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The case for killing Fido
on 5 December 2010
Here in Sweden, Tom Regan is considered to be more "fundamentalist" in his defence of animal rights than Peter Singer. This is certainly true, if "fundamentalist" means "more consistent". Personally, I was militantly opposed to animal rights during the straight edge/vegan craze of the 1990's, and I considered Regan to be a frivolous wacko. (How I regarded Peter Kill-a-cute-human-toddler Singer, you might very well imagine!) I'm still not convinced that animal rights is the correct position, but in this review I will take a more open-ended, inquiring view of the problem.
Regan wrote "The case for animal rights" in 1980-81, and published it in 1983. Except for a new foreword, this 2004 edition is more or less identical to the original. The book isn't an easy read, and I wonder how many of the teenage militant vegans really digested it. It's a work of philosophy rather than a political pamphlet, written in a very cool, rational and "boring" manner, with Regan often being surprisingly charitable to his opponents. This may offend the more hot-headed activists, while perhaps commending the work to others. The foreword, however, were Regan responds to some of his critics, is more emotional and at times even personal.
Regan begins by tackling the issue of whether animals are sentient, have desires, can plan ahead, etc. He reaches the conclusion that this is true at least of mammals over the age of one. Regan then criticizes what he calls "indirect duty views", the position that humans should be kind to animals not because this harms the animals, but because it may in the long run harm humans. He sees Immanuel Kant as a typical representative of this school of thought. In another section of the book, Regan sharply criticizes utilitarianism, including the ideas of Peter Singer. This is, almost inevitably, one of the best parts of the book. A consistent utilitarian can believe neither in animal rights, nor human rights!
Regan then present his own position, which he calls "the rights view". Both human adults, human children, mentally handicapped humans, and mammalian animals are "subjects-of-a-life" with "inherent value", and therefore deserve to be treated with respect, and never as a simple means to an end. Very simply put, both humans and (other) mammals have individual rights. These rights can be taken from them only under exceptional circumstances, also discussed in the book (such as the right to self-defence). In the last chapter, Regan discusses the concrete consequences of "the rights view". Vegetarianism is mandatory, all medical or non-medical testing on mammals should be banned, and hunting should be discontinued. He also discusses whether endangered species can have rights as species, and reaches the conclusion that they cannot. All rights are individual. However, this doesn't rule out conservation measures towards endangered species, as long as this is interpreted as saving a collection of individuals.
Regan is honest enough to admit that his positions aren't 100% worked out, and there are indeed some loose ends in his book. For instance, he doesn't regard human infants or newly-born mammals as subjects-of-a-life. Despite this, Regan doesn't condone infanticide. His point is that killing new-born mammals might lead people to think that killing adult mammals is alright, and that we should therefore avoid killing the new-borns as well. But this sounds almost like Kant's "indirect duty view"! Regan seems to support the right to abortion, but once again I wonder why? Aren't fetuses at least potential subjects-of-a-life? Couldn't it be argued that abortion is part of a wider "culture of death" that's detrimental to both humans and other mammals? (I'm not saying that it is. However, this seems to be a possible problem for the pro-abortion position of the rights view.)
Ironically, Regan has also been criticized by animal rights activists and environmental ethicists for not going far enough in his defence of animals. As already noted, Regan "only" regards mammals as subjects-of-a-life. But what about poultry farming, vivisection of frogs, fishing, etc? Here, Regan takes the same "Kantian" position as he did concerning human infants and new-born mammals. These practises should be discontinued, in order to buttress the rights of mammals. His other argument is more consistent: since we really don't know where to draw the borderline between subjects-of-a-life and non-subjects, it's better to err on the side of caution. A more serious criticism has been levelled against Regan from an environmentalist perspective. If only individuals have rights, and if only mammals or vertebrates are subjects-of-a-life, how do we justify conservation of plants and insects? The question isn't academic, since many plants and at least some insects are red-listed. Those who believe that every species have a right to exist, could argue for conservation from a viewpoint that isn't anthropocentric. But Regan is forced to resort to a human-centered and hence "speciesist" defence of such organisms: they should be preserved for aesthetic or sacramental reasons.
