Tom Regan: Rights-Based Animal Rights – or “there ain’t no rights in animal rights.”

6th October 2019

In the seventh of the blog series “And If You Know Your History…”, Dr. Roger Yates of the Vegan Information Project talks about the work of the late Prof. Tom Regan, philosopher and pioneer of rights-based animal rights.


This is a celebration of the life and work of Tom Regan, author of the ground-breaking rights-based book, The Case for Animal Rights, in 1983, and the originator of abolitionist animal rights. However, I also take the opportunity provided by the writing of this blog entry to explore why the “animal rights movement” has rejected the philosophy of animal rights and opted to simply use the term “animal rights” as a label.



Tom Regan was born in 1938, a son of Pittsburgh working class parents. He described his early life as a “meat-and-potatoes upbringing” and, when at college, Regan worked as a butcher.


An obituary written shortly after Professor Regan’s death in 2017 charts his transformation from butcher who wanted to be a sports star into a prominent vegan philosopher and activist. Regan and his wife, Nancy [Tom delighted in telling audiences that he was married to Nancy Regan], were deeply affected by the death of their dog, Gleco. Of course, this is a common enough reaction to the loss of an animal companion. However, Regan’s philosopher’s mind was left wondered why he was not just as affected by the deaths of the cows and pigs he paid others to kill for his benefit. He asked himself this question


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?


Regan was a politically active student and teacher. For example, during the Vietnam War, he joined with his students in their protests. He was at this time and throughout his life deeply influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. He claimed many times that Gandhi spoke to him from the page demanding him to recognise that knives and forks can be deadly weapons of violence. In 1973, Regan met utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer and they went on to co-edit an anthology, Animal Rights and Human Obligations, in 1976. Tom Regan’s obituary notes that


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.

There’s a slight twist to this point, however, in the sense that Singer was willing to include a chapter by Regan in his 1985 book, In Defence of Animals entitled, “The Case for Animal Rights,” which can be read in full here. In the second edition of the book, however, Singer removed Regan’s chapter and replaced it with a text on utilitarianism.


Utilitarian theories are known as consequentialist theories, whereas Regan was a deontologist, a position known as non-consequentialist.


Dr. Regan found the implications of consequentialist ethics untenable. He defended a strong, deontological version of the position, thus earning him the…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.


The last two sentences above help us understand the meaning of animal rights – and the difference between them and legal rights. For Regan, to talk about other animals’ rights was to talk about their moral rights. In the summary video referred to in more detail below (at 6.09 mins, which starts here), Regan points out that moral rights are independent and anterior (pre-existing) to the law. The animal rights case is that other animals have rights, not that we should give rights to them as if they are gifts. The Rights View says we should respect other animals’ rights and not violate them.


The basic position developed by Regan, who is credited with getting the idea of rights over the species barrier, is that other animals are rights bearers and, therefore, when humans use other animals, that’s a rights violation. As you will notice, that is not the usual language of the animal movement which tends to restrict its claims to welfarist notions such as, “don’t be cruel,” and “have mercy for animals.”



In 1987, historian Paul Gilroy wrote a controversial book entitled There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack on British “race relations.” In my doctoral dissertation (available online here), I presented a version of that idea related to animal advocacy, claiming likewise that, “there ain’t much rights in animal rights.” In this regard, note that I generally use the term “rights-based animal rights” to mean animal advocacy based on the rights-based philosophy of animal rights, such as that inspired by Tom Regan.


One can’t help feeling that Tom Regan’s experience of the “animal rights movement” must have been profoundly frustrating over the years. There has been some fleeting interest in what Regan called The Case or “the Rights View” in the animal movement from time to time but, generally speaking, the movement bearing the name “animal rights” has ignored, marginalised, and rejected the philosophy bearing that name.


So, if one asks about the philosophical foundation of the modern animal advocacy movement, one will be directed towards the work of Australian philosopher, Peter Singer. It is indeed true that Singer’s Animal Liberation (published in the mid-1970s) had a huge impact on the modern animal movement. However, as noted above, Singer’s philosophical position is based on utilitarianism and, as such, he rejects rights, including other animals’ rights. The most famous utilitarian declaration on moral rights – sometimes called abstract rights – came from Jeremy Bentham who called moral rights “nonsense on stilts.” Bentham said that, “So-called moral and natural rights are mischievous fictions and anarchical fallacies that encourage civil unrest, disobedience and resistance to laws, and revolution against established governments.”


