Here's a column about vegetarianism from a writer after my own heart--except for the fact that she calls herself a "pescatarian" and considers eating fish, but not meat, hypocritical. Yes, I occasionally eat fish, but why should my philosophy of eating be named accordingly? Why should I label myself a fish-eater (and not a broccoli eater or an egg eater)?  My thoughts about animals and food link me to the long history of vegetarianism (covered in enormous detail in this book), so that's the best name for my diet.

As for the hypocrisy: not so fast. When I first stopped eating meat 17 years ago, it was entirely because I didn't want to support factory farming. (I could have opted for a humane-only diet, but that seemed non-viable. If I maintained my appetite for meat, I wasn't going to be able to limit myself to humane meat.) Killing was not the issue. Fish, I figured, have normal lives, not the bizarrely limited lives of factory-farmed cows, pigs and chickens. So there is a moral difference between eating fish and eating meat.

Since I made the decision not to eat meat, my thinking has changed somewhat, and so has the world. My reason for not eating meat is still first and most confidently my disapproval of factory farming. But now I'm also more worried about the killing itself. That means I have to be more concerned about eating fish. I've also become more concerned about the enormous problem of over-fishing and the way modern fishing methods damage the environment. Furthermore, since I stopped eating meat, more and more of the fish in the store is farmed fish, and those animals don't actually have normal lives at all.

Despite all of that, I still think eating fish can be morally better than eating land animals--especially if you take care about which fish you eat (wild, plentiful species like Alaskan salmon are OK; bluefin tuna is not OK). But it's not perfectly OK. So why do I continue?

Well, I don't exactly--I don't continue just as before. We've stopped buying fish for home consumption. I still eat fish when there's something to be gained beyond simple taste--when that makes it easier to eat out, eat with friends and family, sample a local cuisine while traveling, enjoy "sea life" in places like Hawaii. Those are morally good goals, but so is protecting animal life.

So: it's a conflict. But I'm not going to call myself a "pescatarian" or plead guilty to simple hypocrisy. It's more complex than that.


Unknown said...

I appreciate your comments, Jean, and more importantly the fact that you approach your food from a moral perspective. Of course, as a strict vegan, I disagree with you on this. My question is how you would respond to Peter Singer's basic argument in Animal Liberation, and which most non-eaters would agree with: that all living beings are equal when it comes to the basic rights of life and freedom from suffering? This seems to be at the heart of vegetarianism, not just veganism, so to eat a fish because it is not as bad as eating something else still would involve violating that one basic right to life, and so not be in harmony with vegetarianism. Thank you.

Wayne said...

Because of the popularity of salmon, people often mislabel salmon to either fetch a higher price, or to sell it out of season. http://www.imakenews.com/vitalchoiceseafood/e_article000389904.cfm
So your wild Alaskan Salmon might be farmed raised and injected with color.

As for eating fish in general.... I wrestle with this one a lot. If I say that a demi-vegetarian is morally preferable to a normal meat eater, because of the humane treatment of animals, I have to say that a pescatarian is also preferable for the same reasons it seems like...

But fish are slaughtered in a different way than terrestrial meat. They usually are simply suffocated by being pulled out of the water. Rarely are they stunned since that would make them less attractive to the consumer. Sometimes fish are frozen alive. These practices seem rather cruel to me, more so than what we do to cows in the slaughterhouse, at least under ideal conditions, maybe equivalent under non-ideal conditions.

I think a far more consistent meal would be clams and mussels since they don't have brains.

But I think I abstain from fish mostly because I fear that over fishing is seriously harming the environment. Like you said, Tuna is not Ok. They might even get endangered species status. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/24/us/24fish.html

Jean Kazez said...

Singer really doesn't postulate a right to life in AL, nor does he have a problem with killing per se. I don't think he'd morally equate eating plentiful, wild salmon and eating factory farmed chicken. In the first case, you are complicit in much less suffering than in the second, and that (simplifying a bit) is what really counts. In the salmon case, there is suffering at the moment of killing. In the chicken case, there is suffering throughout the animal's life, including at the moment of killing.

The question for Singer would be whether what I gain by eating salmon outweighs what it costs to the salmon. I think he'd say No--and I'm not necessarily disagreeing. I'm simply explaining what I gain and saying this is not a simple matter of hypocrisy--espousing a moral principle but also violating it. There's a tension here between various real goods, some mine, some the animal's.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, What Singer says about how fish are killed in The Ethics of What We Eat has stuck with me. That and all the stuff about the environment has changed the way I think about these things.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the response, Jean. I guess the hard thing for me to understand with this is that vegetarianism espouses not eating meat because doing so requires killing. If you eat fish, you have to kill the fish. Yes, it may suffer less than another being would in some way in the whole process, but at the end is still the same result: premature death. If you know this fact--i.e., you know what is involved in the food you are eating--and you are able to live just as healthfully (or not, but still live) off of non-meat sources, how does this still jibe with vegetarianism? Am I defining vegetarianism in the wrong way or differently than you do? (P.S. I am not trying to call you a hypocrite or anything; I just want to understand your philosophical point better.)

