Subject of a Life
The phrase subject of a life
was popularised by the American philosopher and animal rights advocate Tom Regan (1938 - 2017). What Regan means by subject of a life is that each animal is a unique life story, just as the story of your life is peculiar to you and no one else, and in this sense animals are like us. The expression subject of a life helps convey to us a feeling for how individuals of other species are similar to us; we are all individuals in our own right going through the process of life.
Regan says we must change our perception of animals from things to animals with lives of their own. We are all subjects of a life. Photo: Rainer Ebert.
Regan says we need to change our perception of animals from things - objects we use - to animals with lives of their own, independent of us and our use of them. An animal who is a subject of a life is a singular individual, has interests, learns from experience, has expectations that certain things will happen, has emotions like fear and pleasure, has painful and pleasurable experiences, and has a good or bad life. As Regan says, "All animals are somebody - someone with a life of their own." He says that even if subjects of a life cannot make moral choices or talk like humans, "what happens to them matters to them", so they should have moral rights.
"Surely every sentient being is capable of leading a life that is happier or less miserable than some alternative life, and hence has a claim to be taken into account." Peter Singer. Applied Ethics. 1986:227.
Although Regan has mammals in mind, you could extend the idea of being a subject of a life to all sentient creatures, and that would at least take into account birds, as well as many other species, like cephalopods.
A criticism of the idea of subject of a life
is that the features describing it, like interests, learning and expectations, are arbitrarily chosen, so that you can add or subtract features subjectively to include or exclude species to suit your bias. Also, why stop at sentient creatures? Are not snails subjects of a life, too? Subject of a life
is a sympathetic and vivid metaphor but does not bear up to examination too closely. But then nor do any ideas in ethics. Nevertheless, we can still appreciate many worthy ideas generally that are problematic when examined in detail.
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