Mad Cowboy Interview 03: Dr. Tom Regan
(Part 01 of 04)

MS: “What are Animal Rights?”

TR: “Well, “rights” are claims to protection that we make regarding our most important goods: our life, our liberty, our bodily integrity. The protection of a claim, when we invoke our rights, is really very significant. We can illustrate this by thinking about a couple of examples from the history of human vivisection, that is, research that was done on human beings that was not intended to benefit the subjects of the research.

One is the famous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, where American sharecroppers were denied treatment for their disease (syphilis) even though the people who were running the tests knew they had it. Even though they had the means of treating it, they were interested in seeing what would happen to the sharecroppers if they their condition went untreated. The second example is the Hepatitis Research that was conducted on retarded children, during which the children were given the Hepatitis virus, and in half the cases a treatment was withheld.

The rationale in both cases is the same, and it’s really pretty simple. The rationale is that a few will be deliberately endangered, in the hopes that many will benefit. And the point is, that when the rights we claim as protection (our right to life, liberty, and bodily integrity) are meant to protect us from this kind of abuse. The rights of the individuals are not to be violated so that others might benefit. In representative democracies, like the one we live in, these rights are recognized (at least in the case of human beings). In our country we’re appalled that the Syphilis study was being conducted, we’re appalled that the Hepatitis study was done. We think it’s wrong and violative of the rights of the individuals involved.

So the “Animal Rights Debate,” if we could put it in those terms, really does come down to asking the question whether the same fundamental rights, the same fundamental protection that we claim and justifiably claim for ourselves, can be claimed on the behalf of other animals. That’s what the debate is about, because if animals have these rights, then of course we can’t violate them in the hopes that we might benefit.”


MS: "Why is this considered so controversial? It seems to provoke an amazing amount of emotion on both sides of the fence."

TR: "Well, part of it is that if other animals have the same rights that we have, then there's some sense in which we are equal. I think the idea that human beings are equal to dogs, cats, hogs, horses.... some people find either absurd, ludicrous, or offensive. It seems like it is something that takes away from being human. Some people I think are upset about this and insecure with that idea."

MS: "But you're not saying equal in every sense, right? In your book you mention "voting" and the example you use is that a child cannot vote."

TR: "I think that it's very important to understand the kind of equality that's being claimed. If we just take the case of human beings, when we claim our equality, it's clear that we're not saying that we're all equally smart, because a few are much smarter than the rest of us, or that we all have the same artistic or athletic abilities, for example. Or that we all belong to the same species, because the fact that we belong to a particular species just doesn't carry any moral freight. It doesn't answer any moral questions.

What I think makes us equal, as I'm saying in a way far simpler than these other sorts of answers, and is that each of us are is in the world and we're of the world. Each of us is aware of what happens to us, and each of us is aware that what happens to us matters to us.... it makes a difference in the quality of our life, regardless of our intelligence, regardless of our athletic or artistic abilities. So, it's in this respect that I talk about being a "subject-in-a-life."

That's what all members of the human family protected by the rights that I have enumerated, what we all fundamentally have in common, is that we are all the subject of this life, aware of what happens to us, what happens to us matters to us. Our equality lies in its shared subjective presence in this world. We're equally subjectively present in the world. Doesn't mean each of knows as much, or remembers as much, but that it's the kind of being we are... that's what makes us the same."


MS: "One of the things that intrigued me in your book, is that right up front you deal with this issue of how "animal rights advocates" (which you call ARAs) are deemed 'extremists' or 'practioneers of extremism.' Can you summarize how you approach clearing up these misconceptions?"

TR: "'Extremism' is an ambiguous concept because it can mean different things. On the one sense, an extremist will not stop at doing anything to achieve the end being sought, so that he paradigm case here would be the men who flew the jets into the World Trade Center. They were will to give up their lives in order to further their aspirations, and a lot of people think of that as extreme, the idea that you would actually give up your life to achieve some goal, that's going too far.

On the other hand, to some, 'extremism' can mean that you have a position that is unqualifiedly opposed to something. In this sense, you can say, "are you against rape some of the time, most of the time, or all of the time?" "Well, I'm against rape all of the time." Well, then you're an extremist when it comes to rape: you have an unqualified moral opposition to it. Or extremist when it comes to child abuse, "are you against child abuse some of the time, most of the time, all of the time."

MS: "I thought was fascinating, in your book, when you first talked about extremism I was skeptical that there could be any "unqualified moral opposition" to something. You really nailed the concept."

TR: "The point then, is that everybody I know, is an extremist in the second sense. That is, everybody I know has unqualified moral beliefs and moral opposition to certain kinds of behavior, like the abuse of the elderly or children, or rape. But that doesn't mean that you're an extremist in the first sense. That therefore you are going to go to any means to achieve your objective. On the contrary, you can be very restricted in the kinds of means you are prepared to approve of to achieve your aims."

