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The Tom Regan Week: On Violence, The Culture & Animals Foundation, and on Sentience, Self-Awareness and the Right to Life.

Tom Regan on Violence, The Culture & Animals Foundation, and on Sentience, Self-Awareness and the Right to Life.


In your speech in support of the Bill of Rights for other animals at the Royal Institute of Great Britain in 1989, which I regard as one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard, you characterise the perception many in the general public have as one of animal advocates standing against justice and for violence. As you went on to articulate in this same speech, the opposite is true: The philosophy of animal rights does, in fact, stand for peace and against violence. What is your opinion in regard to those who believe it may be possible to end the violence inflicted on other animals by employing violence against humans or their property?

Professor Tom Regan:

Thanks for your kind words about my talk. It’s hard to remember being as young as I was when I gave it.  Obviously, questions relating to violence are complicated. One question asks what violence is; a second asks whether it can ever be justified. I’ll address both questions here excerpting from Chapter 11 of Empty Cages as well as from my contribution to Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, edited by Steve Best and Anthony Nocella II.

What ‘violence’ means  

Some ARAs think violence is restricted to causing physical harm to a sentient being, human or otherwise.  I personally disagree with ARAs who think this way, and I don’t think I am alone. Ask any English speaking member of the general public whether fire-bombing an empty synagogue involves violence. Ask any lawyer whether arson is a violent crime (whether or not anyone is hurt). Ask either of these questions to the people I have described and the answer will be, “Am I missing something? Of course these acts are violent.” The plain fact is, our language is not tortured or stretched when we speak of the “violent destruction of property.” We do not need to hurt someone in order to do violence to some thing.


Gandhi agrees. “Sabotage [destroying property for political purposes, without hurting anyone in the process] is a form of violence,” he writes. Martin Luther King, Jr. sees things the same way. Among the many relevant examples: In March of 1968, shortly before his death, King was leading a march in Memphis on behalf of the city’s sanitation workers. “At the back of the line,” King’s biographer, Stephen B. Oates observes, “black teenagers were smashing windows and looting stores . . . King signalled to [James] Lawson [the local march coordinator] . . . ‘I will never lead a violent march,’ King said, ‘so please call it off.’ While Lawson yelled in his bullhorn for everybody to return to the church, King . . . climbed into a car [and sped away].” No one was hurt that day in Memphis, but some serious violence was done.

Or consider what Nelson Mandela said at his trial for violence and sabotage in October 1963. He admitted quite freely that he was guilty of what he was accused of. "I do not deny that I planned sabotage," he told the court. "I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation. Without violence [against property] there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle."


ARAs who think that arson and other forms of destruction of property are forms of “non-violent direct action” are free to think what they will. Certainly nothing I say can make them change their minds. I will only observe that, in my opinion, unless or until these advocates accept the fact that some ARAs use violence in the name of animal rights (for example, when they firebomb empty research labs), the general public will turn a deaf ear when their spokespersons attempt to justify such actions.


So the real question, I believe, is not whether some ARAs use violence. The real question is whether they are justified in doing so. Here are the main outlines of a possible justification.


Can violence be justified?

Despite the influence Gandhi had on my moral and philosophical development, I am not a pacifist in the sense in which he understands this idea, at least as I understand his position. He thinks the use of violence is wrong in all circumstances—that it is always wrong. For my part, I believe violence sometimes can be justified. Here is an example that illustrates my point of view.


Suppose a deranged father has kidnapped his children. He is armed and is threatening to shoot them. If the police kill the father before talking to him, their use of violence can be faulted because non-violent alternatives were not explored; they shot first and asked questions later. Moreover, if they used a gun to kill the father when a tazer, say, would have been sufficient, the authorities can be faulted for using excessive violence; they used more when less violence would have been enough.


What could go wrong in this example suggests what makes violence acceptable when it is. (1) Violence should be used to defend the innocent only after nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted, as the circumstances permit. And (2) the amount of violence used should be “proportionate” to the threat of the harm faced by those who are innocent.  For example, we should not take a person’s life because they have stolen our pencil. It will be useful to give a name to the principle expressed when (1) and (2) are combined. I will call it the violent defense principle.


