I Felt Compassion for a Fish. What Will the Neighbors Say?
The covert battle between the ethical and the conventional.
I’ve been thinking about fish lately. I am not a fan of fish as food. I love cheap kaiten sushi and my Mum’s pike and carrots in foil. But that’s it, all other fish is yuck.
My Dad’s not a fan of fish as food either. But he loves fishing. A few days ago I woke up to our WhatsApp chat filled with big, dead, bloody fish he had caught that morning. He looked so happy and proud.
But my heart skipped a beat. I had no idea if the fish had suffered, but their deaths sure looked painful to me.
It turns out, fish are sentient beings that can and do experience fear and pain.¹
Now here’s the thing. I felt compassion for the fish. I cringed when I imagined eating them. And then I felt like an idiot, and that made me wonder.
If I dispassionately examined my feelings towards the dead fish, I would conclude that they were sensible and warranted, even if a little unusual. I am a living being. Fish are living beings. These fish died a terrifying, excruciating death so that my Dad could have a bit of fun after weeks under mind-numbing lockdown. And then they were dissected, cooked, and eaten. This could probably be considered wrong on several grounds. Killing a sentient being. Inflicting unnecessary pain and fear on a sentient being. Eating a sentient being. Deriving pleasure from inflicting pain. Inflicting pain for the sole purpose of deriving pleasure.
I don’t know if all these actions were wrong. But I am pretty sure they were not all right. (I became a vegetarian because Dr Greger convinced me, not because I reflected on the morality of eating animals. So my insights into the ethics of carnivory are rather limited.)
The thing that made me wonder, however, was not my compassion for the dead fish. Instead, it was the ridicule and scorn I imagined immediately after. For a moment there, I felt ashamed of worrying about such a trifle. Shut up and eat your fish, scolded my hippocampus.
So here’s the question: was that feeling a learned — yet wrong — reaction that I should ignore? Or should I take heed because behind it there’s a deeper meaning that I am missing? I’m pretty sure it’s the former. And yet it’s fascinating how powerful in-built societal reproaches can be.
¹ Here’s a paper from 2004 that, upon reviewing the scientific evidence for the existence of sentience in fish (and in particular focusing on pain, fear, and stress), concluded that fish are likely to be sentient. Another review paper from 2015 suggested not only that fish are sentient, but that “fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates”.