Evolved from butcher to leading advocate of vegan philosophy
RALEIGH, North Carolina–– Animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, 78, died on the morning of February 17, 2017.
“He had taken pneumonia last week,” longtime family friend Bernard Unti told ANIMALS 24-7. “The family was all with him,” including Nancy, Regan’s wife of more than 50 years, and their adult children Karen and Bryan.
“He had two very bad years after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. It was a severe case in its onset, and it was not possible to control,” Unti elaborated.
“Personal & professional debt”
“He was exceedingly kind to me,” Unti added, “and I have a great personal and professional debt to him,” a statement which could have been echoed by hundreds of other animal advocates, philosophers, authors, former students, and personal and professional contacts around the world, including China, where Regan’s writings about animal rights have recently become popular in translation.
Remembered Regan of his early years, “I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My neighborhood was a child’s paradise, a place where a kid could luxuriate in the steamy dirt of industrial urban living.
Cats, dogs, & horses
“As a kid of the streets, the animals I knew were mostly the animals of the streets. Mainly cats and dogs, but there were horses, too. In those days vendors and junkmen rode four-wheeled wagons through the city, pulled by stoop-shouldered, weary creatures who were occasionally aroused from their dolorous fatigue by the high pitched clang of a trolley’s bell or the crack of the driver’s whip.”
Regan had his own dog as a child, named Tippy. “One hundred percent mutt,” Regan recalled, “she was an energetic tri-colored wisp of a dog with a small but clear tip of white at the very end of her tail. She was eager for affection and designed by nature to be free. Give her just the slightest crack in the gate and pow! — she was gone! Like a shot she was through the gate and around the corner. I understand now that she lacked the space she needed to be the dog she was.”
“Visited friends who had farms”
While Regan spent most of his childhood living alongside railroad tracks beneath sooty clouds boiling up from the smokestacks of the steel mills for which Pittsburgh was then famous, and environmentally infamous, “Not everything was urban in my youth,” he continued. “Along with my parents and sister I enjoyed fishing along the upper Allegheny River. We also visited friends who had farms. Sometimes I stayed on for a day, maybe a weekend, occasionally a week.”
But Regan’s early experience with animals did not make him an animal advocate, or even cause him to think much about animals, he later acknowledged.
“Like most Americans,” Regan wrote, “I grew up unmindful of the food on my plate and the death of the creature it represents. The animals I knew personally, Tippy for one, I considered my friends. But I lacked the imagination then to make the connection between my fondness for these animals and the silent pieces of flesh that came from my mother’s skillet or oven.”
Opened to the possibilities of education and a life outside of the industrial environment by a family relocation to the suburbs when he was in his early teens, Regan took up writing and music in high school.
Musician & athlete
“By my junior year,” Regan recalled, “I was making a little money playing in big dance bands and in small combos. I played any reed instrument, but mainly clarinet and tenor sax. I doubt if I ever would have become a really good musician had I continued playing,” Regan admitted. “I enjoyed the camaraderie as much as the music.”
As a high school athlete Regan lettered in football, track, and golf, then moved on to Thiel College, where he learned after two years that 138-pound halfbacks even then had little future in college football.
From butcher to teaching
Regan worked his way to his undergraduate degree as a butcher.
“I sliced, I diced, I minced, I ground. Cold flesh gave way to my cruel will,” Regan told later interviewers. “The pieces of meat I was working with might as well have been blocks of wood. I was so distant from any kind of identification with the animals, or any kind of spark of compassion. Not that I was intentionally cruel to the companion animals in my life. They were always special. But the other animals were like blocks of wood.”
After graduation Regan became first an instructor and then for two years, beginning in 1965, an assistant professor of philosophy at Sweet Briar College. In 1967 Regan relocated to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he taught from 1967 until retirement in 2001.
North Carolina State University
“Although I was an outspoken proponent of animal rights on a campus where students take degrees in animal agriculture and where hundreds of faculty use animals in their research, I was never punished or threatened for speaking my mind,” Regan said.
“Just the opposite. The university honored my work, presenting me with every award for teaching and research for which I was eligible,” including through the formation of the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive at the North Carolina State University Library, “inaugurated in 2001,” Regan remembered, “when in response to the library’s invitation, I donated my papers, covering the whole of my personal and professional life.”
Early during Regan’s tenure at North Carolina State University, he and Nancy cofounded North Carolinians Against the [Vietnam] War.