But the most well-known, almost famous, objection to "The case for animal rights" is the "lifeboat case". Regan believes that if four humans and a dog would find themselves on a lifeboat after a shipwreck, and there is only room for four creatures, the dog should be thrown overboard (or even killed and eaten), since the quality of a dog's life is lower than the quality of human lives. Indeed, even if the choice would be between four humans and a thousand dogs, the dogs would still have to go. In other words, Regan is willing to kill Fido! Of course, he regards this as an exceptional case, but his critics consider it an inconsistency in his theory. Indeed, it's often regarded as one of the major flaws in "the rights view". In his new foreword, Regan seems annoyed by constantly having to debate "the lifeboat case". However, I think his critics have a point. (See further below.)
The question of "animal rights" isn't an easy one. Our evolutionary origins work both ways. On the one hand, humans are by nature omnivorous. Indeed, it's difficult to see how humans could have survived and become such a successful species, without being omnivorous. While it's certainly possible to be vegetarian (but probably not vegan), it's more expedient to eat meat, and in many cases probably necessary too. Could a roaming band of Palaeolithic humans really have survived without hunting and trapping? On the other hand, secular morality cannot be based on speciesist criteria, since all species-boundaries are fluid and arbitrary. We have the good luck of being alone on the top of the dungheap, since both Neanderthals and Homo erectus have gone extinct, but what if they were still around? We also share most of our genes with chimps and bonobos, and only ethical considerations (or raw fear?) preclude us from attempting to crossbreed humans and great apes. The question, of course, is where to draw the boundary-line. For instance, it's difficult to see how the life of moose are appreciably changed for the worse, if they are hunted and killed by humans, rather than by wolves? Or if they are left alone to destroy the forests, and then die of starvation? (There are very few wolves left in Sweden.) Somehow, killing or be killed is part of animal nature, at least most animals. A case for great apes and some monkeys having rights can perhaps be made, but I'm less sure of the rest! Note also that I said "secular" morality. If it's postulated that humans have an immortal soul, or something to that effect, while animals have not, then the evolutionary considerations become irrelevant. But how do you prove such a thing? Besides, some religious groups claim that even animals have souls!
There are many situations in which the interests of animals, and those of humans might collide. What about pest species? They would be a problem even in a vegetarian world! And while many pest species are insects, some are mammals. Don't humans have the right to defend their vegetarian agriculture from animal pests? And what about invasive species? The ecological balance can sometimes be upheld only by human intervention. In extreme cases, this could mean killing members of an invasive species to save local species. Nor is it so easy to simply "leave the animals alone", since many animals are dependent on human-created habitat to thrive. "The rights view" doesn't seem to address these problems.
As already noted, Regan opposes all scientific testing on animals. He believes that potentially lethal drugs and products should be tested on human volunteers instead, or discontinued altogether (he prefers the latter). But this is where the "lifeboat case" comes in. If animals have a lower quality of life than humans, why *not* test potentially lethal drugs on animals? To Regan, the lifeboat scenario is exceptional, and I don't think he's inconsistent within the confines of his own philosophy. But a critic might respond, that while animals have certain interests we should acknowledge (say, by passing laws that prohibit beating or eating pets), the need to save humans from dangerous diseases overrides any interest an animal might have, if the only way to avoid human deaths is testing new drugs on animals. In other words, certain forms of animal testing are "exceptional cases" in this sense. It could further be argued that prohibiting testing would harm the human community, for instance by letting chronically ill patients suffer, or by recruiting "volunteers" to the tests, leading to a less humane society. And, as already noted, Regan says himself that humans have a higher life quality than animals.
Personally, I certainly hope that cruelty to animals will one day cease, and more harmony reign on the planet. Unfortunately, in a world where even humans fiercely compete with each other, it's difficult to see how a consistently applied "rights view" can be anything but utopian. Less meat than the average Westerner eats today would probably just do us good, but an entirely vegetarian world with no medical testing whatsoever, seems very far away...
PS. I gave this review a facetious title, just to get everyone's attention!