Peter Singer is a philosopher and professor at Princeton University. He is renowned for his book, Animal Liberation, which is celebrated as a foundational text of the animal protection movement. He is also well known for his theory of utilitarianism, which simply put, takes the suffering of all beings into account.
Voiceless recently spoke to Peter Singer about his views on modern society’s relationship with fishes.
Why is it important to learn about the sentience of fishes?
In trying to work out how we ought to treat any other living thing, it's very important to know if that living thing can feel pain or not, or whether it is conscious and has any experiences. So I think it's important to try to work out which beings we have reason to believe are capable of feeling pain, and then we should try to avoid doing anything that will inflict pain on them. And conversely, if we become convinced that some other living thing is not capable of feeling pain, we don't have to be concerned about inflicting pain on them. So I do think there's a fundamental moral difference between beings who are conscious and who can feel pain, and beings that are not conscious and can't feel pain.
How does your theory of utilitarianism apply to the commercial use of fishes?
Utilitarianism is basically the view that we ought to do what will have the best consequences. The consequences that we should really take into account are consequences in terms of the well-being, or put more properly, the happiness of those who we are affecting. And, net-happiness means the amount of pleasure or happiness that a being can experience, minus the pain of suffering that the being is experiencing. So if we cause pain or suffering to a being when it's avoidable, then that's a bad thing to do because then we're reducing the net-happiness of that being – in the sense of all of the beings on the planet. So that's something that we should try to avoid. And if as I believe the evidence now makes clear, fish are capable of feeling pain and can suffer, then we should try to avoid doing anything that causes suffering to them. And because utilitarianism does take account of numbers - that is, something is worse if it's causing suffering to ten people than to one, or to a million rather than ten - and in the case of fish, the numbers are just so unimaginably vast. We're talking about probably more than a trillion fish and other aquatic creatures being killed each year without humane killing - there's really no humane slaughter for fish. So, the amount of suffering being inflicted is absolutely vast and that's why anybody who is concerned about pain and suffering, and is concerned about reducing the quantities of pain and suffering, ought to be concerned about what is done to fish as part of the commercial fishing industry.
Have you noticed any shift in public perception in regard to fishes since the 1970s?
I do think there's been a shift over those years with regard to fish, because for many years I didn't really even talk about fish because I just thought that people have so little feeling for them. You know, it's enough if you can get them to think about mammals and birds, right? Even chickens were hard enough – people were more likely to think about pigs and cows, than they were to think about chickens.
Gradually I think we reached a point a few years ago where animal welfare organisations are starting to talk about fish. And I think that's a very good thing because the numbers are so huge that if you don't talk about the suffering we inflict on fish, I think you're not really dealing with a very large part of the suffering we inflict on animals in general.
What is the ideal next step in regard to how we use fish?
The ideal next step would be to stop catching them and eating them. And I should say this is important whether we're talking about wild living fish or farmed fish, because most of the species of fish we farm are carnivorous species. So even though they're farmed, we're still catching wild fish - cheaper, less valuable fish - and grinding them up and turning them into fish pellets and feeding them to the farmed fish. So it's not as if we're somehow protecting the oceans or anything like that by choosing farmed fish rather than wild caught fish.
And in terms of suffering, virtually none of them are humanely killed. There is some experimentation going on – I think in Norway – with pre-stunning of fish that they're killing, but it's a tiny, tiny fraction of the vast number of fish that are killed. So, I think that this is really the most practical thing to do.
And in any case it's a disaster for marine ecology because we're fishing out the oceans, one fish stock after the other. So this is really the important thing to do: try to make people realise that just stopping to eat meat and poultry it a step in the right direction, but it's certainly not going nearly far enough.
Related blog: Fishes: The Next Wave of Animal Advocacy?