Subject-of-a-life

This paper summarizes Tom Regan’s theory of “subject-of-a-life” then through critical analysis of his main criteria examines how reasonable each criterion is in determining a “subject-of-a-life”. Regan’s theory is then tested on a specific ethical dilemma to see how applicable it is to everyday situations.

Tom Regan formulates an environmental ethics for animals using a concept he calls, a “subject-of-a-life”. To determine what is a “subject-of-a-life”, Regan uses a list of criteria to check if an individual is a “subject-of-a-life”. Under the criterion laid out by him, any being which fulfills the criterion would have inherent value and should not be seen or treated as receptacles.[i] The criteria are used to make that which has inherent value something which is more than just alive and conscious. One weakness of his criteria, however, is that he does not provide any rationale for them. He simply rejects that being alive and conscious is sufficient for providing something with inherent value without any justification for doing so. Furthermore, he provides no evidence as to why he chooses the criteria that he does. This lack of explanation weakens his argument, in that he does not initially show why being alive and conscious are not sufficient in determining what has inherent value.

There are four main criteria Regan uses in determining what is a “subject-of-a-life” and therefore has inherent value. The individual must have beliefs and desires, must have an emotional life, must have the same psychophysical criteria over time, and must care for the well-fare of their life.[ii]

The first mentioned is that of beliefs and desires. With regards to the belief aspect of the criteria, although it may seem reasonable, it would be extremely difficult to properly test. There are those in the epistemological community who could argue that we can not know if other people even have beliefs. Simply because someone is acting a certain way does not indicate we can know what their beliefs are or if they even have any. When looking at other people we assume that they must have beliefs, but no one has conclusively shown this to be true. Furthermore, even if other people do have beliefs the fact that people often go against their beliefs, in the case of someone on a diet eating pizza, questions the value and purpose of having such a criterion in the first place. The difficulties associated with this criterion are present among humans when looking at other animals which we cannot communicate with, the criteria of belief would be far too difficult to test for. Until it is shown how to test an animal to determine if it possesses a belief, Regan should abandon the belief criteria.

The desire criterion is just as troubling. It seems reasonable to assume that whatever an animal does on its own fruition, it desires to do. Someone might argue though that this is not necessarily true, animals are just going on instinct and so they do not really desire anything. If someone were working with the base assumption that one cannot have instinctual desires and that all animals have are instincts, the criteria would be impossible to pass. Regan must have had instinctual desires in mind as desires able to pass this criterion, or it would be extremely difficult to show that any animal could every pass, making the criteria too strong. Taking instinctual desires into account creates an opposite problem. Instead of a criterion too strong it becomes too weak. If instinctual desires are sufficient for fulfilling the criteria, it puts into question the ability of a conscious, alive being to fail this test. The reason for this is that if an animal were alive and conscious, it would at the very least have a desire to live. Thus, while the belief criterion is too strong, the desire criteria is too weak, nothing alive and conscious could fail it. If nothing can fail it, why test for it?

Regan’s next criterion is that in order to be “subject-of-a-life” it must be the case that the individual has emotional life. This includes things such as perception, memory, and a sense of the future. Of the four criteria, this one seems the least controversial. It seems that there are clear ways in which to test for these things without allowing every individual to pass or forcing them all to fail.

The third criterion Regan uses is that the individual must have a psychophysical identity over time. The individual must have continuous psychological experiences associated with the same body. The trouble with this is that it may rule out individuals with schizophrenia. Those who suffer from schizophrenia would not have a continuous psychological experience with the same body. They would have several psychological experiences with the same body. Hard to imagine that Regan thought that those with schizophrenia lack inherent value, but this aspect was certainly overlooked when developing this criterion.

The final criterion includes preference and welfare interests. The individual must care if their experiential life is good or bad. This is a good criterion in that it allows individuals to determine their own value, not others. If someone chooses not to care about their life then that is their choice, hopefully, an informed one. At the same time, it protects people from others determining what standard of life the person should live up to. It takes care of the messy standards of living judgments by leaving it in the hand of the individual affected the most and not some other party.

