Thomas Howard Regan
1938 - 2017
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Thomas Howard Regan


Tom Regan, the American moral philosopher whose work championed animal rights, died on Friday, February 17, 2017. The cause was complications from Parkinson's disease, which he had battled bravely for several years. He was 78.

In 1983 Regan published the groundbreaking book, The Case for Animal Rights, and soon was traveling the world defending its argument against critics from all corners, including the United States Congress and the British Parliament. Often introduced as "the father of animal rights," this son of Pittsburgh working class parents could not have foreseen his rise to such intellectual prominence. In his youth, he took a job as a butcher and went to Thiel College with his mind on playing halfback for the football team.

In stark contrast to his meat-and-potatoes upbringing, he took an unforeseen turn and became a vegan as an adult. As he told the story, three events influenced his thinking. First, he and his wife, Nancy, were deeply affected by the death of their dog, Gleco. A philosopher by temperament as well as training, Regan wondered why he was not affected by the deaths of the cows and pigs that provided him with meat in the same way that he mourned the loss of their pet. If all so-called "food animals" are also (what he would later describe as) "subjects-of-a-life," shouldn't we respect and care for them in the way we do our companion animals?

Second, during the Vietnam War, Regan joined with his students in protest and guided them through discussions of Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence. His 1960s activism led him both to pacifism and to veganism. He came to believe that we are wrong to assume that we are justified in using animals as means to our ends.

Third, Regan met philosopher Peter Singer in 1973 and three years later they co-edited an anthology, Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Regan and Singer are often tagged together as founders of the animal rights movement, but only Regan actually believed in moral rights for animals. The utilitarian commitments of his friend Singer, wrote Regan, were objectionable and kept Singer from endorsing Regan's view. Dr. Regan found the implications of consequentialist ethics untenable. He defended a strong, deontological version of the position, thus earning him the aforementioned title, "the father of animal rights." However, he rejected the appellation more than once, objecting that it carried the implication that someone had given rights to animals. We do not give rights to individuals, he was fond of saying. Rather, we discover they had rights all along.

Regan's view has practical, and radical, implications for contemporary society. He spent the latter part of his career explaining and defending the abolitionist case against using animals in scientific research, hunting, zoos, circuses, and food.

Regan wrote or edited more than 30 books. They include Bloomsbury's Prophet: G.E. Moore and the Development of his Moral Philosophy (1986) and Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (2003). A festschrift of essays written to honor him, The Moral Rights of Animals, appeared last year.

His work was criticized by leading figures in the academy. However, such a reception is a badge of honor among philosophers who sometimes seem to evaluate the strength of their views by the reputations of the people who disagree with them. Asked about the controversial nature of his views at a Bioethics Institute in Lisbon, Portugal, Regan responded by saying that he sometimes felt like one of those plastic clown figures that children punch and tip over. The clown, he reminded the audience with a grin, always pops right back up.

Even those least inclined to accept Regan's conclusions found his work worthy of investigation. And many were convinced. Here is how one colleague assessed Regan's achievements:

Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Bentham, Mill: all thought seriously about the role of animals in our lives. But not until Tom Regan published The Case for Animal Rights did the world possess a theory of the rights of animals. When philosophy students come to this issue hundreds of years from now, they will read the greats in light of the arguments presented here.

After earning a doctoral degree from the University of Virginia, Regan began teaching at North Carolina State University in 1967 and served as Department Head in the late 1990s. A charismatic teacher beloved by his students, he won numerous awards for excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching.

In 2000, North Carolina State University gave Regan the highest honor it can bestow upon one of its faculty, the William Quarles Holladay Medal. At his retirement in 2001, the University Library established the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive, the first such archive in the world. In it is a copy of the Utne Reader that names him one of "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World."

Despite his academic bona fides, Dr. Regan was never content in the ivory tower. He and his wife Nancy founded and directed the Culture & Animals Foundation. Since 1985, the organization has awarded grants in support of individuals who advance the understanding, appreciation and treatment of non-human animals.

In recent years, Regan returned to his lifelong interest in fiction writing and self-published two books of short stories, Maud's Place and Other Southern Stories and A Better Life and Other Pittsburgh Stories.

With Tom, conversation could flow from the subtleties of Kant and Moore's philosophies to his golf swing going south. Despite his academic preeminence, he was quick to laugh and always the life of the party. Give him some great jazz, a good Scotch, and a nine iron, and you'd think you were speaking with a PGA pro. It's safe to say he was one of the few philosophers with a Steelers bumper sticker proudly displayed on his car.