Believing he should be able to make a philosophical contribution to the antiwar movement, Regan was visiting the university library one day in 1972, he remembered, “and I took down a book by an author whose name I recognized, but I had never read anything by him. The title of the book was My Experiment With Truth by Mohandas K. Ghandi,” called Mahatma as an honorific.
“Ghandi had an enormous influence on me,” Regan continued. “Basically he said to me from the pages of his work, ‘I understand, Professor Regan, you are against unnecessary violence.’ And I said. ‘Yes, that’s why I am campaigning against the war. And he said, ‘Well, what are those dead body parts doing in your freezer?’”
Later in 1972 the Regan family were plunged “into a period of intense, shared grief,” Regan said, when their dog Gleco was killed by a car.
“My head had begun to grasp a moral truth that required a change in behavior,” Regan said. “Reason demanded that I become a vegetarian. But it was the sense of irrevocable loss that added the power of feeling to the requirements of logic.”
In April 1973 the New York Review of Books published a review by Australian philosopher Peter Singer of an essay collection entitled Animals, Men and Morals: An Enquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans, edited by Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch, and John Harris. During the next two years Singer expanded the essay into his influential 1975 book Animal Liberation.
Animal Rights & Human Obligations
Regan was involved in the discussion that informed Animal Liberation, and became Singer’s next book project, Regan’s first in the animal rights field.
“As it happened,” Regan remembered, “I had an opportunity to teach at Oxford during the summer of 1973. I had read Singer’s review and wrote to him, explaining that we shared many of the same interests. While I was at Oxford, we met several times. We agreed that an anthology of mainly philosophical writings on our duties to animals would be both timely and useful. By the fall of 1975, we had a manuscript.”
Published in 1976, Animal Rights & Human Obligations became one of the first of a genre.
The Case for Animal Rights
“It is no exaggeration to say,” Regan assessed late in life, “that during the past thirty years philosophers have written vastly more on the topic of ethics and animals than our predecessors had written in the previous three thousand. This has made a profound difference in the classroom. Whereas there was not a single philosophy course in which the idea of animal rights was discussed when I began writing The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism (also published in 1975), today there are perhaps as many as a hundred thousand students a year discussing this idea.”
During the next eight years Regan expanded The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism into The Case for Animal Rights (1983).
“This work,” Regan said, “comes as close as I’ll ever come to getting at the deeper truths on which, in my view, the animal rights movement stands or falls. When I started writing The Case for Animal Rights, I did not hold the ‘radical’ conclusions I reached in the final chapter. I was against causing animals ‘unnecessary’ suffering in scientific research, for example, but I was not against making them suffer if this was ‘necessary.’ What was perhaps the most remarkable part of working on The Case for Animal Rights was how I was led by the force of reasons I had never before considered, to embrace positions I had never before accepted, including abolitionism.”
Sought religious support
But while The Case for Animal Rights was generally well received by critics and became one of the foundation works of the then already rapidly growing animal rights movement, Regan was disappointed in the lack of response it received from mainstream theologians.
Regan continued trying to enlist religious support for animal advocacy.
At invitation of Ethel Thurston (1912-2006), founder of the American Fund for Alternatives to Animal Research in 1974, and Colin Smith (1941-2001), founder of International Association Against Painful Experiments on Animals, Regan in 1984 chaired a conference on religion and animals.
The proceedings, Animal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science, appeared in book form in 1986.
“We Are All Noah”
In the interim, Regan wrote and directed a 30-minute film, We Are All Noah, that won a silver medal at the 1985 International Film Festival of New York.
“We thought we finally had a teaching aid that would rouse the sleeping giant of organized religion,” Regan remembered.
North Carolina Network for Animals cofounder Dietrich von Haugwitz (1928-2007) “found a place where We Are All Noah could be shown. Hundreds of invitations were sent to clergy in the area, even as the event was publicized in other ways. A lovely spread of meat-free finger food was prepared. Dietrich had composed a first-rate introduction to the film.
“So there we all were, waiting for the first arrivals. And there we sat, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. No one came.”
The fiasco led Regan to “spend the better part of five years reading everything I could about the most important struggles for human justice. I learned,” he wrote in a personal memoir, that “Any time some people (the ‘Ins’) want to exploit other ‘inferior’ people (the ‘Outs’), the Ins will always have two powerful forces on their side. One will be organized religion; the other, the ‘best’ science of the day. Both will say, in their authoritative voices, ‘The Ins really are better than the Outs. Our sacred books say so. So do our esteemed scientists. So, the Outs are exactly where they belong. Under the boot of the Ins.’”
