To Fish or not to Fish?

One of the happiest discoveries that I ever made in my youth was fishing. I discovered it one summer in the lakes region of central New Hampshire, when I was 12 years old. My grandfather sent me to a little brook to fish for brook trout. The brook was tiny, and when I first saw it I thought “There aren’t any fish in here.” Then I took a step toward the brook, and it happened. Like little streaks of blurred lightning under the rippling, bubbling water, they flashed out in every direction. I was stupefied. I was amazed. I was in awe. And I was hooked. From then on, I was an avid angler.

But now I am having doubts. Over the years I have often thought to myself that if I had to defend our treatment of animals in a debate with a smart critic, I would lose that debate. But until now I have managed to put the issue out of my mind. Then, last week, two things happened. First, Andrew Chignell came to the Center for Philosophic Exchange and gave a talk about the ethics of eating meat. That got me thinking again, and doing some more reading. Second, I discovered a recent book by a biologist named Victoria Braithwaite, entitled Do Fish Feel Pain? I have not read the book yet, but from the reviews that I have read, it sounds like she makes a pretty good case that the answer is “yes.” I plan to read the book soon, and I will tell you if that turns out to be false. In the meantime, I am struggling with this question. If fish do feel pain – if they suffer when I hook them and pull them out of the water, then should I stop fishing? I’m going to share a few open-ended thoughts about it here, and then listen with interest to what the rest of you think.

There is one thing that I feel fairly certain about. Pain is morally significant. If an action causes pain, then that is at least a pro tanto moral reason not to perform that action. So if fish feel pain when I hook them and pull them out of the water, then that is at least a pro tanto moral reason not to fish. I think that I am familiar with most of the standard reasons to discount animal pain, and I find them all unconvincing. They all seem to amount to saying, in one way or another, that “We’re smarter than they are, so their pain doesn’t matter.” My response is that pain hurts just the same, regardless of how smart you are. Of course, I agree that the lack of certain kinds of intelligence precludes the possibility of certain kinds of pain. For instance, if fish do not project very far into their futures, then they probably do not fear death in exactly the same way in which a human being would. But that does not change the fact (if it is a fact) that they feel pain, and that their pain hurts, and that hurting is a bad thing. So I don’t find this whole “we’re smarter” line of argument very helpful in this context. That is not to say that there are no morally relevant differences between human and nonhuman animals. I’m not arguing for that here. My present position is just this: fish pain is a pro tanto reason not to fish, and therefore if fishing is to be justified, then there must be a morally relevant reason for doing it that outweighs this reason not to do it. What could that be?

Robert Nozick once said that his view about animals was “Kantianism for human beings, and utilitarianism for everything else.” Let’s try that out, and see where it goes. I do enjoy fishing. I enjoy it immensely. Is it possible that my enjoyment of fishing is sufficient to outweigh the negative value of fish pain? At this point the problem of interpersonal utility comparisons leaps clearly into view. How could I possibly make a reasonable comparison between the fish’s pain and my enjoyment? Even if I can discern that fish feel pain, how could I measure or quantify it in such a way as to make a comparison with my enjoyment of fishing? I find that extremely difficult to do. Maybe the empirical evidence will help me here. I will find out. But if I cannot make the comparison, then it seems to me that I should err on the side of not causing harm. In that case, it seems that I should forgo fishing. On the other side, however, there is my love of the activity, and the long, personal history that I have with it. That seems to count for something too. But here again, I really don’t know how to weigh it.

Well, as you can see, I am in the throes of this question, with no clear answer. Here is one possibility, which intrigues me. When I think about fishing now, and I imagine catching a fish, the fact that the fish might be feeling pain comes to forefront of my mind. Maybe what I should do is to read the book on fish pain, and then go fishing. If I hook a fish, and I am fully aware of the pain that I am causing, maybe my conscience will tell me what I ought to do. Maybe I should trust my own reaction at that moment. Or should I? I really don’t know.

14 thoughts on “To Fish or not to Fish?

  1. This is a great post. I actually have two sets of comments to make on it, one relatively superficial, the other more philosophical. But I’m swamped right now, trying to get things done before Thanksgiving, so for now I’ll give you the superficial set, and an IOU on the philosophical one.

    The superficial comment is this: In a way, I think your practical problem–to fish or not to fish–has a simple (if superficial) solution. I’m struck by the poetic quality of your discussion of the joys of fishing, but what strikes me is that the poetry concerns the fish, not the activity of fishing. I wonder if you can capture a great deal of what is valuable about the activity without actually putting a hook in the water and hooking any fish. I don’t fish myself, so there may be something about the activity of fishing itself that I’m missing. But I find it interesting that you don’t discuss the activity; you discuss the quasi-aesthetic qualities of watching fish swim in their natural habitat. A naive reader might think: why not go where the fish are, but forego the fishing?