Except for uncompromising pacifists like Gandhi, the violent defense principle commands universal assent. Assuming the requirement of proportionality is met, ask yourself this: If the use of violence is necessary to defend your innocent friends or loved ones who (let us suppose) are at the mercy of a sadistic neighbour, would you rise to insist that no violence be used? I don’t think so. I know I wouldn’t. Well, all that the violent defense principle does is generalize on our judgments. The innocents who are threatened need not be your friends or loved ones, or my friends or loved ones; they can be anybody. And the person threatening the harm need not be a neighbour; that person could be anyone.


Is the violence done by the A.L.F. justified? Given the violent defense principle, it can be justified only if animals are innocent, which they unquestionably are. For example, the mink imprisoned in fur mills and the mice used in toxicity tests have done no wrong that could possibly justify denying them their freedom, injuring their bodies, or taking their very life. So, yes, these animals are innocent.


Proportionality also is required. More violence should not be used when less will suffice. Can A.L.F. actions meet this requirement? Who can deny that they can, not necessarily all of the time but certainly some of the time.


The situation is different when we apply the final requirement embodied in the violent defense principle. We ask, “Have nonviolent alternatives been exhausted, as circumstances permit? Have ARAs in general, the A.L.F. in particular, done all we (realistically) can do, using nonviolent means, to empty the cages?” I honestly do not think that we have. In fact, I think we have done very little in comparison to what we need to do. We haven’t even been able to stop toxicity tests on “animal models,” for heaven’s sakes. No, from my perspective, the A.L.F.’s use of violence is unjustified. ARAs have not exhausted nonviolent alternatives.


Of course, the opposite conclusion can be reached by ARAs who believe enough already has been done by way of non-violent activism. And it is here, not whether members of the A.L.F. are “domestic terrorists,” that we find the heart of the matter, the place where ARAs have sincere and often deep disagreements. In any event, in my opinion, people do not cease to be ARAs depending on what position they take on this divisive issue. I don’t agree with the A.L.F.’s means. But do I think they are trying to free other animals from the clutches of human tyranny? Yes, I do. 


One other thing.

In the ‘80s I supported the A.L.F. and other activists who were breaking into labs and other dungeons of animal abuse, to document how horribly animals were being treated and to liberate the prisoners. With videos and photos in hand, no one could deny the truth. Personally, in retrospect, I think these actions would have been even stronger if the rescues had been open rescues. That said, A.L.F. actions back then, in addition to liberating prisoners, performed a vitally important educational purpose.


Somewhere along the way, between then and now, A.L.F. actions (in my opinion) took a violent turn. When buildings are torched today the story the media tells is about “domestic terrorists,” not the dungeons of animal abuse.  The vital educational purpose has been lost—in the ashes, so to speak. I have more to say about this in Chapter One of Empty Cages.




Can you explain what you regard as the importance and the accomplishments of your Culture and Animals Foundation ?


Professor Tom Regan:

Permit me to start with a bit of history. I had returned home after teaching (this was back in 1985) and Nancy said, “I just heard the most interesting story on NPR. It was about this performance artist, Rachel Rosenthal, who does a production called ‘The Others’ that raises consciousness about the plight of animals. And, get this: there are animals, more than twenty of them, who perform with her. Not ‘trained’ animals. Just tame animals from here and yonder.”


            “Really?” I said.

            “We should bring her here,” Nancy said.

            “You mean (gulp) here, as in Raleigh?”


            More “gulping” on my part.


So, how was CAF born? It was born when, with Nancy in the lead, we decided to bring Rachel and “The Others” to Raleigh, North Carolina. Bringing her here (what a story there is to tell!) also served as the inspiration of the CAF mantra, so to speak: “We’d rather be inside the theatre performing than outside the theatre protesting.”