So what happens, I think, is that the people who's business is it to try to paint a negative portrait of animal rights advocates [ARAs], the people who get paid lots of dollars to get up in the morning and get this negative story out out us, what they do is present us as 'extremists' and they play on the ambiguity of it, with the idea then in the public's mind that ARAs are willing to do anything."

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MS: "You mention in your book how they promote these concepts, that ARAs are misanthropic, that all they care about is being "kind" to animals.... you've seen this kind of stuff for years, haven't you?"

TR: "Oh yes, this is not an accident. Actually, if you look at it historically, in the history of anti-vivisection, you can go back well into the 19th century and find some of the same rhetoric. Although back then, the objective of the people who were defending vivisection was to paint all those who oppose all as being irrational, emotional, and women... or emotional and irrational men who were controlled by women and insecure about their manhood..."

MS: (laughs)

TR: "... that was the boilerplate of the rhetoric of the 19th century. But, what we do know, in 1989, is that the American Medical Association [AMA] wrote a white paper called "Use of Animals in Biomedical Research: The Challenge and the Response" about how do we combat the Animal Rights movement. Among the two basic themes to come out of the paper were that they had to present the ARAs as people with no respect for science, no respect for reason... they were illogical, irrational, emotional.... they were people willing to destroy property, they were, in a word,'terrorists.'

The second part of the portrait, was that ARAs were trying to take people's freedom away. If you look at what happened from the publication of the AMA's white paper forward, you find all the industries spewing out the same rhetoric. The American Fur Council, the people in charge of the hog industry, the poultry industry, the circus... everybody said the same thing: ARAs are irrational, emotional, extremists."


MS: "I was stunned reading about this in your book and went to some of the websites you referenced. The concerted nature of what they said, as supposedly independent groups, was just amazing. It's like somebody faxed them the talking points for a political campaign."

TR: "It IS a political campaign. That's just it. These people, in my respectful opinion, are not interested in truth --- they're interested in profits. I mean, these people are not only interested in maintaining the status quo in terms of the financial viability of their enterprise, they want to grow it, and one way they grow it is to paint their critics with a broad brush to try to render them irrelevant.

MS: "Do you think their fear of ARAs is just business or that people will believe what's being said? That people will discover their truth? Are they conscious of this?"

TR: "I'm not sure whether there is an anxiety or not whether people will discover the truth, because I'm not sure what the people in these industries think of themselves. They might very well think that what they're saying is true. But what I think is that they are insecure, they are anxious, they are concerned, they are worried, that people will believe what animal rights people believe. And that will make a difference to how commerce gets done. That will make a difference as to which businesses succeed and which fail. Look, if 99% of Americans believe what we believe about, the fur industry would go "bottoms up." So there's got to be some anxiety here, some concern that people don't believe what we believe."

MS: "You go into great detail about how the public is "relentlessly fed negative images" about ARAs, and I was struck by the similarity with meat and dairy industries, the pharmaceutical industry, and the oil & carbon club. It seems like these industries have developed this plan or method that they all follow of building these slick websites, putting out one-sided fact sheets for lazy journalists, fostering these journalists (of which you write about), and basically attacking people who are trying to effect positive change. I just didn't realize the degree to which this is going on in the animal rights movement."

TR: "One way to gauge the strength of the AR movement is by considering the company it keeps. The company that it keeps really adds up being all progressive movements throughout the world. Anytime you have people trying to challenge industry practices, government practices, you're going to have a cadre of well-paid, well-heeled professionals who have great talent and great resources to put out a bad story about it. The basic theme is to 'attack the messenger' and not the message. They don't address the message; they just attack it."

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: "Another major point you make is that these animal industries distill a myriad of issues into a simple dichotomy: "animal welfare moderates" versus "animal rights extremists""

TR: "Right."

MS: "And this is a key element of their campaign?"

TR: "It's a very key element, and it comes out of that white paper from the AMA, where they say that we have create this dichotomy, and we have to say "we, the AMA, are on the side of animal welfare," which is a wonderful moderate position to have against these animal rights extremists.

And, I must say that.... what I think I had done for awhile in my life, was to concede to the major animal industries that they were indeed on this island of animal welfare and we're against my position on animal rights. But, what I try to do in the book, is to teach that these people are not really on the side of animal welfare when they "say" that they are. They "say" that they're for responsible care, they "say" they're for humane treatment, they "say" that they're looking out for the welfare of animals. But if I don't do anything in "Empty Cages," what I do is I think prosecute the case, the conclusion of which, is "these people don't do anything like they say."

MS: "You've coined the term "Disconnect Dictum" referring to these industries and the treatment of animals. Can you expand on this?"

