Tracing an Animal-Rights Philosophy

Article excerpt

Tom Regan didn't start out worrying about the rights of the furry and finned to live a full and happy life. As a young man growing up in gritty Pittsburgh, he earned his cash from butchering meat in a store.

Today, some 40 years later, Mr. Regan is firmly on the other side of the farmyard fence. His day job is as a professor at North Carolina State University, but he's also a devoted vegan, philosopher, filmmaker, and author. And he's become known as an intellectual firebrand for the animal-rights movement - a once- esoteric subject that is now common in philosophy departments from Harvard to Stanford.

Regan's extensive archive of drafts, notes, and memorabilia - "a time slice of the conversations about animal rights over the past 40 years," as he calls them - went on display last week at N.C. State's D.H. Hill Library. When the exhibit closes, his will become the first animal-rights annals ever included in a public university's permanent collection.

"The animal-rights movement has been around long enough to start becoming a ... historical subject in and of itself," says Bernard McTigue, head of special collections at N.C. State. He acknowledges that it's a sensitive issue, especially for a land-grant university whose roots are intertwined with agriculture, but adds, "We're not advocating animal rights; we're simply documenting a cultural and social phenomenon."

Regan's decision to forgo meats and cheeses is not rooted in a sense that animals have a soul. Instead, it's that they are, in many ways, on the earth for the same reasons as humans.

"The animals that we raise for food or trap for fur are like us in fundamental ways," says the gray-bearded professor. "They are in the world, they're aware of the world, they're aware of what happens to them as beings in the world.... They have a life whose quality matters to them, just like you and me."

Often called the intellectual leader of the animal-rights movement, Regan "is the foremost philosopher in this country in the field of the moral status of nonrational animals," says Bob Bryan, former chairman of the N.C. State Philosophy and Religion Department.

Regan has lectured from Stockholm to Melbourne about the importance of recognizing animals as part of the evolving field of ethics. His books, "The Case for Animal Rights" and "In Defense of Animal Rights," are widely acknowledged as having cemented the roots of the modern animal rights movement in academia.

To be sure, vegetarianism harks back to Plato and Plutarch. And in America, the first cruelty busts happened in the late 19th century in New York. But society viewed animals largely as chattel, until Regan and a handful of other philosophers (including Peter Singer, a controversial professor at Princeton) pushed animal- rights issues into the academic mainstream.

Indeed, this academic focus has dramatically altered how Americans approach the ethics of husbandry, some observers say. Once-radical ideas have been firmly woven into society: Today, you can find vegetarian platters at rural hospitals, unthinkable 10 years ago. …