Mad Cowboy Interview 03: Dr. Tom Regan
(Part 03 of 04)


MS: "What would it take for you to switches sides, to go back to where you were before your belief of animals having rights?"

TR: "...part of what would have to happen, is that I would have to be presented with an argument that justifies the human domination over animals, the human systematic institutional exploitation of animals. Over the years there have been quite a few philosophers and others who have stepped forward to present such an argument; I've never found them remotely convincing. I've always found them to be amongst the worst examples of philosophical argument that I've ever encountered."

MS: "You clearly have a strong intellectual foundation for your belief structure, have you integrated this into other aspects of your being?

TR: "Sure, of course... I'm a strong advocate of children's rights, the rights of the Indian people... and of just basic human rights for human beings throughout the world."

MS: "...but you also have a big heart..."

TR: "...that's the other thing... I'm highly skeptical, highly doubtful, that anyone could present anything remotely like a compelling convincing argument for the human domination of our animals. I just can't imagine what that argument would be and how would be possible on the basis of what I've seen in the past. So it's like an induction: on the basis of past failures, I'm going to assume that all the other arguments are failures, too.

That would be one thing, but if somebody could present me with an argument that was rationally compelling, I'd really have to think about things... but I don't they're going to do it. I think the record shows that it's a record of failure.

On the other hand, too, you'd have to say, too, it have to be a tough presentation that took my heart out of the picture, some presentation that said those feelings of apathy, sympathy, and compassion, mercy... those feelings and desire to want to protect and care for animals against abuse... something that would convince me to suck all those feelings out of me, and I just can't imagine how that could possibly happen. They'd have to convince me that all these feelings are misplaced, that they don't belong there. I can't imagine that."

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MS: "Some of the reviews of "Empty Cages" are just amazing. The 2003 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, J.M. Coetzee, writing that "Tom Regan delivers a searing indictment of the way we treat animals in the world," Jane Goodall exclaiming that "everybody needs a copy on their bookshelf," you've got Jim Motavili, editor, E: The Environmental Magazine, saying "you'll think twice about eating meat and watching a circus," and so forth. The reviews often comment about the simplicity of your writing, which is not to say the content is simple. The overall structure I found to be quite solid in presenting all the primary issues on both sides of the debate, but you unusually started out with a "prologue" about a cat being picked out in a restaurant to be eaten." This becomes the basis for subsequent "thought experiments" or "scenarios." It struck me that you have a predilection, similar to Gandhi and Einstein, towards "thought experiments." Is this what's helps guide you through your understandings and process?"

TR: "When I started the book, I had a friend who read some of the earlier drafts. The way it originally started was with the first chapter, "animal rights is a contentious idea, some people believe animals....etc." He said, "Tom, you need to start with something more dramatic, something that gets the reader's attention." And I understood him, the way it started was pretty dull.

So I thought about it... this cat episode and video had been in my mind for years. Actually I'd written some longhand stuff about it years ago. It was in my brain, so to speak, and this is what percolated up. Then, once I wrote it, I was really upset about this.. I pushed back in my seat... "what are you doing??"

MS: "Oh, it's a jaw-dropper to be sure.... I was shocked when I first read it..."

TR: "... I wrote the Prologue after the book was pretty far along. I already had quite a lot done, and I knew where I was going with the book. That's why, when I wrote the Prologue, I was able to say, "Oh...well, this is really horrible, but as bad as it is, it might not be as bad as what we're doing to animals in America." That's where I started thinking about, well, here's this variation, here's this variation.... and where I was going in the Prologue, is that as bad as that cat was treated, she may have been one of the lucky ones compared to what's being done in America.

And the other thing about it is, that people might say, "oh, well, you're really being tough on the Koreans, tough on the Chinese," but the point I try to make very clearly (and the book is coming out in a Chinese translation), is that at least these people are honest. They don't have all this fabrication about "Animal Welfare Act" and inspectors going around, and this sort of thing. I mean, this is the way it is in rural China. It's just the way it is."