Jean Kazez said...

Justin, I'm not trying to defend eating fish or reconcile it with vegetarian ethics, just trying to explain why a person might want to give up fish later than other things. I don't think that choice is simply arbitrary or simply hypocritical, for the reasons I discussed.

Unknown said...

Ah, okay, thank you, and sorry if I was confused about what you were saying--I think the comment about being "linked to the history of vegetarianism" threw me a bit. There is definitely a continuum relative to the capacities of the beings in question and the morality of killing them (as Singer recognizes--and you are right, he does not say killing is immoral/wrong per se, just that being non-human does not exclude some species from having their rights to live considered).

s. wallerstein said...

Not eating meat cuts one off from the rest of humanity, and not eating fish, as Jean points out, cuts one off even more. In certain cases, for example, slavery, genocide, dictatorships, factory farming, etc., taking action which cuts one off from others is valid, but is it worthwhile to cut oneself off more, so that fish suffer less? Just being a thinking person isolates one, and a thinking person who refuses to eat everything, meat and fish, that others eat is isolation squared.

Jean Kazez said...

...but is it worthwhile to cut oneself off more, so that fish suffer less

Exactly--that's the question I struggle with.

Unknown said...

But it is not just a matter of suffering. It is a matter of life and death. Your choice to eat meat (and I include fish and fowl in this use of "meat") involves the death of another living being solely for your own benefit, when you could choose otherwise. I think that is a more significant ethical matter than just whether or not the being suffers in the process, and that is why strict vegetarians and vegans avoid animals products at all. And there are communities for non-meat eaters, even if they are the minority. I would prefer working to make vegetarians more accepted in greater society than eating meat in order to be accepted. That is a personal choice, of course.

Jean Kazez said...

I think we're all agreeing it's wrong to use fish as food, and only disagreeing on why it's wrong, how wrong it is, how that wrong compares to other wrongs, etc. So--let's assume it's wrong.

It doesn't follow that one shouldn't do it no matter what. There might be benefits you could obtain that would be worth doing that wrong.

Most people think that wrong w The benefits we're talking about here are not "being accepted," as you put it, but participating harmoniously in various life activities. For example, eating what your mother cooks, immersing yourself in another culture, etc. It's at least a reasonable question whether the wrong you do to fish can be justified, if those are the goods you're trying to obtain. They're not totally trivial!

Unknown said...

Fair enough, Jean, and of course some of those benefits are not in any way trivial. It ultimately becomes a matter of personal choice about whether or not the gains are worth the costs. I would say no, those personal gains are not worth taking life, but I am not saying that is the universally right answer. I appreciate at the very least that you think about it all when you eat!!!!

s. wallerstein said...

I rarely eat fish, but approximately every other month I eat dinner out with my son, age 31.
He eats both meat and fish, although he prefers meat. The only place in my part of town where you can eat a vegan meal is a Chinese restaurant, but my son detests Chinese food. So we eat fish. If I insist to him that we eat a vegan meal, he will question me why I prefer the suffering or life of one fish to
giving in to his wishes, when after all, he gives in to mine insofar as we do not go to a meat restaurant and in any case, the problem only comes up a few times a year, that is, not many fish are being slaughtered. Family relations are touchy, at least in my family, and I value having good relations with my son over the life of a fish. My son already considers me to be overly scrupulously or overly sensitive and refusing to eat fish with him will only compound that situation. By the way, although there may be vegan communities and restaurants in many places, there are not where I live. A quick survey of restaurant menus at lunch-time (the heavy meal of the day) indicates that none serve vegan foods or even fish: all dishes involve meat. As I said above, one can seek out a fish restaurant or a Chinese restaurant, but they are less common.

crystal said...

I don't eat fish either, I guess for the same reason I don't eat meat - a squeemish feeling about killing and eating things, the suffering, the unnecessariness of it, etc. An interesting article - Consider the lobster by David Foster Wallace.

Ed said...

I applaud anybody who is doing anything to reduce their support of animal cruelty. I'm not going to quibble over whether they are doing enough. If you are doing anything then I am a fan.

However, if you are going to apply any kind of label to yourself I think you should do it accurately. The words "vegetarian" and "vegan" have actual defined meanings relating to a consistent set of values. Since I occasionally eat cheese in order to kep the peace at family meals, I cannot with any honesty call myself a vegan, even though I never buy the stuff myself. Similarly you are not really a vegetarian if you eat fish, even just occasionally.

Maybe we need to transcend these simplistic labels.

Eating out is easier than attending family meals. I find that just about every restaurant in my town has baked potatoes, side dish veggies, and salads. They will readily combine these for me and hold the cheese if I ask.

Jean Kazez said...

