The Case for Animal Rights

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In The Case for Animal Rights, Regan argues that non-human animals bear moral rights. His philosophy aligns broadly within the tradition of Immanuel Kant, though he rejects Kant’s idea that respect is due only to rational beings. Regan points out that we routinely ascribe inherent value, and thus the right to be treated with respect, to humans who are not rational, including infants and the severely mentally impaired.

The crucial attribute that all humans have in common, he argues, is not rationality, but the fact that each of us has a life that matters to us; in other words, what happens to us matters to us, regardless of whether it matters to anyone else. In Regan’s terminology, we each experience being the “subject of a life.” If this is the true basis for ascribing inherent value to individuals, to be consistent we must ascribe inherent value, and hence moral rights, to all subjects of a life, whether human or non-human. The basic right that all who possess inherent value have, he argues, is the right never to be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

“Tom Regan’s now classic Case for Animal Rights blends careful argument with intense moral concern. For two decades, where Regan has been taken seriously, animals have been better off and people have become better persons. This new edition is a welcome sign of this influence continuing.” —Holmes Rolston, III, University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University

This is the book that put animal rights on the moral map and established Tom as the philosophical leader of the animal rights movement. In the new Preface to the second edition, published in 2004, he looks back on what he experienced as he was writing this groundbreaking book.

“I started to write The Case in September 1980 and finished in November 1981. I had been writing about ethics and animals in general, and animal rights in particular, for several years, so I did not begin from ground zero. My philosopher’s bags were packed with some more or less settled convictions as well as some more or less well-developed arguments. I thought I knew where I wanted to go and the best way to get there. I was (or so I fancied myself) very much in charge. And, in the opening chapters, I was. Here is a question: Are animals aware of anything? There is a blank page. Assignment: Fill the blank page with my thoughts. It was effortless work. I enjoyed it immensely.

“However, by the time I began to work my way through chapter six (which is mainly devoted to my critique of utilitarianism), something happened. It was as if — and I know this will sound strange, but I’ll risk it anyhow — it was as if I ceased to be the book’s author. Words came, sentences came, whole paragraphs came, pages came, from where, I did not know. What I was writing was new to me; it did not represent anything I had ever thought before. But the words came, taking-up permanent residence on the page as fast as I could write them down. This was more than enjoyable. This was exhilarating.

“But here’s the real puzzle. The exhilaration did not last for a few minutes, or hours, or days, or even weeks. I was in this state, without interruption, for months. It is no exaggeration for me to say that, during this time, I had lost control over where the book was going. For all intents and purposes, I was just along for the ride. Which is why I think the most original parts of The Case (the final four chapters where I state and defend the respect, the harm, the mini-ride, the worse-off, and the liberty principles, for example) are not something for which I can take much credit. In a very real sense, they came to me as a gift. When, after more than two decades of my benign neglect, I sat down to read the book again, preparatory to writing this new Preface, I vividly recalled this unique period of my life. Even as I write these words, I have to shake my head in wonder, still unable to understand how it all happened.”

Tom would have to shake his head for another reason, looking back to what he felt after finishing The Case. He writes:

“A few weeks after the final manuscript had been mailed to the publisher, I remember walking the cold December streets of New York, at the height of the holiday season, jostled by the crowds, thinking that in every stranger’s face I saw a future animal rights advocate. Verily, I looked forward to that glorious day when The Case for Animal Rights would transform American culture, the world even, into a safe haven for animals, a place where, at long last, they would be treated with respect.”

More than twenty years after its original publication, The Case for Animal Rights is an acknowledged classic of moral philosophy and its author is recognized as the intellectual leader of the animal rights movement. In a new and fully considered preface, Regan responds to his critics and defends the book’s revolutionary position.

“Talk about being mistaken. Not only did I greatly overestimate the power of The Case; I greatly underestimated the many challenges standing in the way of society’s full acceptance of animal rights. If I have learned anything in the past twenty years and more, it is that the struggle for animal rights is not for the faint of heart. The pace of social change requires the plodding endurance of the marathoner, not the lightning speed of the sprinter. My belief in the ultimate triumph of justice for other animals is no less today than it was when I made my way through the currents of holiday shoppers; if anything, it is stronger. Let’s just say my idealism is tempered by a strong dose of realism.