    While I’m making superficial points, let me make two more:

    (1) I am strongly inclined to think that most fish feel pain. In fact, on the face of it, I’m a little puzzled why anyone would be skeptical that they did.

    (2) I’ve been teaching Descartes’ Meditations in an epistemology seminar, and taking classes in counseling psychology as well, so I can’t help thinking about the suggestion in your final paragraph in that context. Your intention to go fishing after reading Braithwaite’s book reminds me a bit of Descartes’ procedure in Meditation 1, and of what goes on in therapy. Descartes adopts the method of systematic doubt to combat the epistemic influence of his ordinary prejudices and inclinations, and clients in therapy give voice to their implicit (often buried) beliefs or desires in a controlled, quasi-experimental setting (to discover what they are). In a sense, you’re doing both things at once. Interestingly, though, Descartes needs six meditations to get to his epistemic destination, and most therapy clients need a bunch as well to get to theirs. By parity of reasoning (sort of): I wonder whether one session of fish therapy will do the trick for you. On the upside, no matter how you choose, you won’t have worries about evil demons–or reimbursement!

    More after Thanksgiving–


    • On second thought, the real point I’m trying to make about your practical suggestion is not that it will take many sessions, but that comparison and contrast of what you’re planning to do with both Descartes’ method and with psychotherapy clarifies the point of doing what you’re planning to do. It explains why fishing-after-reading-Braithwaite’s-book might have a point. Whether resolution of the problem takes one session or many is really incidental to the main point.


    • Thanks so much for these thoughtful comments. I have some family in town, so I only have a minute right now, but here are two quick thoughts. 1. I like your suggestion about experiencing the environment without fishing, and I am exploring the possibility of photographing trout underwater. That would capture some of the other elements of the experience of fishing that I like. 2. I can’t really defend my erstwhile belief about fish pain, except to say that I once read somewhere (and that phrase really says it all) that 98% of a fish’s brain is devoted to vision and audition, so there isn’t much brain power left for processing pain. That’s pretty unconvincing, and you’re right that there’s obvious behavioral evidence to the contrary. And now it looks like neurological evidence as well.


  2. When do we start arresting non-human animals who eat fish?

    What is the negative value _to the human_ of the fish pain (not counting the pain of unearned guilt based on accepting arbitrary moral claims unrelated to the requirements of our lives)?

    Irfan will end up as a straight leftist eventually. American Revolution wasn’t worth fighting, fish have rights. What’s next?


    • Obviously, we start arresting non-human animals who eat fish when the fish ask us to.

      –“911, what is your emergency?”
      –“I’m a salmon, and there’s this big furry thing trying to claw me out of the water where I live.”
      –“Is it safe for you to stay on the line?”
      –“What kind of fucking question is that? Do I sound safe? Would you be safe if a grizzly bear was trying to eat you?”
      –“OK, please stay calm, Mr Salmon. We have your GPS Aquatic Location here, and inter-specific police units are en route to you as we speak.”

      Just to be clear, it’s Gordon Barnes who wrote the post, and it was Gordon who was wondering about the fish, not me. I actually had chicken for dinner tonight.

      I doubt I’ll end up as a straight leftist, but I’ve always had a squishy left-liberal side to me. I started my political life as a garden-variety liberal Democrat–I worked on the Frank Askin campaign for Congress and was a member of the Rainbow Coalition–so if I end up there, I guess it’ll be a bit like coming home. Or do I mean it’ll be like the return of the repressed? Or do I mean both?


    • Several points are relevant here. (1) Non-human animals do not have rational control over their actions, and so they are not responsible for their actions. Therefore they should not be blamed or punished for their actions. By contrast, human beings have rational control, and are responsible for their actions. (2) Many non-human animals that kill other animals cannot live good lives without doing so. So if we prevent them from killing other animals, then we will cause as much pain as we prevent. By contrast, human beings can live very good lives, at least in the modern age, without killing other animals. (3) You know what pain feels like, right? It hurts. You avoid it yourself, and for very good reason. When an animal feels pain, it also hurts. So there is just as good a reason to avoid causing other animals pain as there is to avoid causing yourself pain, and so there is nothing arbitrary about a prohibition on causing animals pain. (4) No one said anything about fish having rights. Not all moral requirements are grounded in rights. I think it would be wrong to destroy the environment just for fun, but it isn’t because the environment has any rights. If you think otherwise, then you need to give us an argument for your view.
      Finally, the tone of your message suggests that you are prioritizing loyalty to a certain point of view, a loyalty that precludes even considering the merits of being a “straight leftist.”. In doing so, I suspect that you are trusting someone else’s reason more than your own, whether you realize it or not, and you are thereby short-changing yourself. Whoever implanted these beliefs in your head doesn’t deserve the slavish allegiance that you are giving them. If, on the contrary, you have your own reasons for your view, then put them out there, and we can discuss them rationally. Otherwise, you’re not respecting your own ability to reason as much as you should.


