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Vegan Outreach is a 501(c)(3)
nonprofit organization dedicated to
reducing the suffering of farmed animals
by promoting informed, ethical eating.

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POB 1916, Davis, CA 95617-1916

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Fish, Consciousness, and Advocacy

The circulation of articles in early 2003 regarding fish raises two issues: one scientific, the other strategic.

A number of stories were written about a study by Professor James D. Rose, which concluded that fish do not have the capacity to suffer. The basis for this conclusion is, in short, that human consciousness depends on the neocortex, a portion of the brain that is lacking in fish. Most vegetarian advocates dismissed this report – often without reading it. Some said simply, "Of course fish feel pain." (One animal advocate who actually read the paper is Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Clinical Assistant Professor at Case Western Reserve and Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, cochair of both the Medical Research Modernization Committee and the Christian Vegetarian Association, President of Vegetarian Advocates, and Advisor to Vegan Outreach. You can read his critique here.)

More recently, stories about the conclusion by the Roslin Institute that fish could feel pain (for example, a cover story by the Financial Times) have made rapid, multiple rounds through the vegetarian community.

Oddly enough, it is possible that these two reports – the Rose view that fish can’t suffer, and the Roslin Institute conclusion that fish could feel pain – could both be correct.

 

Vegan Outreach's goal is to alleviate and prevent suffering. This may sound simple, but pursuing this end leads to very difficult questions, such as optimal allocation of resources. More basic, though, are the questions of defining “suffering” and determining to what extent, if at all, members of different species may suffer.

Many vegans tend to equate suffering with sentience – i.e., being able to sense, to perceive stimuli. Although we associate the idea of sensing with conscious awareness, this is not strictly true. Perception alone is a much simpler task than subjective experience. A sunflower can be more “perceptive” than a clam; a Venus flytrap might be seen as more “sensitive” than a shrimp. Even more intriguing is the fact that machines are becoming more advanced every year, more “sentient” in terms of being able to sense, interact, and learn. The appearance of awareness – even the ability to interact – is not the same as the actual ability to suffer. People can form attachments to the Aibo and be freaked out by the Asimo; similarly, robot “escapes” can elicit sympathy.

“Sentience,” then, is not the same as being able to have ethically relevant conscious states (for a discussion of ethics and consciousness, see the Universal Ethics section of A Theory of Ethics). The study of the neurology of consciousness indicates that the ability to have subjective experiences – such as suffering – is quite complex.

A more in-depth summary of sentience, consciousness, and suffering can be found in the essay What Animals Can Suffer? To summarize the hypothesis of Dr. Antonio Damasio, there is a difference between “feeling” (sensing) and “feeling a feeling” (conscious awareness). Or, in terms of the recent reports, it is entirely possible that fish might be able to feel pain – that is, sense negative stimuli – but may lack the ability to suffer – have a subjective, conscious experience of the pain.

Thus, while fish obviously respond to tissue damage, we don’t know whether they suffer.

 

Of course, except for ourselves, we can’t know if any creature can suffer. But enough is known that we can arrive at reasonable, although not conclusive, guesses about what is required for another creature to be conscious, and thus capable of subjective, ethically relevant states. What is known now shows that, between a worm and a normal human, there is uncertainty as to where, exactly, the neural mechanisms exist for conscious suffering.

You might wonder, Why does this matter? Fish might suffer, so we should act as though they do.

But advocacy is not this simple. At some level, most people know that at least some of what they eat causes suffering. Yet not only do they continue on as before, they actively seek out any reason to dismiss the slightest threat to the status quo. If we are to be effective in reducing suffering, we can't provide the public with excuses to dismiss the message because of the messenger.

Most people oppose cruelty to animals, yet find it easy to dismiss veganism when presented as a religion, with dogma such as “Bees suffer from factory farming [enslavement, rape] just as much as any other animal.” “Eating clams is cruel” is really not much different than “Plants feel pain,” and just as easy to ignore. Whenever we act like we have all the answers (and everything just happens to exactly align with our worldview) and dismiss (or attack) anyone who doesn’t toe our “party line,” we give people ample reason to ignore the message of reducing suffering. If we can’t admit to uncertainty and the possible validity of other points of view, we will be seen – rightly – as militant fundamentalists.

Simplicity, and/or a dogmatic “consistency,” isn’t the goal. Rather, our purpose is to be able to reach new people in such a way that they consider the message and change their habits. Advocacy isn't about pontificating our "truths," but opening and changing the hearts and minds of others. Effective advocacy is the difference between asking, "What do you think a fish feels when hooked and brought out of the water?" and preaching, "Of course fish feel pain!”

Or, as Dr. Kaufman said: “I think some general humility is desirable, including humility about what we know to be true and humility about what is the ‘right’ path. Overconfidence and self-righteousness will change few minds.”