After that decision was made, we were off and running. If we had hosted a performance art production, why not some music (Paul Winter) and comedy (The Montana Logging and Ballet Company)? Why not an art exhibition? We sponsored several, including a major exhibition by Sue Coe, another by Robert Raushenberg. What about Pulitzer Prize winning poets? We invited Maxine Kumin, and Galway Kinnell. What about . . . ? Legal theorists? Sociologists? Anthropologists? Historians? Political scientists? Biographers? Novelists? Fill-in the blanks. Our annual International Compassionate Living Festival became an energizing focus of our life as ARAs.


Amidst and amongst these wonderful people, we invited others who were critical of animal rights. Yes, CAF in our mind is synonymous with cultural activism for animals. But we never lost sight of the need to provide ARAs with an opportunity to learn about where those who opposed our thinking were coming from. Some of the best presentations were given by “the enemy.”


In the last few years of ICLF, CAF collaborated with the Animals and Society Institute, the scale of the event having grown beyond CAF’s all-volunteer-capacity to organize. Ours was a pleasant, rewarding collaboration, and we take this opportunity to thank ASI and everyone else who made ICLF possible, for all those many years, including CAF’s current board members (not counting the two of us) Marion Bolz and Mylan Engel.


Today, CAF focuses mainly on our grant program. We are not a wealthy organization. Far from it. That said, we are able to make ten to fifteen grants per year, and while the money is not huge, the grants are helpful to those who receive them. Just this past year we received applications from Chile, Spain, Australia, France, Canada, Finland, England, Italy and, of course, the United States. Obviously, there are creative, inquiring ARAs all over the world committing their time and talent—their life--to the struggle for animal rights. We only wish CAF had the funds to help more.


Carol Gigliotti recently has written that the conferences CAF sponsored and the grants we have awarded “planted the seeds of human-animal studies in the arts and humanities.” That might be true. We certainly were in a different line of business than any other organization. So, if that’s true—if we truly planted the seeds—that would have to rank as CAF’s most important accomplishment.



In ‘The Case’ (esp. chaps. 2-4) and elsewhere it is indicated that you consider that the ability to feel pain does not imply self awareness, in the sense of one having a notion of psychological continuity over time. I therefore believe you must have at least one example of an individual of some species who is sentient but not a subject of a life (even though I still find it difficult to understand such an occurrence from an evolutionary perspective). Who could this individual be?

Professor Tom Regan:

A tough question but here’s my best shot. Sentiency usually is defined as capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, while self-awareness, as I understand the idea, involves more than being aware of something, including pleasure or pain. It involves being aware that I-am-the-one-who-is-aware-of (in this case) pleasure or pain. Without this higher order/unifying awareness, there is no self-awareness.


Second trimester human fetuses, I believe, are not self-aware in this way. Can they be sentient? Yes, I believe they can be. But are they self-aware? Are they aware-that I-am-the-one-who-is-aware-of-these-stimuli? I don’t think so. Indeed, I don’t think that newly born human infants are aware of themselves, as selves.


There is a concept some philosophers and psychologists explore called the specious present. Roughly speaking, and in this context, it refers to discrete moments of experience that are not united, not held together, by a self. We might think of this sort of mental life as being like a series of disconnected bubbles, each of which lasts only an instant before popping. One bubble, followed by another bubble, followed by another bubble, and so on. In this picture there is no unifying mind or self that carries the memory of the first bubble to the second, then to the third, etc. There is just the series of evanescent, disconnected bubbles, each lasting a moment before popping, none connected to the others.


Could these be the mental states of sentient beings? Could one of the bubbles be pleasant, another painful? Why not? Without self-awareness? Again, why not? Indeed, if we follow this logic, there would be as many discrete sentient beings as there are discrete pleasant and painful bubbles.


Which is why I have never understood how the right to life could be derivable from sentiency. Sentiency, again, means capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. Self-awareness, someone might believe, is not necessary for sentiency. But what sort of mental life would this leave us with? We have one bubble (pain), followed by another bubble (pleasure), followed by another bubble (pain), etc.  However, without an enduring self, there isn’t anybody who can have a right to life because there isn’t anybody to have one. There is just one bubble, followed by another bubble, etc., etc.


