by Bernie Unti
Tom Regan featured in courses I taught in environmental philosophy and politic at UWE and the OU. Along with Peter Singer he was a leading scholar on questions of animal rights
Thomas Howard Regan (1938 – 2017)
Thomas Howard Regan
Tom Regan, the American moral philosopher whose work championed animal rights, died on Friday, February 17, 2017. The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, which he had battled bravely for several years. He was 78.
In 1983 Regan published the groundbreaking book, The Case for Animal Rights, and soon was traveling the world defending its argument against critics from all corners, including the United States Congress and the British Parliament. Often introduced as “the father of animal rights,” this son of Pittsburgh working class parents could not have foreseen his rise to such intellectual prominence. In his youth, he took a job as a butcher and went to Thiel College with his mind on playing halfback for the football team.
In stark contrast to his meat-and-potatoes upbringing, he took an unforeseen turn and became a vegan as an adult. As he told the story, three events influenced his thinking. First, he and his wife, Nancy, were deeply affected by the death of their dog, Gleco. A philosopher by temperament as well as training, Regan wondered why he was not affected by the deaths of the cows and pigs that provided him with meat in the same way that he mourned the loss of their pet. If all so-called “food animals” are also (what he would later describe as) “subjects-of-a-life,” shouldn’t we respect and care for them in the way we do our companion animals?
Second, during the Vietnam War, Regan joined with his students in protest and guided them through discussions of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. His 1960s activism led him both to pacifism and to veganism. He came to believe that we are wrong to assume that we are justified in using animals as means to our ends.
Third, Regan met philosopher Peter Singer in 1973 and three years later they co-edited an anthology, Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Regan and Singer are often tagged together as founders of the animal rights movement, but only Regan actually believed in moral rights for animals. The utilitarian commitments of his friend Singer, wrote Regan, were objectionable and kept Singer from endorsing Regan’s view. Dr. Regan found the implications of consequentialist ethics untenable. He defended a strong, deontological version of the position, thus earning him the aforementioned title, “the father of animal rights.” However, he rejected the appellation more than once, objecting that it carried the implication that someone had given rights to animals. We do not give rights to individuals, he was fond of saying. Rather, we discover they had rights all along.
Regan’s view has practical, and radical, implications for contemporary society. He spent the latter part of his career explaining and defending the abolitionist case against using animals in scientific research, hunting, zoos, circuses, and food.
Regan wrote or edited more than 30 books. They include Bloomsbury’s Prophet: G.E. Moore and the Development of his Moral Philosophy (1986) and Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (2003). A festschrift of essays written to honor him, The Moral Rights of Animals, appeared last year.
His work was criticized by leading figures in the academy. However, such a reception is a badge of honor among philosophers who sometimes seem to evaluate the strength of their views by the reputations of the people who disagree with them. Asked about the controversial nature of his views at a Bioethics Institute in Lisbon, Portugal, Regan responded by saying that he sometimes felt like one of those plastic clown figures that children punch and tip over. The clown, he reminded the audience with a grin, always pops right back up.
Even those least inclined to accept Regan’s conclusions found his work worthy of investigation. And many were convinced. Here is how one colleague assessed Regan’s achievements:
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.
After earning a doctoral degree from the University of Virginia, Regan began teaching at North Carolina State University in 1967 and served as Department Head in the late 1990s. A charismatic teacher beloved by his students, he won numerous awards for excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching.
In 2000, North Carolina State University gave Regan the highest honor it can bestow upon one of its faculty, the William Quarles Holladay Medal. At his retirement in 2001, the University Library established the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive, the first such archive in the world. In it is a copy of the Utne Reader that names him one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World.”
Despite his academic bona fides, Dr. Regan was never content in the ivory tower. He and his wife Nancy founded and directed the Culture & Animals Foundation. Since 1985, the organization has awarded grants in support of individuals who advance the understanding, appreciation and treatment of non-human animals.
In recent years, Regan returned to his lifelong interest in fiction writing and self-published two books of short stories, Maud’s Place and Other Southern Stories and A Better Life and Other Pittsburgh Stories.
With Tom, conversation could flow from the subtleties of Kant and Moore’s philosophies to his golf swing going south. Despite his academic preeminence, he was quick to laugh and always the life of the party. Give him some great jazz, a good Scotch, and a nine iron, and you’d think you were speaking with a PGA pro. It’s safe to say he was one of the few philosophers with a Steelers bumper sticker proudly displayed on his car.
At his core, Regan was first and foremost a family man. He is survived by his wife Nancy, son Bryan Regan, daughter Karen Regan, four grandchildren, and sister, Catherine French.
A celebration of Tom Regan’s life will be held on March 4th from 3-5pm at Tir Na Nog Irish Pub in downtown Raleigh. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the Culture & Animals Foundation, 3509 Eden Croft Drive, Raleigh, NC 27612.
Condolences may be shared at CremationSocietyNC.com