Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

Tom Regan on Achieving Abolitionist Goals.


Hi Professor Regan, great to get the opportunity to quiz you! I think your work is fantastic and so important. I wonder what your opinion is on animal welfare. As a vegan obviously I don't agree with the use or abuse of any sentient being for any reason. I wonder do you feel that only a move to abolish any use or abuse of animals is sufficient, or do you feel that ensuring better welfare for animals that are used by humans, such as farm animals, is a part of the journey to adequate animal rights? Is a push for better animal welfare a way of helping society take the logical next step in not using or abusing other animals or does this, as some think, make the use and abuse of other animals acceptable to some? Thank you so much for your time.

Professor Tom Regan:

Thank you for your kind words about my work and for your provocative question, which I know divides people who think of themselves as ARAs. In any event, my own thinking hasn’t changed over the years. For example, back in 1986, I wrote a small booklet entitled “The Philosophy of Animal Rights” which begins with a short summary of ‘The Animal Rights Position.’ More recently I wrote a short essay entitled “How to Prolong Injustice.” The best I can do by way of answering your question is (slightly edited in some places) to start with the summary, give examples of winnable abolitionist campaigns, and reproduce the essay. Then I’d like to add another essay of mine, “Animal Rights and the Myth of ‘Humane’ Treatment,” for anyone who would like to read something on that topic. 


‘The Animal Rights Position.’

The other animals humans eat, use in science, hunt, trap, and exploit in a variety of ways, have a life of their own that is of importance to them apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it. What happens to them matters to them. Each has a life that fares better or worse for the one whose life it is.


That life includes a variety of biological, individual, and social needs. The satisfaction of these needs is a source of pleasure, their frustration or abuse, a source of pain. In these fundamental ways the nonhuman animals in labs and on farms , for example, are the same as human beings. And so it is that the ethics of our dealings with them, and with one another, must acknowledge the same fundamental moral principles.


At its deepest level, human ethics is based on the independent value of the individual. The moral worth of any human being is not to be measured by how useful that person is in advancing the interests of other human beings. To treat human beings in ways that do not honor their independent value is to violate that most basic of human rights: the right of each person to be treated with respect.


The philosophy of animal rights demands only that logic be respected. For any argument that plausibly explains the independent value of human beings implies that other animals have this same value, and have it equally. And any argument that plausibly explains the right of humans to be treated with respect also implies that these other animals have this same right, and have it equally, too.


It is true, therefore, that women do not exist to serve men, Blacks to serve whites, the poor to serve the rich, or the weak to serve the strong. The philosophy of animal rights not only accepts these truths, it insists upon and justifies them. But this philosophy goes further. By insisting upon and justifying the independent value and rights of animals, it gives scientifically informed and morally impartial reasons for denying that these animals exist to serve us.


Once this truth is acknowledged, it is easy to understand why the philosophy of animal rights is uncompromising in its response to each and every injustice other animals are made to suffer. It is not larger, cleaner cages that justice demands in the case of animals used in science, for example, but empty cages; not “traditional” animal agriculture, but a complete end to all commerce in the flesh of dead animals; not “more humane” hunting and trapping, but the total eradication of these barbarous practices.


For when an injustice is absolute, one must oppose it absolutely. It was not “reformed” slavery that justice demanded, not “reformed” child labor, not “reformed” subjugation of women. In each of these cases, abolition was the only moral answer. Merely to reform absolute injustice is to prolong injustice.


The philosophy of animal rights demands this same answer--abolition—in response to the unjust exploitation of other animals. It is not the details of unjust exploitation that must be changed. It is the unjust exploitation itself that must be ended, whether on the farm, in the lab, or among the wild, for example. The philosophy of animal rights asks for nothing more, but neither will it be satisfied with anything less.


But how can we achieve our abolitionist goals? One path (the one I favor) invites ARAs to give our time and energy to trying to make incremental abolitionist changes. I listed a few examples in Empty Cages. 


          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 hunts

          The total demise of the greyhound racing industry

          An end to seal slaughter

          A ban on compulsory dissection

          No more dog labs, anywhere

          An end to pound seizure

          The total elimination of Class B dealers

          Whaling . . . Going! Going! Gone!