“As for my overestimation of the power of The Case: I am embarrassed to confess my naivete. I don’t know what possessed me to think that a book in moral theory could change the world. People need to do more than be convinced by a philosophical argument for the rights of animals. In particular, they need to learn what really is happening to animals, something they will never know if they trust what they are told by spokespersons for the animal exploiters and government officials. And animal rights advocates need to distance themselves, on principled grounds, from arsonists and other law-breakers. The Case for Animal Rights uniformly fails to address these important challenges. In other places [Regan, 2001; 2003b; 2003c], I attempt to remedy these omissions. These latter efforts are not meant to replace The Case; they are intended to supplement it.

“Having duly (if painfully) acknowledged my naivete, I cannot help but admire the passionate earnestness of the much younger Tom Regan who wrote this book. Back in the early 1980s, I believed that the animal rights movement was like the captain in the Ami Ayalon quote, cited at the beginning of this new Preface. Animal rights was a movement that did not know where it wanted to sail, a movement therefore destined never to get there, no matter how strong the wind or what its direction. My unrealistic expectations about what The Case would do for the movement have been chastened by increasing age and the lessons of time. Even so, I like to hope that this old friend of mine, this book, helps us better understand — by means of rigorous philosophical cartography, shall we say — where the animal rights movement should be heading. And why.”

“‘The Case for Animal Rights’ is beyond question the most important philosophical contribution to animal rights and is a major work in moral philosophy.” —Animal Law Review

From the Inside Flap: “Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Bentham, Mill: all thought seriously about the role of animals in our lives. But not until Tom Regan published The Case for Animal Rights did the world possess a theory of the rights of animals. When philosophy students come to this issue hundreds of years from now, they will read the greats in light of the arguments presented here.” —Gary L. Comstock, editor of Life Science Ethics

“Tom Regan’s now classic ‘Case for Animal Rights’ blends careful argument with intense moral concern. For two decades, where Regan has been taken seriously, animals have been better off and people have become better persons. This new edition is a welcome sign of this influence continuing.” —Holmes Rolston, III, University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University

“A bold and nuanced analysis of the inherent value and moral standing of nonhuman animals. It may also be the most consistent and unyielding defense of animal rights.” —Tom L. Beauchamp, Georgetown University

“The most powerful and plausible consideration of the issues and defense of animal rights yet to be produced (or likely to be).” —Richard Wasserstrom

“By far the best work on the subject, and will continue to be the definitive work for years to come … [It is] destined to become a ‘modern classic’ in the field of ethics, alongside Rawls’s ‘A Theory of Justice and Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.’” —Alastair S. Gunn, co-author of Hold Paramount

Praise for the first edition:

“Unquestionably the best work yet to appear in its field, surpassing even Peter Singer’s famous ‘Animal Liberation’ in originality, thoroughness, and rigor.” —Choice

“‘The Case for Animal Rights’ is beyond question the most important philosophical contribution to animal rights and is a major work in moral philosophy.” —Animal Law Review

“The most powerful and plausible consideration of the issues and defense of animal rights yet to be produced (or likely to be).” —Richard Wasserstrom, author of ‘Philosophy and Social Issues’ (1980)

Click here to read more reviews.

1983. The Case For Animal Rights. Cloth edition. University of California Press.

1983. The Case For Animal Rights. Cloth edition. Routledge and Kegan Paul (England).

1985. The Case For Animal Rights. Paper edition. University of California Press.

1988. The Case for Animal Rights. Paper. Routledge and Kegan Paul (England).

1990. I Dritti Animali. Italian translation of The Case for Animal Rights. Translated by Salvatore Veca. Garzanti.

1998. The Case for Animal Rights. (Swedish translation). Stockholm: Nya Doxa.

2004. The Case for Animal Rights. 2/e; with a new introduction. Berkeley: University 
of California Press.

2010. The Case for Animal Rights. Translated by Zeng Jianping. Peking University Press.

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