So, do all sentient beings have a right to life, just because they are sentient? Not that I can see. Not that I can understand.


Of course, this situation would run counter to evolution if this was the permanent state of developing human and nonhuman life. So at some point in the course of development, a unifying mental order must emerge, a self that carries the memory of the one bubble to the occurrence of the second, and so on. But when, and precisely how this happens: well, I don’t think anyone truly knows the answers to these questions.






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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How refreshing to see Professor Regan's logical definitions on what violence is and why vioelnce can be so destructive to the animal rights movement.

I completely agree with Prof. Regan's assessment!


I agree with Regan that it is more important to ask whether violence is justified rather than whether or not something is "violence." I disagree, though, that violence can be inflicted on property (an inanimate object, not sentient life), as the property damage of burning synagogues (one of his examples) is combined with and based on a real threat of bodily harm to innocent Jewish individuals who have been persecuted historically, which is certainly dissimilar (meaning not at all similar) to ALF arsons where there are no real threats of bodily harm to the guilty animal abusers at that time or historically.

Lastly, I disagree with his assessment that alternative tactics to direct action have not been exhausted (this is a subjective question and should be considered on a case by case basis) but am glad he doesn't try to silence and condemn those who disagree and understands that they are doing what they think is best for animals.

I really appreciate this statement from Tom:


"Somewhere along the way, between then and now, A.L.F. actions (in my opinion) took a violent turn. When buildings are torched today the story the media tells is about “domestic terrorists,” not the dungeons of animal abuse.  The vital educational purpose has been lost—in the ashes, so to speak. I have more to say about this in Chapter One of Empty Cages."


Despite many activists claiming that the perception the general public have of the ALF and other groups who participate in what some class as "violent action" or even "domestic terrorism" is unimportant, I believe it is very important. Until the general population begin to view animal advocates as serious, intelligent, caring people, I believe it will continue to be near impossible for us to gain their respect and to allow them to take seriously the claims of animal advocates. 

Prof. Regan says, when defining what violence means:


"Ask any English speaking member of the general public whether fire-bombing an empty synagogue involves violence. Ask any lawyer whether arson is a violent crime (whether or not anyone is hurt). Ask either of these questions to the people I have described and the answer will be, “Am I missing something? Of course these acts are violent.”"


If my house was burnt down on purpose, I would feel violated and feel as if I'd been the victim of a violent crime too.

You're right Prof. Regan, you're not alone in thinking as you do!





What makes you think underground activists risking their liberty to save the lives of other animals through direct action makes the public believe these activists are not "serious, intelligent, caring people"? It seems the general population could at least view underground activists as serious and caring, if not intelligent as well once they realize the massive suffering and death inflicted on animals who want to live and be free as much as we do.

Dr. Regan writes that self-awareness should be understood as "being aware that I-am-the-one-who-is-aware-of (in this case) pleasure or pain." It's not clear to me how this relates to his conception of self-awareness (& I think Carolyn suggests this in her question on this point).

My capacity to experience pain seems to imply that I am aware, in those moments when I am in pain that I am in pain. I.e., I am in a state called pain (although I don’t have to know that it’s called pain); maybe the chair next to me, or the earth I am walking on is also in that state, but I know I am in that state. In other words, to say X feels pain implies that there is a self called “X” that uniquely experiences states of feeling.

Dr. Regan seems to expand the concept of self-awareness, then, i.e., a unifying awareness or a "self" that connects the discrete bubbles. So perhaps we should tease-out two conceptions of "self-awareness"; one is implied in the statement, "X can feel pain," as I said above, and the other is the unifying sense of self that Dr. Regan and Peter Singer refer to.

But either way, it’s not clear to me how a “right to life” follows from either conception. A “right to life,” if there is such a thing, should be predicated on an interest in continuing to live – i.e., death is a harm. And it seems to me that if a being is sentient, in certain circumstances, death is always harmful. So I'm not sure how self-awareness helps.         