It may be a surprise for animal advocates to learn, therefore, that the philosophy of choice in the “animal rights movement” is anti-rights because rights-based views are thought too radical by the philosophical position adopted by the animal movement. If you want a bottom line take-away from all that, it’s this: we’re not as radical as we pretend we are.


In a 1992 book, The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest, sociologists James Jaspers and Dorothy Nelkin never seem to tire of calling Tom Regan an “extremist” and a “fundamentalist” for his consistent moral view on human relations with other sentient beings. Moral consistency, remarkably, is often looked upon as a rather dubious quality to have and as a form of “purism” in the animal advocacy movement.


In December 1989, Tom Regan took part in an exceptional evening on British TV when the BBC programme Arena held an “Animal Night” which ran from 7.30pm to around midnight. The last part was called “The Animal Rights Debate.” The BBC described this as, “Speciesism, vivisection, vegetarianism,* farming, sport, zoos, circuses and pets will be some of the topics discussed in a live debate chaired by Donald MacCormick at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Writer Germaine Greer and philosophers Tom Regan and Mary Warnock are among the speakers who debate the motion: ‘The animal kingdom needs a bill of rights.’” Regan’s opening statement and his summing up of the whole debate are available online. In each, he attacks utilitarianism and, in the opening statement, claims that the dominant philosophy of the animal movement is “morally bankrupt.” It was perhaps the most frustrating thing in Tom Regan’s life, that he wasn’t able to persuade the “animal rights movement” to embrace rights-based animal rights, or even talk as if it believed that other animals have rights.


There was a time! Briefly. 


About the time The Case was published, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Injury Clinic in Philadelphia videoed themselves performing extremely disturbing and violent experiments on baboons. The Animal Liberation Front liberated around 60 hours of this filming in 1984 and, from that, the video compilation Unnecessary Fuss was produced. It remains to this day perhaps the most powerful anti-vivisection film ever seen. Gary Francione** invited Regan as a speaker at a rally in April 1985 to protest these experiments. The organisers were apprehensive about the turnout and were relieved to see that around 1500 people had gathered together for the rally. Tom Regan is reported to have declared that the rally should be seen as “the beginning of the animal rights movement.” In July 1985, after a 3-day occupation at the National Institutes of Health, led by Tom Regan, the US government declared that, “the violations seen on the footage were sufficient to justify the clinic’s closure.”


In 1988, Tom Regan gave a rousing talk at an anti-vivisection rally which many believe is the best animal rights talk ever delivered. Although the quality of the film, transferred from the original videotape, is poor, this remains a Tom Regan “must see.”



Towards the end of the 1980s, it was felt that Tom Regan’s Rights View was gaining significant traction in the animal movement. After talks in 1988 and 1989, Regan says that “The March for Animals” in Washington in 1990 attracted 60 to 70,000 people. Six years later, a similar march drew a mere 3,000 people. Both Tom Regan and Gary Francione argue that, in the time between 1990 and 1996, the welfare/rights divide in the animal movement had grown more prominent and, essentially, in the years leading up to the second Washington march, the powerful animal welfare groups and corporations reasserted their dominance in the movement. Regan and Francione announced that they both would boycott the 1996 march due to its focus on animal welfare. Francione says that Regan was taken aback by the “ horrible hostility” that he was subjected to for that decision and Regan eventually gave in to the welfare strand of the movement and attended the 96 march. After this, the Rights View was completely eclipsed by welfarism to the point that Francione claims that there is currently no animal rights movement beyond his own Abolitionist Approach. The question remains as to what would have happened if philosophical animal rights had won out over utilitarian welfarism.



Why Singer?


There are several factors that explain how Singer’s utilitarianism became the movement’s dominant philosophy and, as a consequence, how Regan has been marginalised and pretty much ignored in terms of providing us with a way of talking about the moral status of other animals. For one thing, Singer’s Animal Liberation came out 10 years before The Case for Animal Rights and is thought to be much easier to read than Regan’s groundbreaking work.


Commenting in 2007 on utilitarianism and non-consequentialism in the movement, criminologist Piers Beirne says that


Despite its great influence, Singer’s act-utilitarianism does not really position animals’ liberation from suffering very securely. If an action’s rightness or wrongness is calculated only by its consequences for maximising pleasure and minimising suffering, then particular acts of suffering may well be justified if they serve to increase the collective good. In fact, Singer’s utilitarianism does not condemn animal experimentation absolutely, and actually supports particular cases of it if they are believed to lead to a scientific cure for illness and disease in humans. In principle, there is nothing in his utilitarianism that would preclude any form of torture or suffering inflicted on a minority if it reduced the suffering of the majority (emphasis in original).


