The pescatarians are right – why I say eating fish is more ethical than eating meat


Forget veggie burgers, fake bacon and oatmeal cheese. For vegans at least, plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy have long since become mainstream. Alt-fish – plant-based foods that mimic the taste and texture of fish, or real fish tissue from stem cells – is the next big thing.

As an applied ethics researcher, I have long understood that decisions about what we eat are linked to several other debates. And, while often confused, the arguments against eating real fish are quite different from surrounding land animals.

Philosophical ethics are divided between those who approach problems from absolute principles, such as the duty to minimize suffering and preserve as many species as possible, and those who use utilitarian calculations that discard notions of good. harm and balance competing interests, with the single principle of happiness for the greatest number.

Debates about the ethics of meat and dairy consumption present both types of arguments. But there is a broad consensus that farm animals have interests and can suffer from them and that, conversely, agriculture is a crucial part of human society. While ancient thinkers including Pythagoras and Plato advocated the moral superiority of vegetarian diets, in Plato’s ideal republic a healthy diet would consist of grains, seeds and beans, fruits, milk, honey and fish.

The Bible also includes many nods to vegetarianism. The animals in the Garden of Eden are shown as beloved friends and their murder is not recorded until after Eve defies God and eats the forbidden fruit. This encouraged the 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, to rail against the “cutting and slicing of the flesh” as well as its “horrid smells”. With the fish, however, the Bible takes a different line. Jesus multiplied five barley loaves and two fish in a meal for 5,000 people.

Fish features prominently in biblical discussions of food and good living.
Tiberius Stan/Shutterstock

And while we would surely be surprised that Jesus chose his disciples from those working in the slaughterhouses, we gladly accept not only the central Christian metaphor of “fishing up the souls of men”, but the reality that at least four of the disciples were fishermen, taking their boats to the Lake of Galilee to catch sardines and carp. Likewise, although the Quran offers instructions for believers on how to ensure that meat is halal, the rules do not apply to fish.

The greatest amount of good

Utilitarian arguments also fail on this issue. Nutritionally, fish is both very good for humans and difficult to imitate artificially. The main utilitarian arguments against meat, according to which it threatens the ecological balance, for example by contributing to deforestation or by increasing the greenhouse effect, transfer less convincingly to fishing, even if overfishing has its own climate impact.

This is because, in purely utilitarian terms, human and fisheries interests coincide. Fish are more useful to humans if they can live to maturity in unpolluted waters, and the economic value of fishing is one of the main reasons people strive to protect wetlands and habitats. rivers and to limit the pollution of coastal seas.

Some philosophers argue that the planet itself should be treated as a living entity with its own ethical interests. This line of thinking accepts that human beings are part of nature and that everything we do has an impact somewhere. Take those factory-farmed staples, corn and soy. They also impoverish animal life, although indirectly. Animals perish during harvesting and loss of habitat to farmland.

It’s true that today, as the creators of a new Netflix documentary called Seaspiracy argue, there are powerful and even criminal groups that overfish and destroy marine life. But what if people stopped fishing? How much pressure would that put on the earth, and how essential is it to many lives and cultures?

Traditional fishing boats line a beach in a coastal village in Morocco.
Fishing is culturally important in coastal communities around the world.
Zodyakuz/Shutterstock

Food security, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is not just about food production, it must include physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs. . And 140 million people around the world depend on fish for their livelihood, directly or indirectly. When Australian researchers looked into the matter in 2019, they concluded that the benefits of fishing were often underestimated and the “apocalyptic depiction” was overstated.

Replacing fish with plant-based sorcery could have many personal benefits, from avoiding small bones to sparing traces of mercury. But, from an ethical point of view, switching cold turkey to meat is very different from saying “bon voyage” to fish.

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