Years ago I was fishing on an ocean beach and caught a big, beautiful striped bass. My daughter and son, who were 8 and 10, respectively, were nearby. I held the fish up and yelled, Look kids, I caught dinner! Skye, my daughter, burst into tears and pleaded with me to let the fish go.
I assured her that I’d been catching fish like this since I was a boy, fish don’t really feel pain, they’re just fish, they’re like robots. Skye sobbed even harder and begged me not to kill the fish. By now, other people on the beach, attracted by the commotion, had gathered around the weeping girl and mean man.
This traumatic scene came back to me when I attended “Animal Consciousness,” a recent conference at New York University. Philosopher David Chalmers, one of the conference organizers, kicked it off by noting that many researchers are investigating whether non-human animals are conscious. If animals are capable of consciousness, he said, they can suffer, and that should matter to us.
One speaker at the NYU conference, biologist Victoria Braithwaite, had injected irritating chemicals, such as vinegar and bee venom, under the skin of trout and other fish. Fish rub the affected area against the wall of their tank and lose interest in food, Braithwaite said. After she gave the fish painkillers, their behavior returned to normal, just as that of a human would. Braithwaite concluded that fish can indeed suffer.
Psychologist Stuart Derbyshire, who spoke after Braithwaite, doubted whether fish feel pain in a way remotely analogous to ours, given how different their brains are. He asked us to note the pressure being exerted on our backsides by our chairs. Before he drew our attention to this sensation, we weren’t aware of it, right? Well, fish probably have this kind of sensation without awareness or comprehension, which means they don’t really “feel” pain or anything else.
Derbyshire took a beating during the Q&A. When asked if dogs feel pain, he said it depends on what you mean by “feel pain.” If forced to answer that simplistic question, he’d have to say no. An audience member held up an actual, living dog, which had been sitting in her lap. Someone had stepped on her dog’s paw earlier, she said, and it yelped. What was the dog feeling then? Derbyshire sighed and said he didn’t know.
The exchange between Braithwaite and Derbyshire set up a talk by philosopher Peter Singer, who jump-started the modern animal-rights movement with his 1975 book Animal Liberation. Determining whether creatures are conscious is hard, Singer acknowledged. But in a rebuke to Derbyshire, Singer said that suffering should not require “reflection” to be morally important.
Someone asked Singer if it bothered him that Braithwaite’s experiments caused fish pain. No, replied Singer, showing his utilitarian colors, because her research might help bring about regulations that alleviate the suffering of countless fish.
I’m a life-long catcher and eater of fish, so it was hard listening to Braithwaite and Singer dwell on fish pain. But it was hard listening to Derbyshire too. How does he know that fish don’t suffer? He doesn’t, any more than Braithwaite or Singer know that they do. Singer said we should give fish the benefit of the doubt, and I’m inclined to agree. Am I going to stop eating fish, or fishing? Maybe not, but when I do I’ll feel bad about it.
By the way, you may be wondering what happened to that striped bass all those years ago. I threw it back into the ocean. I don’t know if the fish felt joy, but my daughter certainly did.
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which belongs to the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published in his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”