I've been thinking about consistency lately in connection with integrity, and Mark Rowland's visit to EKU got me thinking again in a more active way about animals.
On p. 131 of The Philosopher and the Wolf, he says of veganism that "it's the only consistent moral position on animals." This is something I've heard before, and I didn't think to press him on this during his visit, as I was more interested in his views on animals as moral subjects. But I'm not sure that the claim is true. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it's both false and misleading (with all due respect to Mark!).
First, it seems that other views about our relations to, and uses of, animals could be consistent, though the vegan might think those views are unsound. I think of something I overheard a local cattle farmer say at a farmers' market one summer morning: "God put them here for us." Now, this person doesn't think that means that anything goes, and his cattle are locally raised, on pasture (but I think fed some grain), slaughtered locally, and sold locally. From a bioregionalist perspective (as well as the theological one), there's a lot of "consistency" in this kind of agriculture. When I'm in an environmentalist mood, I think I should buy his beef instead of lentils imported from God knows where. But I still buy the lentils; I've been off the beef long enough now that I don't find it appetizing, even though fast food still smells good in the abstract. At any rate, I don't think this farmer is in any obvious way inconsistent. He might be wrong, but that's another matter.
Second, and this connects to the first point, there are going to be different ways of drawing lines between the morally edible and the morally inedible (and the morally instrumentalizable and the morally non-instrumentalizable). Sentience is one way of drawing that line, and I can accept that sentience is morally significant. But being a living thing is arguably a morally significant distinction, but not one we could use in deciding what is and is not morally edible. As my jokey title suggests, if a certain kind of panpsychism were true (so that plants are sentient, too), then we couldn't use sentience to draw that line anymore either. So, there's nothing essential about our drawing the line at sentience. (That doesn't mean it isn't the most reasonable line given the way the world is, of course.) But this gets at a point that others have made, which is that the feasibility of veganism is itself contingent upon one's circumstances and place in the world. Even Rowlands acknowledged that he had to go pescatarian when he moved to southern France; veganism was just not an option. Supposing that bioregionalism represented the most sustainable way of living, then there would likely be bioregions where animal agriculture would be more viable than vegan alternatives. Thus, a hidden assumption of the consistency claim on behalf of veganism is that sentience is the only relevant value at stake in determining the morally edible.
I think the truth in the claim is that if you think you shouldn't be eating cows, for example, then depending upon your reasons for thinking that, you probably shouldn't be wearing cow either, or playing catch with a cow-mitt (or, mutatis mutandis, tossing around a pigskin). Though perhaps a leather jacket would be a nice way to commemorate the years of milk your cow Bessie gave you. Hard to say; that might just be macabre.
Of course, vegans, I take it--at least of a certain sort--forgo all animals and animal products. But the line between animal and non-animal is (a) vague and (b) doesn't obviously track the sentient/non-sentient distinction (and what "sentient" means is up for grabs, too). My wife insists that we eat fish occasionally, though I tend not to go in for it myself (occasional sushi aside), but I will eat boiled shrimp with abandon. But not boiled lobster--too macabre for me. Now these are both crustaceans, and they have similar kinds of nervous systems. They have nervous systems. They produce opioids (which help control pain in us). So maybe I'm being inconsistent. (And I honestly don't know how sustainable shrimp is, but at some point I have to stop deliberating, so that I can eat, so that I can deliberate more later...[UPDATE: the news on shrimp doesn't look good...]) The consistent thing to do might be to be safe rather than sorry.
What did Elizabeth Costello say? "Degrees of obscenity." That's not an excuse. But if we really want to push the limits of moral considerability, then a certain kind of consistency becomes less and less livable. This is why some complain about expansive conceptions of intrinsic value and moral considerability that want to be extremely inclusive. (I think that complaint misses the point.) At the limit, consistency might mean owning up to the fact that some things die so that others may live. Maybe the "only consistent position" is being mindful that you don't cause more death than the continuation of your life, in the whole balance, is worth. And maybe cultivating a kind of mindfulness about our use of animals (and other living and non-living things) that doesn't just add up to a persistent feeling of neurosis and guilt that only destroys you, or makes it impossible for others to live with you. (Cf. Elizabeth Costello.)