Ed, Right, it's not exactly true that I'm a vegetarian, but for lots of reasons, not just because I eat fish. I'm also not totally scrupulous about other foods. I knowingly eat things that contain gelatin, for example, because it's just too much trouble to always avoid it. So I use "vegetarian" as a rough label, but will gladly admit to the whole truth and nothing but the truth if asked for details.

s. wallerstein said...

For all those interested in food and ethics, this article by Johann Hari is a must-read.


Toy said...

Gosh, I had no idea that there was such a debate revolving around this topic. I'm new to this ( just three days in) and I started because I wanted to eat healthier without having to worry about supplementing protien with vitamins. I will just tell people ( when they offer me meat) no thanks, I'd rather have fish :)

atticus said...

I agree with ed. People seem to get quiet worked up about these things.

There's worse things in the world that being a little bit of a hipocrite. It's impossible to avoid, and I'm not going to modify my oppinions and diet so I fit into an ideology.

Avoiding death and suffering seems a little bit like burying heads in the sand. When these are inevitable.
And I understand doing everything in your power if it stops, or even reduces suffering for even one animal.

After being exposed to prolonged extreme suffering in a new career, it forced a re-evaluation of my beliefs.
Suffering is a part of life, death is a part of life, in along will all the wonderful bits.
That's not a shabby justification. It's the reason I believe in a happy medium.
Being thoughtful and doing your bit, without being a food nazi, or one of those people who calls other people hipocrites because their beliefs aren't as "sound" as theirs.

Unknown said...

I see both sides of the debate. I have been struggling this issue for a 2+ years. Initially I stopped eating all mammals and birds without a blink of an eye, but have a hard time giving up fish. I don't eat them very often, but I did get completely turned off when I was eating lobster and saw him staring back at me, I didn't even finish eating him.

I am a teacher and one point that a student brought up in one of my health classes was something that she heard from a guest speaker in her Spanish class. The speaker was presenting information about Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). The student explained that he had said that everything has life and therefore there is absolutely no reason to be a vegetarian.

I responded with the connection to an animal and the respect for its life versus the life of a plant, and also the brutal slaughtering of animals. But she continued to say that the view based on Dia De Los Muertos is that everything is alive, therefore the picking and consuming of a plant is equivalent to that of the slaughtering and consuming of an animal.

I do not have a background in Dia De Los Muertos, so if anybody has clarification or more information I would be interested in learning about it.

I wanted to throw that into the discussion to see how you all would respond to that. I know where I stand (as I do feel guilty for continuing to contribute to the killing of fish), and I am curious about all of your opinions to the Dia De Los Muertos perspective.

Anonymous said...

I am considering going full veggie and i have been a pesc for almost 7 years. I can somewhat understand the reasons why people do it. What i don't understand is the extreme scrutiny people make of others choices. You think by being a vegan you are not harming animals? What about the plot of land where your house sits? I'm sure no animals lived there before your home was built. What about driving your polluting vehicle? Claiming that you are 100% free of harming animals in any way is ridiculous. If i am a hypocrite for being a pesc because i like to reduce my impact on animals, than so is everyone else who thinks their "hand are clean"

I say good for you for making ANY effort in ANY way. It beats what most people contribute to the effort. I also find other people a lot more open to the idea when they question my eating choices and i explain it casually. The extreme attitude, IMO ,steers many potential converts away.

KW said...

Hello .. Justin, I would just like to point out that the famous ethical Australian philospher Peter Singer's argument is flawed as he does not consider all life-forms equal and deserving of life .. If you read further in his philosphy and 'ethical thinking' you will discover he thinks it is okay to terminate the lives of babies who are born with learning disabilities - he believes they will never have a suitable quality of life and therefore it is morally acceptable to kill them at birth. Nice? I think not. Thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...

Just imagine if we, pescs, veggies(me) and vegans alike stopped worrying about the intricacies of our abstinence from eating animals and instead worked together to create awareness and encourage meat eaters to consider their daily mindless choices. The way food is packaged these days makes it so hard for people to associate their food with the real revolting trauma and pain of factory farming behind it. How much impact to we as individuals really make? This worries me all the time. - Jen

Anonymous said...

I started on a vegan diet six months ago, and in my research discovered how many vegans and vegetarians are tradgically eating all these meat replacement (SOY) products, what a sad uneducated mistake many make, thinking they are being so healthy and noble, yet soy that is unfermented is worse than eating meat, from a health standpoint. it only takes a little research.
Now, to address the subject of all the labels, vegan, vegetarians, and pescatarian, what a bunch of phoney baloney, I think.......for myself, I became a vegetarian for health reasons and the more I research am becoming more aware of humane issue, that concern me, however, I belive that God told us in genesis that he gave us these animals and the fish of the sea for our food, and if a person chooses to eat or not to eat meat and fish, then it is on their conscience and really shouldn't be judged by some that label themselves and critisize others for not being like them.
like the first blogger on this thread I too feel like expressing my opinion and so sorry if you disagree