TR: "Sure.... what I mean by that, is there's a disconnect between the meaning of what they say and the actual things they do. I'll just talk about "humane" for example. "Humane" is a word; it has a meaning. You can look it up. You can go to the dictionary. "Showing mercy and kindness.... consideration and sympathy." That's what it means to be in favor of humane treatment, and who could be against that? Everyone's for being humane to other human beings and to other animals. So, we go and look at people in biomedical research, for example, saying, "we support the humane care and responsible use of animals." So "humane" means they're going to show kindness, they're going to show mercy, they're going to show sympathy, they're going to show compassion. And then you say "well, what do they actually do?"

Well, what they do is they blind animals, they crush their limbs, they crush their organs, they subject them to radiation, they deprive them of sleep, they deprive them of food, they drown them, they burn them.... how in God's name can any of this be "humane?"

MS: "It's incredible.... I looked at the websites of some of these organizations, and they're all using the term "humane!"

TR: "Oh yes, they all say the same thing."

MS: "It's the same phrase... again and again."

TR: "There's a mantra. It's almost like a religion, if you know what I mean, in the sense that you have a certain ritual, and ritual involves incantations of various words... I mean it's like going to church, in a way. You go from one website to the next and they're saying the same thing, observing the same service, so to speak."

MS: "When you read some of the descriptions of the treatment of animals in your book, and then go to these websites and see the word "humane," it's just, well...."

TR: "This is why I feel that part of the strength of "Empty Cages" is that, if has strength, it's the cumulative effect that this has on the reader. Because, you can say "well, maybe the fur industry does it," or "well, maybe the veal people, "maybe the pork..." It's just that everybody does it. It's the shear accretion of these self-indicting, self-righteous descriptions of what they do, on the one hand, compared to what they do on the other, that I hope will finally, for a skeptical reader, will say "aha... I'm going to take another step on my muddler's journey. I'm going to move a little bit here, because this is unbelievable."


MS: "You likened it all to a court case, where it takes a lot of evidence, and not one single fact to understand what's going on. However, you used a term here that we should probably define. In your book you write about three types of people, as you see it, and how they gain an understanding of "animal consciousness."

TR: "I known some people, that who, from a really early age, once they understood that a lamb chop came from a lamb, they couldn't eat lamb..... because they just had a sense of kinship and friendship with other animals. It's a gift they bring with them, as it were, they don't have to be convinced to feel this way, or persuaded to feel this way, or argued into going this way. They just are this way. For them, they have this boundless compassion for other animals, that they bring with them.... and I call these people the "Da Vincians," because for all we know about Leonardo da Vinci was that he was like this, from an early age, and throughout his life.

Then there are people who aren't like that, they're just kind of ordinary people, but some dramatic event happens in their life that changes how they see animals in a really fundamental life-altering way, and I call them the "Damascans" after Saul on the way to Damascus where he encounters Jesus and is transformed. So the big detractor of Jesus becomes the greatest apostle [Paul] of Jesus. And I've known people who've had dramatic events that changed their lives in the blink of an eye. I give some examples of these people in the book.

I knew this older German activist who was in Berlin during the 2nd World War, who came up after a terrible bombing raid, and here comes a horse running down this cobblestone street, and I can kind of hear the clatter of this heels of this horse as he comes running at this boy (he was 10 years old at the time). The horse is on fire from nose to tail, must have gotten ignited petroleum, and he runs past the young boy, and looks him in the eye, and says "what have I done to deserve this? Why aren't you helping me?"

MS: "It was very striking when I read this... I've seen some of Howard's documentary (still in final editing), which you're in, and this WWII story reminded me of those pigs in the factory farm, looking into the camera and asking the same question as the horse."

TR: "I agree, and I must say that one of the features about a lot of these Damascan experiences of people is an eye-to-eye contact with another animal. It's kind of this realization that "Omigod, there's somebody behind there.""

MS: "It's a communication..."

TR: "...so there are these people who have a life-altering epiphanies, and there are the rest of us who were not born with anything in the genes, there isn't anything revolutionary that happens, we just find ourselves on a journey. We read something, or see something, or talk to somebody. We have a question. Well, what is Merino wool? Or some question we ask... and then what happens, is that question gets answered, and it leads to another question. Then we meet people, and then we have experiences. We seem some files or videos, we read some books. We maybe go to a slaughterhouse.... we're on this journey. But eventually, for a lot of us, a day dawns, and we look in the mirror, and we see an animal rights advocate."

MS: "Those three types seem similar to the terms of spiritual, emotional, and mental."

TR: "Yes, they are very similar. I don't think that this typology is unique to animal rights advocates, I think that probably a lot of people became active in the civil rights movement for the same reasons.

So, it ends up that's what I think muddlers are... My book, as you know, is dedicated to muddlers everywhere because I don't think my book has the power to bring about some instantaneous life-altering experience for somebody. I mean, it'd be wonderful if it'd be true, but I don't think so.

