Animal Rights and the Wrongness of Killing

2. Animal Rights and Justice for Animals

2.1 Tom Regan and Animal Rights

Much of the relatively recent and increasingly voiced criticism of the disparate treatment of animals and human beings has been couched in the terminology of moral rights. So, before I develop a credible utilitarian view on the killing of animals, I will consider briefly one such argument for animal rights. This view is advanced by one of the best known contemporary critics of our treatment of animals, Tom Regan.

In his essay, 'The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism' [1982: 27–31], Regan had initially hoped that his argument for animal rights would guarantee that human beings and animals with interests possess a right to life to an equal degree. In his later essay, 'An Examination and Defense of One Argument Concerning Animal Rights' [1982: 136–44], Regan appears to have changed his view to the more moderate position that because not all human beings seem to have an equal right to life, then not all animals have a right to life that is equal to all humans. Regan did not say this explicitly, but I think that this view is strongly suggested by his remark that severely mentally defective human beings possess lower inherent value than normal human beings. (For Regan, as we shall see below, moral rights are grounded in inherent value.) Whatever Regan's view is on the relative strengths of the rights to life of different human beings and animals, however, I will argue that Regan has not succeeded in showing that human beings or animals have any moral rights at all.

What is Regan's argument for moral rights? He begins his two essays, 'Utilitarianism, Vegetarianism and Animal Rights' [1982: 40–60] and 'Animal Rights, Human Wrongs' [1982: 75–101], by criticizing utilitarianism for not providing sufficient grounds for radically censuring our current practices towards animals.[2] He claims that a more substantial critique is likely to be provided by the notion of moral rights. The force of such rights, he argues, affords its possessor a moral immunity from having his/her interests traded off in a utilitarian calculus. Regan goes on to recommend what he considers to be the most plausible grounding for such rights, arguing first for the case of human beings and then applying the same argument to the case of animals with interests. In his 'Animal Rights, Human Wrongs' [1982: 93f], Regan explains it so:

. . . human beings have a certain kind of value: inherent value. By this I mean that each human being has value logically independently of whether he/she is valued by anyone else (or, what perhaps comes to the same thing, whether he/she is the object of anyone else's interest).

. . . it is individuals who have inherent value who have moral rights, and it is because they have value of this kind that they have a moral right not to be treated in ways that deny their having this kind of value.

What is there about being a human being that underlies this inherent value? . . . human beings are not only alive; they have a life. What is more, we are the subjects of a life that is better or worse for us, logically independently of anyone else's valuing us or finding us useful.

The question now arises whether this same line of argument can be developed in the case of animals. It can, at least in the case of those animals who are the subjects of a life that is better or worse for them, logically independently of whether they are valued by anyone else.[3]

The first curious feature about this argument is Regan's attempt to ground the inherent value of human beings and animals with interests in the fact that these creatures place value judgements on their own lives; that their lives are better or worse for them. In his 'Animal Experimentation: First Thoughts' [1982: 70f], Regan makes explicit this connection between a creature placing a value judgement on his/her own life and him/her having inherent value.

. . . these individuals have a life that is better or worse for them, logically independently of whether they are valued by anyone else (e.g., whether anyone else finds them useful). To put this last point differently, these individuals are valuers whether valued by others or not. As such, these individuals have a different kind of value than those objects (things) that have value only if (and then only so long as) they are valued by someone else . . .

Book cover: All that Dwell Therein by Tom Regan

But what is the relationship between the propositions 'x is a valuer whether valued by others or not' and 'x has inherent value'? It cannot be one of logical entailment of the latter from the former. We can easily imagine constructing a machine in the future that has the capacity to evaluate the worth of other machines and even one that can evaluate its own worth as a machine. However, that this machine has this capacity seems to be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for its having inherent value. With his argument, Regan has not even begun to show that valuers have any kind of value at all, let alone value of a different kind than instrumental value.

His repeated emphasis on the logical independence of the inherent value of a creature from the value placed on it by others seems to suggest covertly that the inherent value of a creature is supposed to be logically dependent on the value that they place on themself. If this is what is in Regan's mind, then it is pertinent to point out that what is being used here is a strange notion of 'inherent value'. An inherent value of a being (that is, an essential value or a value that naturally belongs to the being) can be no more dependent on the value that the being places on themself than on the acts of valuing performed by other beings. It would be a queer kind of 'inherent value' that a being could have that could be lost simply because the being comes to regard themself as worthless.

Regan, when his mind is otherwise concentrated on supporting an environmental ethic, restates this original criterion, based on the logical independence from the value judgements of anyone else other than the being themself, as an explicit criterion requiring logical independence from all value judgements. He says, in a footnote to 'Animal Rights, Human Wrongs' [1982: 100, n. 19]:

An x has inherent value if it has value logically independently of anyone's valuing x [italics mine].

This revision manages to avoid the conceptual difficulty involved in tying 'inherent value' to a particular value judgement.[4] In addition, it succeeds in avoiding the uncomfortable consequence for Regan that his earlier view would have entailed that people bent on suicide may be treated merely as means for other purposes because they do not value their own life.

The cost of avoiding these difficulties, however, is that he has failed to show the connection between 'x values their own life' and 'x has inherent value'. And without the demonstration that some beings have inherent value, we can conclude that his argument for moral rights cannot get off the ground.


  1. [2] Peter Singer's reply to this charge is contained in his Singer [1980b].
  2. [3] For the same argument, see also his 'The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism' in his [1982: 30]; 'Animal Experimentation: First Thoughts' in his [1982: 70f] and his 'An Examination and Defense of One Argument Concerning Animal Rights' in his [1982: 135f].
  3. [4] Of course, contra Regan, what could be meant by 'inherent value' is 'valued for its own sake and not as a means to some further end'. On this analysis, 'inherent value' is ultimately grounded in some particular act of valuing. But this type of analysis will not guarantee that creatures with interests will always have 'inherent value'. Regan, understandably, avoids this analysis in favour of attributing 'inherent value' independently of particular acts of valuing. However, if the 'inherent value' of a being is independent from the acts of valuing performed by other beings, then why should the acts of valuing performed by the being itself have privileged status? This is the conceptual difficulty that Regan is faced with.

Copyright © 2015

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