Other examples are given in an essay I co-authored with Gary Francione (Animals Agenda, January/February 1992, p. 42):


          An end to the use of animals in product testing

          An end to the use of animals in maternal deprivation, military, and drug addiction experiments

          An end to the killing of elephants, rhinos, and other “big game”

          An end to the commerce in fur 


To my way of thinking, these are achievable goals. I’m not saying they are easy. Not at all. I’m just saying they are achievable. The main thing standing in the way of their realization is a lack of cooperation and collaboration among major national and grass-roots organizations. “Many hands on many oars,” is the way I would put it. That’s what is needed. Personally, I am not a political organizer. I am not someone who can run campaigns. I wish I could but I can’t. What’s clear as a bell to me, as I’ve said, is that these achievable goals will not be realized unless or until ARAs cooperate and collaborate. Here’s how I picture our situation. Sunlight passes through a window. We feel some warmth. If that same sunlight passes through a magnifying glass, it can start a fire. Today, the Animal Rights Movement is like sunlight passing through a window. It has some effect, certainly. But think about how much more powerful the movement would be if that sunlight was really focused. If there was cooperation and collaboration between major national and grassroots organizations. If our separate efforts passed through a magnifying glass, so to speak.


So, paradoxically, our first, our basic challenge does not involve animals. It involves us.


“How to Prolong Injustice”

Others (many of whom think of themselves as ARAs) think abolitionist goals can be achieved by taking a different path. In the case of animal agriculture, for example, people who favor U (I’ll call it) think that the best way to realize abolitionist goals is to reform current practices, based on animal interests. For example, if decreasing density in battery cages is implicitly to count the hens' interest in having more space, this is a reform we should support.


The same is true of reforms in transportation and slaughter techniques. Any time we can increase the number of animal interests that are taken into account, and any time we can have their interests counted equitably, U calls upon us to press for these reforms.


Suppose these reforms are implemented throughout animal agriculture. What would be the result?


Well, arguably things would have changed quite a lot. In place of the factory farms that scar the rural countryside today, we can imagine a plethora of farms modelled after Old McDonald’s. In this gentle new word, it is true, there are vastly fewer farmed animals than there are today, but the quality of their life is vastly better too. Who can be dissatisfied with so idyllic a world?


ARAs, for one. Thousands of Old McDonald’s farms inhabited by millions of happy animals is not the end we seek. The end we seek is the end of raising animals for their flesh and other products. Why, then, should ARAs work for the sorts of reforms I have described?


Considered superficially, the answers seem obvious. Since the animals are much better off because of the reforms, and since ARAs genuinely care about how animals are treated, surely ARAs should support and help implement the reforms.

Things are not this simple. From an ARA’s perspective, animal agriculture violates the rights of farmed animals; it treats them as our resources—indeed, as renewable resources. This unjust practice cannot be brought to an end by continuing to treat farmed animals in this way, which is how they will be treated if the system of their exploitation has been reformed in the ways we have imagined. No, to reform injustice is to prolong injustice.


Proponents of U might reply by saying that, over time, as first one, then another reform is implemented, the quality of farmed animal life is improved and people will begin to change how they think about animals. Once the general public understands that animals have interests, and once they have supported the call to have their interests counted fairly, people will move away from their meat-eating ways. On this view, a day will dawn when, because of the reforms made as well as the general public’s support of making them, we all awake to a vegan world.


This is a lovely story, but hardly credible. Why would human beings forego a leg of lamb or a brisket of beef if all the relevant reforms have been implemented? After all, with the reforms in place, farmed animals could not have a better quality of life than the one they enjoy.


Moreover (and this is hardly unimportant) surely the general public, accustomed to and supportive of the reforms, will want to help make this same happy life available to the next generation of cows and pigs, chickens and ducks. And the next generation after that one, a demand that, in the nature of the case, can only be met if the members of one generation are slaughtered “humanely,” to be replaced by others of their kind, and so on into the indefinite future.


Truth be told, it is wishful thinking to believe that the successful implementation of reforms will abolish animal agriculture. It is far more likely that great numbers of people will continue to eat animal flesh, only now with a clear conscience, a gift, paradoxically, given to them by the well-intentioned reformers.


So, to pose your specific question again: “Is a push for better animal welfare a way of helping society take the next logical step in not using and abusing other animals or does this, as some think, make the use and abuse of other animals acceptable to some?”  


I don’t think ARAs should be working for improved welfare for the prisoners exploited by the animal industrial complex. To make such improvements will only make their exploitation more socially acceptable and, as a result, perpetuate the very evils we oppose. To my way of thinking, as I wrote twenty-five years ago, “to reform absolute injustice is to prolong injustice.”


That said, I do not want to deny the importance that learning about animal suffering has in people’s lives. Remember my previous observations about meeting people who ask me questions I’ve answered hundreds of times? Remember how, when I looked at them, it was like looking in a mirror. 


          Like them, there was a time when I didn’t know how nonhumans were being treated.

          Like them, there was a time when I knew but didn’t care.

          Like them, there was a time when I knew and cared but not enough to change how I was living.

          Like them, there was a time when I was . . . them!


