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.