“March for the Animals”
An even larger fiasco was a 1990 “March for the Animals” in Washington D.C., at which Regan was keynote speaker. Among the planners were attorney Bill Wewer, who almost simultaneously incorporated the “March” organization, the Doris Day Animal League (merged into the Humane Society of the U.S. in 2006), and the long defunct anti-animal rights group Putting People First.
Media releases projected possible participation of more than 100,000 people.
In actuality, crowd photos documented participation by not more than 20,000, while the diversion of donor support to the “March” brought the economic collapse of half a dozen then nationally prominent animal rights organizations within the next year, and more than 50 state and regional animal rights groups.
“In 1996, when a second march was organized,” Regan lamented, “fewer than 3,000 people participated,” while much of the funding donated to organize the march was never accounted for by directors who subsequently disappeared from view within the cause.
Beyond Animal Rights
At about the same time Regan took something of a philosophical beating in Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals, a 1996 anthology assembled by Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams.
The Beyond Animal Rights authors argued that “the discourse of rights and interests led since the 1970s by male philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan has failed to appropriately address the practical issues involved in what In A Different Voice author Carol Gilligan in 1982 called women’s conception of morality…concerned with the activity of care, responsibility, and relationships.”
In particular, Beyond Animal Rights explored perceived inherent contradictions between recognizing the rights of animals and making impositions upon animals such as sterilizing them and keeping them confined, or asking them to push on past the normal limits of athletic endurance, a sort of challenge that dogs and horses, in particular, seem to often enjoy.
Welcomed challenge & diversity
Regan welcomed the challenge and the diversity of voices that Beyond Animal Rights amplified.
“The animal rights movement is so varied in its membership and programs that it will never have one leader,” Regan said. “the movement goes forward because of the efforts of many hands on many oars.”
Regan believed attracting new people and perspectives to the animal rights cause to be of paramount importance, and that “educating ourselves about our deep cultural roots — in philosophy and poetry, art and sculpture, music and dance” is an essential part of recruitment.
“Moreover,” Regan said, “we must continue to add to the body of cultural resources.”
Culture & Animals Foundation
For that reason Tom and Nancy Regan formed the Culture and Animals Foundation, best known for hosting an annual International Compassionate Living Festival at North Carolina State University.
Post-retirement, Regan was active in helping to extend discussion of animal rights ideas internationally, especially to China, and produced two of his most influential books, both further developing ideas discussed in The Case for Animal Rights.
Defending Animal Rights
Defending Animal Rights (2001) originated most directly from nine of Regan’s frequent lecture topics.
Comparing the rhetoric used against other social reform movements with public criticisms of animal advocates, Regan compared the split in the 18th and 19th century anti-slavery movement between reformers and abolitionists to the divide he and many other activists perceive between advocating for animal welfare and advocating for animal rights––although donor surveys show that about 90% of the money in the animal cause comes from people perceiving no practical difference at all.
Regan recommended Henry Spira’s strategy of pursuing incremental abolition, targeting specific abuses that are recognized as affronts to both animal welfare and animal rights, to create a shared agenda attracting the endorsements of most people who are concerned about the issues from whatever philosophical perspective.
In Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (2002) Regan listed eleven issues that he believed to be priorities for achieving a shared animal welfare/rights agenda:
• The elimination of elephants and other performing animals from circuses.
• The liberation of dolphins currently imprisoned by the captive dolphin industry.
• The total cessation of canned hunting.
• The total demise of the greyhound racing industry.
• No more fur farms.
• An end to seal slaughter.
• A ban on compulsory classroom dissection.
• No more dog labs.
• A ban on the use of animals in toxicity tests.
• An end to pound seizure.
• The total elimination of sales of random-source dogs and cats to laboratories.
“Faith in a better world”
While none of these goals were totally achieved during the 15 years between Regan articulating them and his death, all eleven have been substantially advanced in the U.S., Europe, and parts of the rest of the world.
Stalwartly opposing the use of violence in the name of animal advocacy, Regan wondered nonetheless “not that there is violence, but that there is not more of it,” when winning even basic protections for animals has taken so long to achieve.
Concluded Regan in Empty Cages, “Our faith in a better world is deeply rooted in history. There was a time when many thought it was utopian, unrealistic and hopeless to achieve equal rights for Native Americans, African Americans, women, the mentally challenged or the physically disabled. Nevertheless, the verdicts of history teach that entrenched social practices not only can change, they have changed––but never without a struggle.”