I don’t think ARAs who, like me, are Muddlers should ever forget how in-the-dark we once were. Or how important it was for us in our individual journey to despair over how horribly animals are treated. I know that I would not have become the person I am today if my mind and heart had not opened to find a place for me to acknowledge their suffering and needless death. It’s natural at this stage of Muddler development to want to make the cages bigger, hoping thereby to lessen the pain. Those were among the first steps I took; it was only later that I came to believe the cages did not need to become larger; they needed to become empty.




To outsiders, animal rights advocates look to be a strange lot. We don’t eat meat, avoid cosmetics tested on animals, and boycott Ringling Brothers. Drape ourselves in fur? Forget it. ARAs don’t even wear leather or wool.


Many people view ARAs as certifiable, grade-A, top of the class nut cases. Reduced to its essentials, however, what we believe is just plain common sense.



What ARAs Believe


We believe the animals killed for food, trapped for fur, used in laboratories, or trained to jump through hoops are unique somebodies, not generic somethings. We believe what happens to them matters to them. Why?  Because what happens to them makes a difference to the quality and duration of their life.


In these respects, ARAs believe humans and these animals are the same, are equal. And so it is that all ARAs share a common moral outlook: We should not do to them what we would not have done to us. Not eat them. Not wear them. Not experiment on them. Not train them to jump through hoops. “Not larger cages,” we say, “empty cages.”


“Humane treatment” is the law


Comparatively speaking, few people are ARAs. Why? Part of the answer concerns our disparate beliefs about how often animals are treated badly. ARAs believe this is a tragedy of incalculable proportions. Non-ARAs believe mistreatment occurs hardly at all.


That non-ARAs think this way seems eminently reasonable. Afterall, we have laws governing how animals may be treated and a cadre of government inspectors who make sure these laws are obeyed.


What do our laws require? In the language of our most important federal legislation, the Animal Welfare Act, animals must receive “humane care and treatment.” In other words, animals must be treated with sympathy and kindness, with mercy and compassion, the very meaning of the word ‘humane’. It says so in any standard dictionary.


If things were as bad as ARAs say they are, there should be an enormous amount of inhumane treatment brought to light by government inspectors. Yet this is precisely what government inspectors do not find.


For fiscal year 2001, the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service conducted 12,000 inspections. Of that total, only 140 sites were reported for possible violations because of improper handling of animals. That works out to a compliance rate of almost 99%.


No wonder the general public believes that, with rare exceptions, animals are treated with mercy and kindness, with sympathy and compassion.


APHIS inspections and the myth of “humane care and treatment”


Tragically, the public’s trust in the adequacy of government inspections is misplaced. What APHIS inspectors count as humane undermines the inspections before they are conducted. Consider some examples of what happens to animals in research laboratories.


  • Cats, dogs, nonhuman primates, and other animals are drowned, suffocated, and starved to death.
  • They are burned, subjected to radiation, and used as “guinea pigs” in military research.
  • Their eyes are surgically removed and their hearing is destroyed.
  • They have their limbs severed and organs crushed.
  • Invasive means are used to give them heart attacks, ulcers, and seizures.
  • They are deprived of sleep, subjected to electric shock, and exposed to extremes of heat and cold.


Everyone of these procedures and outcomes complies with the Animal Welfare Act. Each conforms with what APHIS inspectors count as “humane care and treatment.”


It only gets worse


  Per annum, the number of animals used in research laboratories subject to APHIS inspections is estimated to be twenty million. This figure, though large, is dwarfed by the ten billion animals annually slaughtered to be eaten, just in the United States.


Remarkably, farmed animals are explicitly excluded from the legal protection provided the Animal Welfare Act. Here is what the AWA says:


“[In the Animal Welfare Act] the term ‘animal’. . . excludes horses not used for research purposes and other farm animals, such as, but not limited to, livestock or poultry, used or intended for food or fiber . . .”


But if not our government, who decides what humane care and treatment means for farmed animals? In the realpolitik of American animal agriculture, it’s the farmed animal industries who get to write the rules.


And what treatment might the rules allow? Here are some examples.


  • “Veal” calves spend their entire life individually confined to narrow stalls too narrow for them to turn around in.
  • Laying hens live a year or more in cages the size of a filing drawer, seven or more per cage, after which they routinely are starved for two weeks to encourage another laying cycle.
  • Female hogs are housed for four or five years in individual barred enclosures (“gestation stalls”), barely wider than their bodies, where they are forced to birth litter after litter.


Until the recent “Mad Cow” scare, beef and dairy cattle too weak to stand (“downers”) were dragged or pushed to their slaughter.


  • Geese and ducks are force-fed the human equivalent of thirty pounds of food per day to enlarge their liver, the better to meet the demand for Foie gras.


All these conditions and procedures demonstrate the relevant industry’s commitment to mercy and kindness, compassion and sympathy.