At his core, Regan was first and foremost a family man. He is survived by his wife Nancy, son Bryan Regan, daughter Karen Regan, four grandchildren, and sister, Catherine French.


A celebration of Tom Regan's life will be held on March 4th from 3-5pm at Tir Na Nog Irish Pub in downtown Raleigh. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the Culture & Animals Foundation, 3509 Eden Croft Drive, Raleigh, NC 27612.

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Published in The News and Observer on Feb. 26, 2017.
Celebration of Life
03:00 - 05:00 PM
Tir Na Nog Irish Pub
Memories & Condolences
Guest Book sponsored by Cremation Society of the Carolinas
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10 entries
February 15, 2020
I continue to be so grateful to have had Dr. Regan as a treasured teacher at NC State. May his loved ones find comfort in knowing that he touched so many lives, and that his legacy lives on in the wiser and more thoughtful choices that I try to make everyday to help make the world a kinder and more just place.
Christie Mabry
November 12, 2017
I'm so sorry to learn of Dr. Regan's passing. Although I only took 2 or 3 philosophy courses with him, he was one of my favorite professors at State back in the early 1970s. I actually played golf with him a couple of times along with my friend and fellow student, Mike Johnson. RIP, Dr. Regan.
Hal Chapple
March 5, 2017
Tom was one of my very favorite professors at NC State. He changed the way that I think about a number of contemporary moral issues...something that was a catalyst for my life of social and political activism. When I turned in my first so-so paper, he looked right at me and said "you are better than this." I will never forget this and his urging for me to find my best voice and to be an active and compelling force in the world. I am so sorry for your loss. I hope that you are comforted by the fact that he touched so many and that he lives on our hearts and memories. Christie Mabry
Christie Mabry
March 3, 2017
I met Tom about 35 years ago, when I became an animal rights activist and vegetarian. Like many of us, when he could, he would stand in the rain, the freezing cold or whatever the elements, to protest rodeos, the Dixie Deer Classic, etc. He was an endless source of information and support; brilliant but humble and never supercilious; with an enviable sense of optimism. Look how far we've come, Tom! I hope you know what an influence you had -- and probably will continue to have through your writings -- on so many of us.

Tom's life was indeed one to be celebrated. My thoughts are with his family and his many friends and colleagues.
Barbara Magram
March 3, 2017
He was instrumental in my evolving thinking about animals and their rights. I am proud to be an animal rights activist and vegan, and his message helped me to find and stay on that path. I wrote to him once with a question about a speech he had given, and he wrote to me immediately, with great kindness and assistance.
Vicki Seglin
February 28, 2017
It was a rare privilege to work with Tom. He was a gentleman and a scholar, a fine philosopher, the most congenial of colleagues, and a real inspiration. My deepest condolences to Nancy and the rest of the family.
Barbara Levenbook
February 27, 2017
We see you, Tom!
Tom ... Feeling your Love and your power as you have been transitioning. Thank you for gracing my life with your passion. Thank you for all your Yeses and how they impacted my life and the world. And, thank you for the Yes you gave the National Alliance for Animals back in the '80s. Your leadership will always be emblazoned in my heart. Beautiful to know you are freely dancing with All of our Earth's BeLoveds -- both the 2- and the 4-leggeds. How is Gleco?!! : ) Syndee
Syndee (Brinkman) Eartheart
February 26, 2017
It was an honor to be taught philosophy by Dr. Reagan.
my deepest sympathies,
Kimberley Jones Swain
Kimberley Swain
February 26, 2017
Meeting Dr. Tom Regan, along with his wife Nancy remains a highlight. What a treat it was to spend some time in the company of this brilliant, yet humble and gracious moral pioneer. He was that rare public figure that is the complete "package". Tom will always be one of my greatest inspirations. My sincere condolences to Nancy and the family on their loss. Love. Larry Brown and Cherie Beck
February 22, 2017
I met Tom when he was just getting started at NCSU, and I was a confused under achieving jock, taking a required introduction to philosophy course. Suddenly someone was making me really think. I then chose to major in philosophy; he became my academic adviser, and 30 some years ago, I gave up meat. I am no scholar, but he had a major impact on my life, and I am forever in his debt. All my best to the family.
Ed Vennik
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