  3. You are searching for reasons that cut in favor of fishing that are “morally relevant.” This suggests a reason that is not merely personal. But why couldn’t merely personal reasons weigh against (and potentially outweigh) moral reasons? Perhaps your answer to this question is that personal reasons figure into the *morality* of a decision only if morality in some sense “allows it.” Grant that, but it entails something about decision-making only if necessarily universal, specific-desire-independent moral reasons automatically outweigh personal reasons in decision-making. But why suppose this (and are you supposing it)?

    Alternatively, one might hold that the normative force of necessarily universal, specific-desire-independent moral reasons is not relevant to decision-making, though moral reasons come to have the sort of normative force that is relevant to decision-making upon the agent coming to desire to be a moral person or some such. (Maybe moral reasons are hypothetical decision-making-type reasons that are special to the social regulation and training of others (in accordance with morality) that may become actual decision-making-type reasons upon one becoming appropriately engaged in the task of such social regulation and training.) On this sort of picture, as far as deciding what to do is concerned, the relevant reasons all “meet as equals on the same field of play” and what matters is: (a) how important and how replaceable your enjoyment of fishing is to you, (b) what particular way of realizing being a moral person you are committed to (or one otherwise having the right sorts of desires for being moral). Plausibly, being a moral person entails that it is always or almost always objectively best to meet your moral obligations. However, it does not seem to entail anything so specific about the relative importance of personal projects on the one hand and promoting morally good outcomes on the other hand. On this sort of picture, the most important question to answer in order to make your decision might be: what sort of moral person are you committed to being (and do you have sufficient reason to be thus committed)? The answer might be that you don’t know fully what sort of moral person you want to be. In which case, your most fundamental task is that of deciding what sort of moral person you want to be (with a settled answer to this question allowing for a principled answer to the what-to-do question).


    • This is extremely thoughtful and also thought-provoking. At bottom, I think that you are right that the fundamental question here is what kind of moral person I want to be. That seems exactly right to me. Likewise, you’re right that this implicates the question of how to weigh moral reasons and non-moral reasons. I will have to keep thinking about this a lot, but I am finding this helpful already, and here is how. I am sure about this much: I want to be a person who is not indifferent to the pain of other beings. Even more precisely, I would even say that I want to be the kind of person who treats the pain of other beings just as if it were my own pain. To my mind, the alternative is to be indifferent, to some degree, to the pain of other beings, and I confess that I despise that in other people. Indifference to suffering is the one attitude that I find utterly intolerable. So I want to be responsive to the pain of others, as if it were my own pain. Interestingly, that might imply an answer to my question. Suppose that a fish suffers a certain quantity or quality of pain, call it X, when I catch it. If my enjoyment is such that I, myself, would be willing to suffer X in order to get the enjoyment, then perhaps the activity is justified. Now, this argument wouldn’t apply to human beings because it would be a violation of their autonomy to choose for them in this way, without their consent, but fish aren’t autonomous, so I’m not concerned about violating their autonomy. With that said, something about this still seems suspect, in all the ways in which such utilitarian reasoning often is, but I’ll have to keep thinking about it. Thanks so much for these thoughtful comments.


  4. Here’s the more philosophical point I promised. The following seems to me a basic, undeniable and relevant background fact about human survival: there is no way for human beings to thrive at an acceptable level while avoiding the imposition of some harm or pain on animals.

    Some examples: We do so when we build shelters or roads. We do so when we deal with pests that enter our homes. We do so when we farm, both when we create the farms, and then when we keep pests away from the produce. Even if we forswear meat, large-scale farming requires the use of pesticides; the pesticides not only kill animals (causing pain), but have to be tested for efficacy and safety, and the testing takes place, of necessity, on animals (causing pain yet again). We impose pain on animals for purposes of biomedical research.

    Even if we could, through technology, avoid all of the pain-imposition I’ve just mentioned, we couldn’t come to develop such technologies without first relying on animal use (and then developing the technologies indirectly, by reflection on what we know about the case of animals).