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MS: "You talk about four variations to the story, what if the cat had a bigger cage?, or what if it was anethesized? (two of the early variations) and at the very end of the book, a fifth variation. I realized later in the book that the "Animal Welfare Act" applies to cats and dogs, but not to the other animals that we consume, and it raises so many issues as to why there are different standards for one mammal versus another. I think later in the book you talk about "is there any fundamental difference between a cow and a cat?""

TR: "Sure... you've got 9 billion animals not covered by the "Animal Welfare Act" that are killed every year for food, you've got well over 100 million animals that are used in laboratories, that are not covered by the Act. It's a charade. The legislation is industry-produced, obviously. Why is it like this? It's not because of any biological difference between this animal or that animal. It because of the special interest lobbies. The poultry industry, the research industry..."

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MS: "Your writing is just great... after the cat story and variations, you say up front, "what are the common misconceptions about animal rights advocates?" (which we talked about in Part 1 of this interview), and then you discuss "what are human rights, and what do they entail?" It's been awhile since I thought about the Tuskegee Experiment. You used a great example, it was a horrendous experiment, and you cleverly used this to frame the issue of individual rights being a "trump card.""

TR: "I think that's actually the most important feature that has to be brought out when we're talking about human rights or animal rights. The protection that rights affords individuals really are very strong. It basically means the promotion of the good of others, of social welfare, of the public good, is never to go forward at the expense of violating the rights of individuals. That why are rights are so important.

As you're aware, I'm sure, there are philosophers that don't think humans have moral rights, I understand that, and I've addressed that in considerable length in "The Case for Animal Rights." But, what's clear to me, is that within representative democracies in the world, there is the belief in the culture of those democracies that individuals have rights that provide them these kinds of protections.

So therefore, it was wrong to do what was done to the sharecroppers in the Tuskegee Experiment, it was wrong to do what was done to the children in the Hepatitis Research Study. I mean, if you look at the history of research and human vivisection, the individuals who end up being the "guinea pigs" are not from the wealthy and the powerful race, they're front the vulnerable: the children, the insane, the impaired, the elderly, military personnel, prisoners... it's always those that lack power that end up on the table of the vivisector. It's just a spill-over from what they do with the animals."

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MS: "...it's a clean connection, and then you go on to list the reasons that people use to justify why humans have rights, and then demonstrate why each is not a valid reason. You then circle into the concept of what makes sense is that we are "subjects-of-a-life" and that forms the major foundation for your views on animal rights."

TR: "It is... the crucial point is, that if we're going to claim rights for the extended human family, then we have to find something about us that that we all share, that makes us all the same, makes us all equal, that's not arbitrary. It can't be that we are moral agents and can act on principles, because tons of human beings that can't do that. It can't be that we're members of the same species, although that's true, that's not a relevant moral consideration."

MS: "I loved that one, because you brought up the fact that women didn't have rights for a long time, and blacks didn't have rights, so being members of the same species isn't the issue."

TR: "So, you look around, and look around... and I try to make it clear in the book, for me, that when the day dawned that I thought, "Omigod, this is it!" it was like something is being revealed to me. I wasn't like something I'd deduced. It wasn't like the conclusion of an elaborate proof, it was like an awakening. We're all in the world, aware of the world, aware of what happens, and what happens matters to us."

MS: "It's also a concept that's not necessarily religious, or physical, or something easy to assail in any way I'm aware of."

TR: "I hope that's the case. It provides a basic thinking about why we are equal, whether we are animals or people. We not only have a biology, we have a biography. I was writing some stuff today, in a sense, what it is to be an animal rights advocate, is to be the "storyteller." I'm here to be the storyteller to those who can't tell the story themselves, and I don't mean storyteller in some sort of less than important way ---- these are true stories, what has happened to animal's lives are just tragedies. If they can't tell their own story, our role is tell their story and to do it in a way that people hear it. There's no point in telling it in a way people can't hear it, it'd be like speaking in a foreign language. This is why I say to activists over and over again, that people can't hear you when you're yelling at them. You have to love people into the movement, rather than hate people into the movement."