Tom Regan’s Rights View would totally oppose one plank of Singer’s position, namely that other animals are “replaceable” and there is an overall good in which one would be killed painlessly to be replaced by another who lived a “better” life. Even though it is The Case that is Regan’s substantive rejection of utilitarianism, I tend not to recommend it for a person’s first taste of Professor Tom Regan or rights-based animal rights. In that sense, Defending Animal Rights is better, as I explain in the video below which is based on Tom Regan’s appearance on Irish TV in 2001.



In 1985, Tom and Nancy Regan began the Culture and Animals Foundation (CAF), which includes the tag line: “Think, Create, Explore, Celebrate.” The Foundation has continued its work after Tom’s death, giving grants, for example, and has recently begun the annual Tom Regan Memorial Lecture. Nancy Regan remains actively involved in CAF’s work. Animal Rights Zone continues to champion Tom Regan’s work, and I’m pleased that people such as Jeremy Hess and his group, Vegan Interactions, are greatly influenced by Regan. Finally, on Facebook, there is a recent page called Tom Regan: Legendary which may be of interest.



* Note that this is the late 1980s and still veganism is not on the agenda when it comes to animal rights. Veganism would not be established as the moral baseline of the animal movement until about a decade later, making it a 21st century phenomenon. HERE, in a short audio clip entitled, “Vegan-Based Campaigning is NEW,” the co-founder of the Animal Liberation Front explains this.

** It should be understood that Gary Francione runs a counter-movement to the animal advocacy movement. In other words, he does not regard himself as part of the movement. He stands outside of the movement as its critic. Whether or not to work within the existing movement led to the souring of the working relationship between Regan and Francione. See here on that.



The Case for Animal Rights. Tom Regan (1983).

In Defence of Animals. ed. Peter Singer (1985).

Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement. Gary Francione (1996).

Defending Animal Rights. Tom Regan (2001).

“Animal Rights, Animal Abuse, and Green Criminology.” Piers Beirne, in Issues in Green Criminology: Confronting Harms Against Environments, Humanity and Other Animals. eds by Piers Beirne and Nigel South (2007).

Thomas Howard Regan, 1938-2017 –

Jeremy Bentham’s Attack on Natural Rights –

Arena Animal Night. Synopsis –

The Animals Voice Presents Tom Regan: for Liz Cherry’s Dissertation –

Unnecessary Fuss (video) –

Charlton/Francione/Linden Countermovement on Tom Regan –


All parts of the “And if you know your history…” series

Introduction – “And If You Know Your History…” a new series looking at the History of the Vegan Movement

Part 1 – The Difficult and Argumentative Birth of the Vegan Social Movement

Part 2 – The Best Known of the Co-Founders of the Greatest Cause on Earth, Donald Watson

Part 3 – The Focus, the Scope, and the Dream of a Vegan Future. The Vision of Leslie Cross

Part 4 – The Women Pioneers of the Movement: Rarely Out of the Shadows

Part 5 – Kathleen Jannaway: Planting Seeds and Trees the Vegan Way

Part 6 – Let’s All Sing to Arthur Ling, The Plamil King!

Part 7 – Tom Regan: Rights-Based Animal Rights – or “there ain’t no rights in animal rights.”

Part 8 – Ronnie Lee: Encouraging Vegan Education


VegfestUK London

Returning to Olympia London for the 7th year running on the weekend October 26-27, this eagerly anticipated event includes 320 stalls packed with the latest vegan products, a Vegan Food Village with 25 caterers, a New Vegans Support area for beginners to veganism, a Foodies Stage with live music, the Art of Compassion Project Exhibition, the Vivo Life Fitness area, the Strength & Endurance area, a Holistic Health Hub, Cookery Demos, talks on Plant Based Health, a Natural Therapy Zone, Lifestyle presentations, a Yoga Zone, a Kids Yoga area, talks on Veganic Growing, a Mature Zone, a Kids Area, plus talks on Animal Rights and Activism, the Vegan Activists Support, the VGN News Room, the VGN Climate Summit and the Animal Rebellion summit.

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Plant Powered Expo – February 1st 2nd 2020 @ Olympia London

The organisers of VegfestUK are running a new show Plant Powered Expo next February in the National Hall of Olympia London. This new event celebrates the best of a plant-based way of life with 235 stalls, 12 features and 100 speakers. For more information, visit

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