MS: "Well, it affected me."

TR: "Obviously the Davincians don't need it, they already go it. The people who need what I have to give, to the extent that there's something I've given, are the muddlers. I'm just hoping... I have to believe, that the world is just full of muddlers, and the great challenge that our animal rights movement faces is to attract them to activism, to attract them to becoming involved in the movement. And that's really why I wrote the book. I wrote the book as a "recruitment manual" for the animal rights movement."

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MS: "How does the concept of a biography not a biology fit into this debate?"

TR: "The central question in the animal rights debate is whether any other animals are like us being "subjects-in-a-life," whether any other animals are in the world, aware of the world, aware of what happens to them, and what happens to them matters matters to them. That's the fundamental question, and the answer to that is "yes," then we have made the case for "animal rights," in my judgment."

MS: "Essentially, you're adding on to what Jeremy Bentham said about the question being not whether they can reason or talk, but whether they suffer? You're adding something bigger onto this."

TR: "I am. What I'm trying to get at, is that there is somebody who is suffering, not only there is suffering occurring, there is an ongoing individual that has an identity over time. There is this subject of a life, rather than a life without a subject. That's what's crucial. Suffering is relevant, but so is deprivation, so is being able to act on your own without being forced to do so. There are lots of things that don't reduce the suffering to anything relevant."


MS: "Where were you born?"

TR: "I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a blue collar hard-working family. We lived in a neighborhood with just all working class, with many different races and religions... it was a melting pot community. Right near major major railroads, twelve tracks... a hub... just a heavy industrial world, and the only animals I knew then when I was growing up, we had cats and dogs in our house. I'm so old, that when I was growing up they had horses that would pull carts for the junkmen who'd come around and collect junk, for the icemen who'd come around and carry ice. I knew those horses... I knew the cows and pigs that I saw going to slaughter on the railroads and trucks. Basically I just had a very very small window of experience when it came to other animals. I was blind to who they were, and deaf to what they said."

MS: "But you had a good childhood?"

TR: "Oh yes, my parents were extremely hard-working and consensus, very good to both my sister and myself. I loved living in the grime and dirt of industrial Pittsburgh. They did not love it, and when I was fifteen years old, we moved from the neighborhood that was dear to me to the suburban world... and that changed my life. If I had stayed in industrial Pittsburgh, I would have never have gone to college, because people didn't go to college, you went to work. I would have graduated high school and gotten a job in a mill or a mine. That's what I would have done, that's the way it was. But when we moved, I made friends and their parents were professional people --- they were educators, they worked in banks, with the newspaper, they were lawyers, and of course, they were all educated. Their kids were all going to college. That's why I went to college. The reason I went to college was that this is what all the kids in my classes were doing. No one in my family had ever gone to college, on either my mother's or father's side."

MS: "So you were the first..."

TR: "I would not have been the first, except for this development over which I had no control. Then when I went to college I tell this story about, "why did you become a philosopher?"


MS: "...my obvious next question!"

TR: "Right.... I went to college, and my teachers in high school had told me that I was good at writing, and I thought, well, I'll go and I'll study English and be a writer. The problem was, that for me to major in English, I had to take a full year of United States and Pennsylvanian History, and a full year of English History. I didn't like taking history. It happened that in my Judi year in college, the college I went to, Thiel College, introduced for the first time a Philosophy major. I looked at it carefully, and I found out to be a Philosophy major I didn't have to take any more history. That's why I majored in philosophy."

MS: (laughs)... "What did your father think when you told him you were going to be a philosopher?"

TR: "(chuckling)... He didn't understand anything about college. Believe me, it would not have made a difference to him if I'd said I was going to be a brain surgeon or a philosopher... that wasn't on his radar screen. But then it happened that the most influential professor I had when I was at Thiel, he had done his graduate work at the University of Virginia, and so I just followed his path and went to the University of Virginia to study philosophy. So that's really how I got into philosophy. Just a series of accidents."


"You had to work your way through college, right? You had some interesting jobs?"

TR: "Oh yes, yes..."

MS: "You were a butcher?"

TR: "I...(pause)... was a butcher... I mean I sliced and diced, and packed, sawed... their cold flesh gave way to my cold will. I didn't find butchering bloody, I found it bloody hard... it was hard work at times. I was so blind to animal consciousness, that even when I had held the victim in my hands, the victim was invisible."

MS: "It must be shocking for you to look back and realize how much you are a different person now."

TR: "Oh yeah, yeah... I do say, often and sincerely, that if Tom Regan can become an animal rights advocate, anybody can become an animal rights advocate. When I had the victims in my hand and I didn't see the victims... my god, you can't get any further back into the darkness than I was."

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