Once an individual has fulfilled these four criteria, Regan believes that they are “subject-of-a-life” and have inherent value. Individuals with inherent value are of equal value to everyone else who has inherent value, and no additional weight is given to someone over the other.[iii] Everyone is treated as having morally equal weight. The biggest problem though of Regan’s attempt to provide animal rights is that this “subject-of-a-life” is too abstract to be of help in specific situations where it would need to be applied. Not only are many of the criteria questionable as to how it counts towards providing an individual with inherent value, but it is even harder to imagine how most of the testing could be done. This is clear when having to use Regan’s theory to determine whether to save a pet dog or a comatose old man from a burning house.

How would the dilemma of having to save either your pet dog or a comatose old man be resolved under Regan’s theory of “subject-of-a-life”? In order to solve this dilemma the first step would be to test each individual against the criteria Regan provides. This will determine if both parties are to be weighed equally. If either pass or both fail the criteria then they will have the same amount of inherent value and one could not be weighed against the other. Only if one passes and the other fails would a clear answer be provided to the situation. Furthermore, it seems that Regan takes all of the criteria to be necessary and only all of them together with sufficient in determining who is “subject-of-a-life”. It is unlikely with all the difficulties in the criteria already mentioned, and that each criterion is necessary that a clear solution could be found.

When dealing with the comatose old man, it is reasonable to view him as someone who is asleep. Being in a coma is often described as being asleep, and by looking at it this way it would be helpful in evaluating the situation since it is then possible to draw on some personal understanding of what the old man is experiencing. If the old man is looked at as being asleep, then he would seemingly fail the desire criteria and perhaps depending on what one considers a belief, the belief criteria. The desire criterion fails because, in a state of unconsciousness, such as sleep or in a coma, the individual does not experience any desire. Only basic body function is maintained, nothing at the level needed for a desire. Whether there are beliefs is more difficult to determine. It can be argued that if someone has a belief prior to the unconscious state they enter, then they keep that belief with them at least until they exit the state of unconsciousness. Even if this were accepted the old man would still have failed the desire part. The old man also does not pass the second criterion of an emotional life either, since he does not have any sense of the future, nor could he have a sense of perception. Neither of these is present while someone is asleep, and so they are also not available to someone in a coma. The third criterion, psychophysical identity over time, is the only criteria the old man would pass. He maintains a psychophysical identity over time, just as it would be said someone asleep does not lose their psychophysical identity, nor does it make something to any meaningful degree non-continuous.  The final criterion of preference and well-fare interests also seems to indicate that the old man does not have inherent values. When someone is asleep it would be hard to say that they have a preference and well-fare interests. It seems more reasonable that the person is in such a state that they cannot make a preference, thus failing the final criterion as well. The comatose old man fails most of the criteria, and therefore he has no inherent value according to Regan.

The problem with the comatose old man failing the criteria should seem clear. If someone in a coma fails to have inherent value, what does that mean for people who go to sleep at night and enter into a similar state of mind as the old man in the coma? This is clearly a problem Regan needs to address. One possible response might be that in the instance of someone in a coma, them coming out of that state is largely unknown, whereas it is reasonable to assume people will wake up after falling asleep. How this makes a difference is unclear though, and something Regan needs to examine.

Does a dog have inherent value? Regan does not provide enough evidence on how to test for things such as beliefs, desires, and whether or not the individual cares about their well-being. This is a problem when dealing with animals since it really boils down to guesswork, due to the communication barrier. It is difficult to comprehend how we could ever know that another animal has beliefs. Because it fails the very first criterion, belief, it must be concluded that under Regan’s theory of “subject-of-a-life” a dog does not have inherent value. When balancing a choice between a member of one’s own species to that of another, when they are of equal inherent value, in this case, no inherent value, it must be that the right choice is to choose the old comatose man.

Tom Regan wants to use “subject-of-a-life” theory to show what does and does not have inherent value in order to protect animals. He does not feel that something which is merely alive and conscious is enough to grant an individual with inherent value and this is where he first goes wrong. Many of the criteria used in determining “subject-of-a-life” require tests which may not even be possible or can be tested but virtually everything would pass or fail it puts into question the need for it in the first place. The most troubling part is that his theory is far too broad to implement in a practical setting where someone may have to make a quick decision. Despite all the difficulties with the “subject-of-a-life” theory it should not be abandoned altogether. Regan is at least on the right track, attempting to provide animals with some degree of protection.

[i] Tom Regan. The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p.321

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

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