Food, Fads and Fish: Eating Nemo

What's with vegetarians who eat fish?

Posted Apr 12, 2012

Here’s something I hear a lot when dietary restrictions are discussed prior to ordering food at a restaurant “I’m vegetarian, but I eat fish.” This is an interesting claim that bears further reflection. Prima facie, at least, the claim looks dubious along a number of dimensions.  On a purely trivial note one might object that since the meaning of the word “vegetarian” is someone who does not eat animal flesh, and since fish are animals, one cannot be a vegetarian and eat fish. One might just as well assert that one is a bachelor, it is just that one happens to be married.

There is a perfectly good term for people who eat fish, but not land animals: pescetarians. But while misuse of terms can be annoying, it would hardly be much of an indictment of someone who claimed that they were a vegetarian who eats fish, to point out that in fact they are a pescetarian. What is rather more interesting is the status of pescetarianism.

For any dietary decision there are both moral and non-moral reasons to make that decision. Thus there are moral and non-moral forms of vegetarianism. One’s vegetarianism is non-moral if the reasons one has to adopt that diet are non-moral reasons. For instance, such reasons would include aesthetic preferences (one dislikes the taste of animal flesh) or health concerns (one believes that eating animal flesh is not healthy) or economic reasons (one finds the cost of animal flesh prohibitive) or any of many other non-moral reasons. One’s vegetarianism is moral if one’s reasons for adopting the diet are moral reasons. For instance if one thinks one has a moral reason to preserve the environment and one thinks vegetarianism is more environmentally friend of sustainable, or if one thinks one has moral reason to avoid suffering, and one thinks that farming and slaughtering animals causes suffering, or one of a host of other moral reasons.

There is nothing puzzling about non-moral pescetarianism. One could clearly have non-moral reasons to eat (at least some) fish but no land animals. It is moral pescetarianism that is perplexing.

Could there be grounds for adopting moral pescetarianism? To answer that question we’d need to know what sorts of moral reasons are relevant in determining which diet to adopt. For simplicity, let us suppose that these reasons fall into two rough camps. The first of these are environmental reasons. Consider the following case. Some of the dry and delicate areas of Australia, running cattle causes immeasurable land degradation. The existence of kangaroos on that land does not cause degradation since they are adapted to live in those conditions and their soft padded feet do not cause the erosion caused by hard hoofed cattle. This provides at least one moral reason to eat kangaroo from such areas in preference to cattle farmed in the same areas.

That is not to say that one has all things considered reason to eat kangaroo: it might be that one has reason to eat neither beef nor kangaroo given other moral reasons, such as the suffering involved. But the point is that one could have certain reasons, grounded in environmental concerns, to prefer eating certain sorts of animals to others.

Are there environmental reasons to become a pescetarian? There could certainly be moral reasons to eat fish that are sustainably farmed or sustainably fished in preference to over eating other sorts of non-sustainably farmed animals. It might well be that the sustainably harvesting of certain sorts of plentiful fish, causes less of an ecological footprint than does farming land animals. That would give one a reason to eat certain kinds of fish, harvested in certain kinds of way. It would provide a reason to avoid eating certain other kinds of fish, harvested in other kinds of ways.

These sorts of moral reasons do not yet, however, suggest that we should be pescetarians. They merely suggest that we can eat some sea living animals. We would only have reason to be pescetarian if it turned out that there were no environmentally sound ways of harvesting land animals for food. Then it would follow that the only animals on the menu would be fish (or other sea life).

But it seems unlikely that there is one and only one environmentally sustainable method of farming and harvesting animals, and that method only yields sea animals. It is not clear that harvesting or farming fish is indeed ecologically preferable to a host of on-land farming practices. It certainly seems unlikely that all cases of farming and harvesting land animals are ecologically detrimental while some cases of farming and harvesting sea animals are not. What relevant different could one point to, that would ground this difference? Surely the mere fact that one set of animals lives in the sea, and the other set on land, cannot make for such a general, robust, ecological difference.

Consider again some cases. In Australia in some areas there are greater numbers of kangaroos than the land can sustain in terms of providing food for those animals. Given that the number of such animals is plentiful, and that their existence of the land does not degrade it, there is a good prima facie case to be made that one has environmentally based reasons to eat wild kangaroo.  Similarly for eating pests such a wild pig and foxes. So if one’s dietary choice is motivated by considering the environmental sustainability of the practices that yield our food, it seems unlikely that one will become a pescetarian.

Now consider the second major sort of moral reason relevant in determining food choice. This is the suffering of the animals involved in farming, harvesting and subsequent slaughter. These kinds of reasons are commonly cited by vegetarians as being those that motivate their dietary choice. Could such reasons ground moral pescetarianism? Such reasons could certainly ground the eating of some, but not other, animals. Suppose one were fairly certain that oysters are incapable of any form of suffering, but not at all certain the same is true of cows. Then one would have moral reasons to abstain from eating cows, and no such moral reason to abstain from eating oysters. In general one could have moral reason to be a pescetarian if one thought that all land animals that are consumed as food products experience suffering, but at least some sea animals that are consumed as food products do not.

Now, quite likely some land animals experience suffering and others do not, and the same is true of animals that live in the sea. Exactly where the line is to be drawn between those that do, and those that do not, is not clear. But there seems no good reason to think that wherever the line is drawn, it will turn out that all meat and fowl are on one side, and at least some sea creatures are on the other side.

Having said that, perhaps there is a consistent, well motivated form of pescetarianism. The pescetarian who eats oysters, mussels and clams, but no fish, shark, octopus or crustaceans. That pescetarian might make the case that she has good reason to doubt the capacity for suffering of mussels and clams, but little reason to doubt the suffering of fish, shark, cows, sheep and chickens. She might point out that she would, on the very same grounds, eat worms, some slugs, leeches, and various insects, but that since these are not in general offered as food products this is not really an option. Thus it is, as it were, accidentally the case that she is pescetarian insofar as the only animal life she eats happens to live in the sea, but that could easily change were other animals relevant like oysters and clams to be farmed on land.  

Whoever that pescetarian is, however, she is not the pescetarian who one invariably meets over the dinner table. Most pescetarians draw what seems to be an entirely arbitrary moral distinction between sea life and land life. The likely explanation for this fact is that sea animals seem much more alien to humans than do land animals. Land animals have easily recognisable faces. Sea creatures sometimes do not. Land animals live in a familiar environment. They appear cuddly rather than wet. In general, their superficial similarities to humans are greater, and so we find it easier to imagine that they suffer and their suffering seems that much more salient. They have a call on our empathy that sea creatures appear largely to lack.

The suffering of thousands of fish hauled from the sea and suffocating to death produces a good deal less sympathy than the suffering of cows or sheep herded into trucks and moved thousands of kilometres to be slaughtered.

            There are perfectly good non-moral reasons to be a pescetarian. But we should not kid ourselves that there are principled moral reasons to be the sort of pescetarian that we in fact find in the community. We should perhaps contemplate before we abstain from eating Babe and instead turn to eating Nemo.