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MS: "So, you establish the wonderful concept of "subjects-of-a life." and then having established a justification for human rights, you then approach the same issue with animals. It's stunning how methodical you are, in demonstrating, quite clearly, that animals, too, are "subjects-of-a-life."

TR: "It was another realization, that the tunnel I was looking to crawl through, so to speak, was this notion of being "subjects-of-a-life." Not simply just what happens in a life, but that there's someone who's a subject of that life. That's what crucial from a rights perspective, because the rights are the rights of the individual who is the subject of the life, not the rights of the individual or what happens to that individual.... it's the "somebody" who is the main character in a drama, as it were."

MS: "I was very intrigued how you used the idea of humans with limited intellectual capabilities, say children or those with mental disorders, to essentially ask the question: "if a child doesn't know it has rights, does it have rights?"

TR: "Sure, and nobody's going to say: "No! Of course not... so we can grind them up and make mincemeat of them."

MS: "It was a very clever approach, and I'm new to some of these concepts, so I don't know if anyone else has used this tactic. It reminded me of how some scientists say, in recent studies, that dogs and pigs have the intelligence of a 3 to 5 year old human child. Several times you slip this concept back in, say, if a person is "mentally challenged" or is a child, do they have lesser rights?"

TR: "I think that is very important for us to understand when we're presenting our case for animal rights to people, but also when we're thinking about what we're committed to, and we're committed to as animal rights advocates is really a strong commitment to children, a very strong commitment to the mentally impaired, a strong commitment to vulnerable humans who lack power for whatever reason. They don't have position, or they're in the wrong race, the wrong gender, the wrong class... whatever... the point is, you cannot make sense of animal rights unless can you also and perhaps first make sense of human rights."

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MS: "I enjoyed how you deal with the issue of vegetable rights. I remember all too well some 25 years ago in Dallas, Texas, when I went vegetarian, I was constantly challenged, "well, what about plants, you kill them all the time to eat." In your book, you point out how "rhubarb rights" makes no sense, if you look at their nervous system."

TR: "There isn't anybody there, in a stalk of rhubarb, as far as we know. Another point I'd like to make, is to say that you don't have know everything in order to know something. So here's an area where we really don't know, and we're really not sure. It's possible they sense everything; I'm willing to admit all that, I'm willing to be open minded, and that in a 100 years we find out that there's somebody in that rhubarb. But the point is, that we shouldn't be paralyzed to act on the basis of what we do know because there are things we don't know. There's always this question trying to not accept impossible standards for enfranchising animals.

When people bring up this well, "what about plants" or "where to draw the line," if the people who say "what about plants" if they distinguish themselves as being special protectors of plants in the world, if they went out, working day in and out, for the protection of plants, then they'd have some kind of credibility to me. But these are people who spend most of their time working on their Bridge game or interior decorating. They have no interest in plants. The question is disingenuous, I think, 99.9% of the time."

MS: "I take that question as more of a sarcastic insult than anything else."

TR: "It's a symptom of not wanting to face the issue."

MS: "Is there a particular misconception people have about animal having rights that is most common or stands out in your mind?"

TR: "Oh, it's what about plants..."

MS: "Comes up a lot then?"

TR: "It's one of the first things that people say. I have this image of Tom Regan in Hell, a really bad place to be, and it's going to be a very hard place to get any rest. What's going to happen, is that just as I'm dozing off and actually getting some rest in Hell, there's going to be somebody next to me who pokes me in the ribs and says, "hey, yeah, but what about plants?" It's like the myth of Sysiphus.... pushing the rock... that's what going to happen... every time I doze off, somebody pokes me in the ribs, "hey, yeah, but what about plants?"

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