigs the right to ballet lessons?

But of course, we are not saying this. All we are saying, is that these animals and humans share one basic moral right; the right to be treated with respect.

Will the objection be that because animals do not respect our rights, we therefore have no obligation to respect their rights either?

But there are many human beings who have rights and are unable to respect the rights of others; young children and the mentally enfeebled and deranged of all ages. In their case we do not say that it is perfectly all right to treat them as tools or models or commodities because they do not honour our rights. On the contrary we recognise that we have a duty to treat them with respect. What is true of cases involving these human beings is no less true of cases involving other animals.

Will the objection be that if other animals do have more – even if other animals do have moral rights – there are other more important things that need our attention; world hunger and child abuse for example, apartheid, drugs, violence to women, the plight of the homeless. After – after – we take care of these problems then we can worry about animal rights.

This objection misses the mark. For the rank-and-file of the animal rights movement is composed of people, whose first line of service is human service; doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, people involved in a broad range of social services from rape counselling to aiding victims of child abuse, or famine, or discrimination; teachers at every level of education, ministers, priests, rabbis. As the lives of these people demonstrate, the choice thoughtful people face is not between either helping humans or helping other animals.

One can do both. We should do both.

Will the objection be, finally, that no one has rights; not any human being and not any other animal either; but rather that right and wrong are a matter of acting to produce the best consequences, being certain to count everyone’s interest and count equal interests equally?

This moral philosophy, ‘utilitarianism’, has a long and venerable history. Influential men and women past and present are among its adherents, and yet it is a bankrupt moral philosophy if ever there was one.
Are we seriously, seriously, to inquire into the interest of the rapist before declaring rape wrong? Should we ask the child molester whether his interest would be frustrated before condemning the molestation of our children?
Remarkably a consistent utilitarianism demands that we ask these questions, and in so demanding, relinquishes any claim on our rational assent.

With regard to the philosophy of animal rights, then, is it rational, impartial, scientifically informed? Does it stand for peace and against injustice?

To these – to ALL these questions – the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’.
And as for the objections that are raised against this philosophy, are those who accept it, able to offer rational, informed, answers?
Again, the answer is, ‘yes’.

In the battle of ideas, the philosophy of animal rights wins, its critics lose.
It remains to be seen which side emerges as the victor in the ongoing political battle between what is just and what is not.

Thank you.’

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