Saturday, December 03, 2011

If panpsychism is true, then vegans are screwed

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.)


  1. Interesting blog!

    I imagine most vegetarians don't abstain from meat because they'd want to be consistent. I don't eat either lobsters or shrimps, but that's not in order to be consistent with some other principle, but because I'm sure they have better things to do than be my food.

    I've thought of Costello's remark 'Degrees of obscenity' as an attempt to say that it's not her consistency that is important to talk about. If we talk about consistency, we actually fail to talk about animals and instead, turn back to ourselves.

  2. Thanks, Be. That's a nice point about Costello. What you say about "most vegetarians" is interesting, because it suggests that those who argue for vegetarianism on the basis of making oneself consistent (I think Singer does some of this, as well as Mylan Engel, Jr.) may be framing the issue in a misleading way. In their defense, I think what they're doing is trying to crack the defenses of those who think they don't have reasons not to eat meat, and Singer and Engel want to show that most people already have the relevant beliefs to support abstention from meat.

    As for your thinking that lobsters and shrimp have better things to do than be your food, doesn't it also depend (as I think my post suggests) that you also have other things to eat?

  3. Oh,I missed this answer; must figure out a way of making blogspot tell me when people respond!

    So anyway: yes, Singer, and many with him, do talk about consistency. And as you say, it's probably a way of saying to others that they too have reason to think about why they eat animals (or eat some and not others). But then, I don't know how representative they are of vegetarians - or better, even if that is a common way of explaining one's vegetarianism, I think the way many vegetarians live kind of 'contradicts' the consistency argument. For example in that many people are reluctant to eat animals who have died of 'natural causes' (accidents e.g.; this is something Cora Diamond draws attention to in one of her texts). And consistency is only *form* - to make sense at all morally, we'd have to think of a matter as related to at least something beyond that. What I mean is that if the only 'reason' I treat you with respect is that I also treat your colleague with respect, then something is amiss.

    Regarding the shripms and lobsters; yes, in a sense that depends on me having something else for food. That's true for anything, I suppose. But even if my dog were the 'only thing' around to eat - I would be very reluctant. 'Food' is not an automatic category and sometimes not a category at all, yet extreme conditions sometimes put everything on its head. But then, that could fairly be called cannibalism. ;)