As I understand you, you are saying that because a being "experiences" pain that that necessarily implies an "I" who understands themselves as a separate being from the rest of the world. I don't think that is the case. It seems plausible to me that there could be beings who register and react to painful stimuli as a result of hard wired biology without them having any real conception along the lines of "Ouch, that hurts me and I don't like it." Certainly plants react to stimuli without any sense of self, I don't see why every animal life form must be necessarily different. 

Sentience is only the capacity to register and react to pain. The problem is that we often say that it is the capacity to "feel" pain, implying something more. On my view, once we start talking about beings who feel pain, and who do not want to experience pain, or who would prefer to stop experiencing pain, then we are talking about beings who have intentional mental states and are more than merely sentient. It's difficult for me to see how it could be possible for a being to have intentional mental states without also being something like subjects-of-a-life, to use Regan's term.

I no longer consider sentience (as the simple capacity for pain) as useful to the question of whether other animals have a right to life. Either the word sentience means almost nothing, or it means the same thing as something like subjects-of-a-life does. Using the term sentience seems to nothing but confusion to the discussion.

I'm in the process of reading a bit about Nelson Mandela and the ANC in South Africa during the struggle to end apartheid and bring equality to the black majority population there. If my understanding is correct, Mandela advocated for and condoned the use violence, and not only sabotage and property damage, but also for "the next stage: guerilla warfare and terrorism." Mandela was also an able negotiator who spent years while still in prison working behind the scenes to reach an orderly transition to democracy.

I do not advocate or support violence, but we ought not to deny that it happens, that it is sometimes necessary, and that it is often a powerful tool against oppression.

Tim, you write re: my position: "...because a being "experiences" pain that that necessarily implies an "I" who understands themselves as a separate being from the rest of the world." No, not quite; self-awarenes is not theory of mind, or at least not necessarily. That's the distinction re: different conceptions of self-awareness I'm trying to tease-out.

Sentience, as I understand it, is the capacity to "experience" pain; it is not the ability to register and react to painful (read: noxious) stimuli. There is a qualitative difference between "experiencing" and "registering." And once we concede that X experiences pain (i.e., X is sentient) that implies that there is an X who is subjectively in the world. (Again, perhaps X doesn't know that his experiences are different then my experiences, but that is beside the point if we can think of self-awareness in the two senses I'm describing.) Whereas if we say X is capable of registering pain, there is no such implication b/c "register" doesn't imply a conscious state, it doesn't imply "feeling" as commonly understood, in a word, it doesn't imply a "self." 

Thanks Alex,


I agree with you - in order for there to be an experience of pain, there must be a someone to experience it. Would you agree that a being who can experience pain may not conceive of themselves as an entity separate from the world, and that they may not know or understand that they are alive?


Hi Tim, yes, a sentient being may or may not have a theory of mind. But as to the latter portion of that sentence (re: knowing or understanding X is alive), I'm not sure of its relevance. I think we let how we "think" being alive overdetermine that experience, but it isn't clear to me how, say, a being who doesn't have the categories "alive" and "dead" would understand being alive. That is, it is probably the case that a chimpanzee experiences "being alive" differently than I do.


I think the difficulty here is how we think of "awareness," but it isn't clear to me why this concept should mean a unified sense of self. Why can't a necessary condition, say, for being "aware" mean subjectively being in the world? If it can, then a sufficient condition for "awareness" is sentience. 

@Roger: I think that's precisely right. If I think of the "right to life," I found that on an interest in continuing to live. And in some instances, death is harm (I've only recently come to that conclusion, in fact). But Regan's discussion of "self awareness" is relevant, as Singer makes clear. To wit: w/out a unified sense of self, it isn't clear why you have an interest in continuing to live. I think that Singer is mistaken b/c it turns on the thwarting of future plans, which, strictly speaking, wouldn't happen if I died b/c I no longer exist to experience the thwarting of those plans. So it isn't clear how that's harmful to me. But death is a harm for other reasons.

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