    A different way of putting the same point: pre-historic human beings were human beings. At some level, if you accept a realist interpretation of ethics, the same norms applied to them qua human as apply to us. Their survival obviously required the imposition of pain on animals. If so, insofar as our food situation resembles theirs–and I think in some significant respects, it does–it has to be permissible to impose some pain on animals. The relevant similarity is that whether we’re talking pre-historic or modern humans, we have certain objective needs, and there is no plausible causal route to those needs that bypasses the need to impose pain on animals. That’s just the human predicament, and even if we get beyond it, it will remain part of the human past.

    The general principle here, I think, is this: The more central something is to human survival and flourishing, the more morally acceptable it is to impose pain on animals to secure it, as long as there aren’t alternative means of securing the same (kind of) good. The less central something is, the less acceptable.*

    The principle applies as follows to fishing. Fishing for recreation falls beneath the threshold of something’s being central to human survival or flourishing. As you said in a previous post, there are alternatives to it. Fishing for food is acceptable insofar as fish is a distinctively nutritious or healthy sort of food–especially in cases where fish are plentiful and other kinds of food are hard to obtain. I’m inclined to think, on those grounds, that fishing-for-food is generally acceptable. If the production of any kind of food–including vegetables–requires the imposition of some pain on some animals, I don’t see anything wrong with imposing pain on fish to eat them.

    There’s room for debate about what counts as an acceptable level of survival and flourishing for humans that justifies the imposition of x quantity of pain on animals, but I don’t think it’s disputable that extreme fastidiousness about the imposition of pain would have unacceptably high costs for human survival and flourishing.

    *I mean: the less central the human need, the less acceptable to impose relatively intense pain; the amount of pain we can permissibly impose varies with the centrality of the need.


    • This is a really interesting argument, and much of it seems right to me. I haven’t always been a moral realist, but lately I’m inclined back in that direction. Ok, but here is where I think I get off the boat. I would accept this principle: if causing animal pain is necessary, in the circumstances, for a human being to live a good life, then causing animal pain is permissible in those circumstances. And I agree that that principle was true for our ancestors, and is true for us as well. But when we go to apply that principle, it yields different verdicts for us and for our ancestors. Whereas our ancestors needed to cause animals pain in order to live a good life, it’s not clear that we do. Now, at this point, I remember your point that we do, in fact, cause animals pain with a whole host of actions. Ok, that seems right. For every such action, I’m inclined to agree that if we need to perform it in order to live good lives, then it’s permissible. But now I’m inclined to say that this won’t justify my fishing unless I really need to fish in order to live a good life. Hmm. I’ll have to think about this more. I do think that the analogy between the other actions that we participate in and my fishing, with respect to both necessity for a good life and causing animal pain, is a good one. So this might just help. Thanks a ton for the thoughts.


  5. Here’s yet another unphilosophical contribution to this discussion by yours truly, but I just encountered a passage in a novel I was reading that I can’t resist quoting. One of the characters in the novel, Mrs Tulliver, has just badly misread the motivations of another character, Mr Wakem. The narrator remarks:

    These were the mental conditions on which Mrs Tulliver had undertaken to act persuasively, and had failed: a fact which may receive some illustration from the remark of a great philosopher, that fly-fishers fail in preparing their bait so as to make it alluring in the right quarter from want of a due acquaintance with the subjectivity of fishes. (George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, II.7, last paragraph).

    I guess if the philosopher is Gordon, the lesson they learn is that a due acquaintance with the subjectivity of fishes is incompatible with being a fly-fisher! The passage is a kind of interesting anticipation of Nagel’s asking what it’s like to be a bat. But Eliot wrote that in 1860, contemporaneously with Mill’s Utilitarianism and On Liberty. It hadn’t occurred to me that writers back then used phrases like “the subjectivity of fishes,” or thought much about it.


  6. Some ethical guidelines seem as if they must be universal. All creatures have drives to avoid pain, injury, and death (by extension–whether or not they are capable of conceptualizing “death”); to make their seed or eggs available for uniting and growing into like creatures–and for many to mate physically–hence (by extension) “reproduce”; and to take necessary materials from their surroundings (for land animals, to breathe, drink, and eat). All creatures live only by the (partial) sufferance of others, i.e. all our lives are dependent on the deaths of other creatures (how else could things be in a world of finite size and resources?). Homo Sapiens are a species able to recognize these commonalities and, sometimes at least, to empathize on that basis not only with our families, friends, communities, or even all human beings, but with other species. Is this not a basis for trying, at least, to formulate ethical principles with respect to non-human creatures?


  7. Pingback: New Blogger: Hendrik Van den Berg | Policy of Truth

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