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The Tom Regan Week: On Companion and Wild Animals, and on the Moral Obligation to Preserve Endangered Species.

Tom Regan on Companion and Wild Nonhuman Animals, and on the Moral Obligation to Preserve Endangered Species.


In trying, as I do, to live by the philosophy you promote I find one of the biggest problems occurs in cases where respecting a moral patient’s rights may conflict with that same individual's preferences and interests. For example, is there an argument in favor of over-ruling an individual’s free will if, as a result, that individual suffers less, or must individual free will take precedence always (as a right), even if that means the individual’s suffering is greater as a result? Wild animals and pets being just one example in each case. In other words, as moral agents, should our priority be the protection of a moral patient’s free will or the minimisation of their suffering, in cases where these conflict? What their free-will drives them to, and what our experience has shown us to be the path of least suffering for them, are not always the same thing!

Professor Tom Regan:

This is a really hard question, for which I thank you. I think it would take the wisdom of Solomon to give a complete definitive answer, but here goes.


Paternalism means limiting the freedom of another for what we think is their own good. Parents act paternalistically toward their children throughout their formative years after which time the children become independent agents crafting their own destiny.


When it comes to nonhuman animals, my thinking varies, depending on whether we are talking about companion or wild animals.


Companion animals are in some ways (not in every way, of course) like permanent children. For them a day never comes when they pack their bags and move out in pursuit of an independent life. In the nature of the case, therefore, we are called upon to act paternalistically towards them. In fact, this is a central part of the contract we enter into with them when we invite them into our lives. It would be grossly irresponsible of us not to place any constraints of their behaviour. Of course, like some parents, human guardians can over-do it. Some of them can be so overbearing, so “protective” that thy squeeze the spontaneity and joy out of their companions. We’ve all encountered these sorts of people. If you’re like me, they make you ill.


What we are looking for in our relationships with our nonhuman companions is a balance between allowing them their freedom, on the one hand, and protecting them, “for their own good,” on the other. Here’s an example from our life with dogs to illustrate what I mean.


Most of the dogs we have lived with have liked to run free, which they were able to do in a park near where we live. (Yes, I know, it’s illegal to unleash a dog in that park, but kindly don’t report me). No cars, trucks, just open space. My role as human companion was to offer them as much freedom as I responsibly could. Of course, that changed when we came out of the park and into our small suburban neighborhood. The world outside the park was different than the world inside the park. Car, trucks, who-knows-what. So on went the stretch leash as we walked home.


One of our dogs, Dr. Pepper, was never satisfied. She would wait for me to unleash her as we were walking down the driveway; then, if I failed to be really mindful, pow!, like a shot out of a cannon, she was off, back to the park! “Come on, dummy!” she was saying, “Let’s play some more!” That dog (she was a mixed breed, and proud of it) was the most devious being I’ve ever known.


Nonhumans living in the wild, on the other hand, normally can get along with their life without needing our paternalistic intervention. I say normally because circumstances can arise in which it would be appropriate to intervene. We have foxes, racoons and other wild friends who live in our neighborhood. If someone puts poison in food they set out I think it would be entirely appropriate for me to intervene, “for the animal’s good.” But these sorts of exceptions make the rule, in my view. As a general policy, as I write in The Case, humans should “let wild animals be” (357), “keeping human predators out of their affairs, allowing [them] . . . to carve out their own destiny.”


So, does their freedom rank above our paternalistic care? As I said, I think it varies, from one situation to another.





In the Preface to the 2004 edition of The Case for Animal Rights, you wrote that you thought your position was seriously challenged by Callicott’s critique that it does not “provide a credible basis for addressing our obligation to preserve endangered species.” (xxxviii) Upon further reflection, have you come to accept this intuition that we have an obligation to preserve endangered species, and if so, on what basis?

Professor Tom Regan:

Callicott (if my memory serves me well) was one of the non-ARAs we invited to CAF’s International Compassionate Living Festival so people who were ARAs could learn why others were not. I have not seen Baird for (gosh, it must be) over twenty years by now, but I still regard him as a friend from whom I learned much. As for your specific question, about my “failing to account for the intuition that we have an obligation to preserve endangered species”: yes, I think I failed to do justice to that intuition in the first edition of The Case. However, in the new Preface to the second edition, I think I explain how the rights view can account for this intuition and ground this obligation.  Here’s what I write:


“Compensatory justice is an idea advocates of human justice sometimes employ. A classic example involves past injustice done to members of identifiable groups. For example, although today’s descendants of the Miniconjou Sioux who were slaughtered by the 7th US Calvary at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 were not alive at the time of the massacre, it is not implausible to argue that they (today’s descendants) are owed something because of what happened, not only at Wounded Knee but for many years before and after. Given any reasonable view of history, today’s descendants have been disadvantaged because of the massive injustice done to their predecessors. Moreover, what they are owed is something more than what is owed to others of us who have not been disadvantaged in similar ways, for similar reasons. Other things being equal, more should be done for them, by way of compensatory assistance, than what is done for us.

“The rights view can apply compensatory principles to animals (the East African black rhino, for example) whose numbers are in severe decline because of past wrongs (for example, poaching of ancestors and destruction of habitat). Although the remaining rhinos have no greater inherent value than the members of a more plentiful species (rabbits, say), the assistance owed to the former arguably is greater than that owed to the latter. If it is true, as I believe it is, that today’s rhinos have been disadvantaged because of wrongs done to their predecessors, then, other things being equal, more should be done for the rhinos, by way of compensatory assistance, than what should be done for rabbits.”


So, using broad strokes, this is how I think the rights view can account for our intuition that we owe more to the members of endangered species of animals than we owe to the members of more plentiful species. I failed to make this argument in the first edition of The Case—one of many omissions, I’m sure.





ARZone exists to promote rational discussion about our relations with other animals and about issues within the animal advocacy movement. Please continue the debate after chats by starting a forum discussion or making a point under a transcript.


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Tom Regan says, in regard to companion animals:


Of course, like some parents, human guardians can over-do it. Some of them can be so overbearing, so “protective” that thy squeeze the spontaneity and joy out of their companions. We’ve all encountered these sorts of people. If you’re like me, they make you ill.


Aint that the truth!!


This series of interview questions and answers has been teaching me and guiding me in abolitionist and animal right theory like no other philosopher ever has. I'm super pleased that I've had the chance to read this. Thanks!



I completely agree with Regan's responses to these questions. Thanks for asking him, ARZone!
I appreciate these two questions and answers. So much of the animals rights movement is focused on ending the use of other animals as food, clothing, etc. (and rightly so) that it's good to be reminded that we've created monumental problems for our "pets" and those "in the wild" too. In a way, once we've drastically reduced or eliminated the use of other animals for food, clothing & medical experimentation, that's when we'll have to tackle some really tough challenges.

Hi Alastair,

I agree with you. Preventing other animals from breeding, surgically, is a rights violation. But if we don't prevent animals that humans have domesticated and made it virtually impossible for them to live without human intervention, from breeding, we are being, in my opinion, selfish and irresponsible.

I think it's a very difficult situation, created by humans, which should be fixed by humans.

I live with other animals, and I've taken away their right to breed, without much more than a moments hesitation.

Tom Regan says that one basic right we should accord other animals is their right to bodily integrity. I think that their right, and the rights of many subsequent generations' lives and liberty trump that right.




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