Tom Regan, 1938 – 2017

21 February 2017
By Adam Farrow

On Friday 17th February 2017 we received word that Tom Regan, professor emeritus of philosophy at North Carolina State University, had passed away, aged 78. The author of a great many number of papers, articles and books, Regan was a versatile philosopher with a keen eye for detail. He specialised in the works and philosophy of G. E. Moore, and through the late 20th century offered substantial contributions to the then-understudied area of animal moral philosophy.

For many, myself included, his 1983 book The Case for Animal Rights served as a welcome prompt that, when properly addressed, it is entirely plausible that animals possess rights – a concept widely believed to be reserved solely for the rational human. It offered a pivotal change in direction to the work of his most notable counterpart and peer Peter Singer, who believed firmly that whilst animals were morally considerable, the idea that they possessed moral rights was incorrect. It is on this work that I wish to focus.

For Singer and other utilitarians, rights have no place in the sphere of morality. Instead, morality should focus on maximising the amount of good in the world, even if that maximum good is at the expense of the few. Regan disagreed with this, believing that utilitarianism is not acceptable because it treats individuals as ‘mere receptacles’ of value and fails to recognise the ‘inherent value’ of individuals.

Regan subscribed to a deontological form of morality, a theoretical approach that cares less about the consequences of an action and more about the issues surrounding the action performed. According to Regan being an individual who possesses particular features, including self-consciousness, an emotional life, and an existence independent of being useful to anyone else’s interests – individuals whom he called ‘subjects-of-a-life’ – is the benchmark for having inherent rights. Specifically, subjects-of-a-life possess the right to respect, a right that ultimately includes the right to not be killed or harmed.

Beyond his philosophical work, Regan promoted the kind treatment of animals in all aspects of his life. Although he trained as a butcher to pay for college, he became vegetarian in the early 1970s and vegan shortly afterwards. Alongside his wife Nancy, he co-founded the Culture and Animals Foundation, a non-profit organisation that aimed to foster ‘intellectual and artistic endeavours’ that raised awareness of the positive treatment of animals.

His impact on ethical philosophy and animal rights is immeasurable, but all can appreciate the way his papers, books and lectures act as a catalyst to provoke the minds of countless students, academics and activists alike. So whilst it is with a heavy heart we say goodbye to Tom Regan the man, we can take solace in the fact that we are able to continue to study, critique, analyse and celebrate the work of Tom Regan the philosopher. He will surely be remembered as one of the greatest moral philosophers of the last century.