Tracing an animal-rights philosophy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Tom Regan didn't start out worrying about the rights of the furry and finned to live a full and happy life. As a young man growing up in gritty Pittsburgh, he earned his cash from butchering meat in a store.

Today, some 40 years later, Mr. Regan is firmly on the other side of the farmyard fence. His day job is as a professor at North Carolina State University, but he's also a devoted vegan, philosopher, filmmaker, and author. And he's become known as an intellectual firebrand for the animal-rights movement - a once-esoteric subject that is now common in philosophy departments from Harvard to Stanford.

Regan's extensive archive of drafts, notes, and memorabilia - "a time slice of the conversations about animal rights over the past 40 years," as he calls them - went on display last week at N.C. State's D.H. Hill Library. When the exhibit closes, his will become the first animal-rights annals ever included in a public university's permanent collection.

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"The animal-rights movement has been around long enough to start becoming a ... historical subject in and of itself," says Bernard McTigue, head of special collections at N.C. State. He acknowledges that it's a sensitive issue, especially for a land-grant university whose roots are intertwined with agriculture, but adds, "We're not advocating animal rights; we're simply documenting a cultural and social phenomenon."

Regan's decision to forgo meats and cheeses is not rooted in a sense that animals have a soul. Instead, it's that they are, in many ways, on the earth for the same reasons as humans.

"The animals that we raise for food or trap for fur are like us in fundamental ways," says the gray-bearded professor. "They are in the world, they're aware of the world, they're aware of what happens to them as beings in the world.... They have a life whose quality matters to them, just like you and me."

Often called the intellectual leader of the animal-rights movement, Regan "is the foremost philosopher in this country in the field of the moral status of nonrational animals," says Bob Bryan, former chairman of the N.C. State Philosophy and Religion Department.

Regan has lectured from Stockholm to Melbourne about the importance of recognizing animals as part of the evolving field of ethics. His books, "The Case for Animal Rights" and "In Defense of Animal Rights," are widely acknowledged as having cemented the roots of the modern animal rights movement in academia.

To be sure, vegetarianism harks back to Plato and Plutarch. And in America, the first cruelty busts happened in the late 19th century in New York. But society viewed animals largely as chattel, until Regan and a handful of other philosophers (including Peter Singer, a controversial professor at Princeton) pushed animal-rights issues into the academic mainstream.

Indeed, this academic focus has dramatically altered how Americans approach the ethics of husbandry, some observers say. Once-radical ideas have been firmly woven into society: Today, you can find vegetarian platters at rural hospitals, unthinkable 10 years ago. This summer, Orange County, Calif., banned the use of animals in entertainment acts. And consumer patterns have changed, too. Non-animal-tested cosmetics, for instance, are often sought after.

Regan envisions a type of 'bill of rights' for animals, including the abandonment of pet ownership, elimination of a meat-based diet, and new standards for biomedical research on animals. Essentially, he wants to establish a new kind of solidarity with animals, and stop animal husbandry altogether.

"In addition to the visible achievements and changes, there's been what I might call an invisible revolution taking place, and that revolution is the seriousness with which the issue of animal rights is taken in the academy and in higher ed," Regan says. "Thirty years ago, I can tell you that there was no interest, no respect, no work being done by people in the academy when it comes to animal rights. In contrast, there's been more written by animal-rights philosophers in the past 30 years than had been written in the previous 3,000 years."

But with Regan planning to retire in December, a growing number of farmers, doctors, and others are questioning the sustainability of his ideas.

Increasingly, Americans who feel their rights have become secondary to animals' rights are speaking out against a wave of arson attacks on farmers and pies thrown in the faces of researchers. A man in Jacksonville, N.C., wonders why the Marines stop training because spawning sea turtles are threatened, but not because humans in the neighborhood suffer emotionally from bomb training. When hunters in Iowa went to sign up for the dove hunt this year, they were turned away, because the governor called off the hunt after being pressured by animal-rights groups. Radical groups, with sometimes-violent tactics, have been accused of scaring farmers away from speaking up for traditional agrarian values.

Indeed, tensions are only rising between animal-rights activists and groups that have traditionally used the land with an eye toward animals' overall welfare, not their "right" to be happy or to live long lives.

The controversy around Regan is heightened by the fact that he's no pacifist. He says he believes it's OK to break the law for a greater purpose. He calls it the "greater-evil doctrine," the idea that there's moral hierarchy to crime. "I think that you can win in court, and that's what I tell people," Regan says. "I don't believe that you should run and hide."

As Regan recedes from the academy, leaving his notes and memorabilia behind, he's satisfied with how far it has come since the day during the time of the Vietnam War when he realized that "my fork could be as violent a weapon as a gun."

The shift in the level of respect has been "seismic," he says. "Contrary to what a lot of people think, there really has been a recognition that there are some things that human beings should not be permitted to do to animals. Where the human heart has grown is in the recognition of what is to be prohibited."

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