Don’t forget the fiber


In the newspeak of the Animal Welfare Act, more than “food” animals fail to qualify as animals. The same is true of any whatcha-ma-call-it “used or intended for fiber.” For leather, for example. Or wool. Or fur. This is fact, not fiction. Fur bearing animals, whether trapped in the wild or raised on fur mills, are exempt from the legal protection, scant though it is, provided by the AWA. As is true of animal agriculture, the fur industry gets to set its own rules and regulations of “humane care.”.


And what might “humane” fur farming or trapping permit? Here are some examples.


  • On fur mills, mink, chinchilla, raccoon, lynx, foxes and other fur bearing animals are confined in wire-mesh cages for the duration of their life.
  • Waking hours are spent pacing back and forth, or rolling their heads, or jumping up the sides of their cages, or mutilating themselves, or cannibalizing their cage mates.
  • Death is caused by breaking their necks, or by asphyxiation (using carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide), or by shoving electric rods up their anus to “fry” them from the inside out.
  • Animals trapped in the wild take fifteen hours on average to die.
  • Trapped fur-bearers frequently chew themselves apart in a futile attempt to save their life.


All perfectly legal; every bit of it in keeping with industry standards for kindness and mercy, sympathy and compassion.


Time to get mad


Those of us of a certain age remember the immortal words of the television announcer Howard Beale, in the film Network. Things are crazy, Beale says. The world is a mess. People need to get mad. Real mad. “I want all of you to get up out of your chairs,” Beale says to his viewers, “go to the window, open it, stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”


People who trust what industry spokespersons and government inspectors tell them about the “humane care and treatment” of animals need to follow Howard Beale’s admonition. They need to get mad as hell, and this, for two reasons.


First, they need to get mad as hell because of how they have been abused. The plain fact is, they haven’t been told the truth. Instead, they’ve been misled and manipulated by industry and government spokespersons. “Not to worry, John and Jane Q. Public. Trust us: All is well at the lab, on the farm, in the wild. Animals are being treated humanely.” Trust us? Not any more, one hopes.


Second, people need to get mad as hell because of how animals are being abused. When the organs of animals are crushed and their limbs are severed; when they are made sick by the food they are forced to eat and spend their entire life alone, in isolation; when they are gassed to death or have their neck broken: no propaganda machine in the world can turn these appalling facts into something they are not.


If the day comes when the general public does get mad as hell, the ranks of animal rights advocates will begin to grow in unprecedented numbers. When this day comes, but not until this day comes, our shared hope for a world in which animals truly are treated humanely finally will have realistic legs to stand on.


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







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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Professor Regan seems to be suggesting that  far more would be achieved if all ARAs were to co-operate and work together.

I'm not sure how this could ever happen when we have orgs like PeTA, Animal Aid, Animals Australia, Animal Equality and Animal LIberation Victoria, who all work for and support different goals and methodologies.

I'm not sure how someone who rejects regulating the exploitation of animals other than humans could ever work with someone like SAFE (New Zealand) for example, while SAFE advocate for bigger cages and less pain, and consider those goals to be end goals.

Then there's the dilemma of those who reject violence and intimidation, working with and supporting those who believe that "the time for civil discourse has expired."

There are so many people who seem to believe, uncompromisingly, that their own methodology, and theirs alone, will lead to the end of the exploitation of other animals. It's difficult to imagine these different "factions" working together toward the same end goal. 


I thought this was a really good and inspiring interview.


I've got a question for Professor Regan (or somebody else who can help). In the interview you mention an article from 1992 written by you and Gary Francione. I couldn't find it anywhere online (although I could find other references to it and I think it was called  "A Movement's Means Create Its Ends"). Would it be possible to get a copy of that article or for you to make it available online?

In 2001, Prof. Regan was interviewed by Claudette Vaughan (originally published in Vegan Voice). The complete transcript is available now at this link. In response to a question then he said:

"ARM activists can be both radical and realistic. On the radical side, we work for empty, not merely larger, cages. On the realistic side, we know that the cages will not be empty tomorrow. The wall of oppression has to be taken apart one brick at a time. We are not going to have every right of every animal respected in one fell swoop; but we can have some rights of some animals respected in an incremental basis. For example, we can pass legislation that prohibits debeaking or face branding of cattle, legislation designed to respect an animal's right to bodily integrity within a system of exploitation even while we cannot thereby end that system of exploitation. Changes like these (incremental rights respecting changes) are the kind of change I support, the kind I think anyone committed to animal rights should support." [emphasis added]

This seems perfectly reasonable to me and I wonder whether Prof. Regan still holds this view. I believe that we can demand justice - and have a strategy aimed to achieve the total liberation of others - while employing tactics which may be only incremental changes within an exploitative system. 

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