Empty Cages is, in my estimation, the single best introduction to the topic of animal rights ever written. Nobody has done more to articulate what “animal rights” means and should mean than Tom Regan. Universally recognized for decades as the leading philosophical spokesperson of the animal rights movement, Tom Regan’s views have always been radical, in the original sense of that word, going to the root. This is what enables him to condemn, on purely moral grounds, any animal experimentation, whatever the perceived benefit to humans, a position I wholeheartedly endorse, and which I first heard expressed most eloquently by Tom Regan.
Tom Regan’s philosophy about animals is original to its core. It is not dependent on any prior system. It is not tied to the doctrines of utilitarianism or any other traditional point of view. It is the product of a unique combination of head and heart. This is what makes Tom so beloved of people who care about animals, and what makes this particular book so refreshing. Its pages overflow with profound ideas, clearly and simply stated. Though written by a philosopher, you do not need a degree in philosophy to understand and appreciate this powerful book.
Tom updates what is perhaps the most famous (and justly so) saying of the animal rights movement, proposed long ago by Jeremy Bentham: “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’” He adds something equally important, but not recognized until he formulated it.
The question is not only can animals suffer, but are they the subjects-of-a-life? This is one of those phrases that resonates long after you read it. It begins to sink in, and you realize that you have been exposed to a whole new idea, one of those potentially life-altering insights. Animals have a past, a story, a biography. They have histories. Mink and bears, elephants and dolphins, pigs and chickens, cats and dogs: each is a unique somebody, not a disposable something.
Think of the many implications: animals have mothers and fathers, often siblings, friendships, a childhood, youth, maturity. They go through life cycles much the way humans do (the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, earned his reputation by describing these phases in the lives of humans, but they are just as important in the lives of animals). Moreover, as Tom has said, and this is another of those illuminating phrases that will not leave you alone (gnawing, for example, at your conscience), their lives can go better or worse for them, whether or not anyone else cares about this.
Opponents of Tom often say we cannot possibly know what makes an animal happy. Nonsense. Nothing could be easier. A cow wants to live, to feed her young, to be outdoors in a natural world full of wind and sunshine and other natural things. A cow is happy when a cow does what cows have evolved to do: have friends and family and a life. Not a death. This is what a cow wants to do; this is what makes a cow happy. When you think of what is the worst thing that can happen in the life of any animal, you understand that it is an untimely death, and so Tom’s philosophy tells us that we must do everything in our power to see to it that no animal dies when death is not natural, necessary or required on grounds of mercy.
Untangle all the complex strands of Tom’s simple statement, and you realize that you are taking an intellectual voyage that will bring you to places you may never have thought of visiting. You will be faced with implications you may never have considered, as happened to me just after reading Tom’s book. After much research, my family found the Volvo Cross-Country station wagon to be the best car built in terms of child safety (and we have two small children). It only came in leather where I live (New Zealand). How seriously could I be taking Tom Regan’s insights if I could support the killing of a dozen cows for my car? No way. That was out of the question for me.
Or think about eggs: how are the chickens who produce eggs treated? How much credence could I give to the statements of those who profited from selling the eggs? And whose eggs were they anyway? If I took Tom’s ideas seriously, if I purchased eggs, was I not supporting practices that routinely killed animals because they were not laying eggs fast enough? Eggs I didn’t need in the first place? How can one justify terrorizing and killing innocent animals? If hens are subjects-of-a-life, was my decision showing respect for them? If their life goes well or poorly, was my decision helping or hindering their well being? So much for eggs.
I am not sure, but I believe it was Tom who first made me aware that taking the life of an animal, any animal, was an important matter, a momentous moment, not to be taken lightly. We could not hide behind words, or try to conceal what we were doing by talking about it in imprecise or obscure terms. Today, even as I write these words, Americans are engaged in doing precisely that, killing people while they talk about shock and awe and ordinances. In this book, Tom explains that we must use words that everybody understands in ways that they have always been used and understood. He will not allow the kind of obfuscation I have just indicated, especially when practiced by animal abusers who hide behind the rhetoric of “humane treatment” and “responsible care.” Tom is constantly recalling us to our own best instincts.
I am convinced that animals, all animals, feel love, much the same way that humans do. Tom, I know, agrees with me. And here is his book, written with love, asking us to do only one thing, but it is radical, to live in ways that show for respect animals even as we strive to live in ways that show respect for one another. Read this book and see if you don’t come away convinced that this is the single best hope for our planet at this dangerous time in its existence.