Pisces have consciousness

Animal philosophy : The suffering of the fish

Mr Wild, you have just prepared an opinion on the subject of awareness and pain perception in fish for the Swiss ethics committee. A biologist was also working on the subject in parallel with you. You understand that. But what does a philosopher know about fish?

The report is not about fish as a whole, but about their cognitive abilities and their possible pain perception. When can we ascribe something like an intention to a being that is very far away from us? Under what conditions can we use the term pain, and how can we know that a being is in pain? These are genuinely philosophical questions. In their discussion, biologists also often use arguments that, strictly speaking, are not biological at all. It says, for example, that pain is always subjective, so you couldn't know anything about pain from others. When using these terms, a kind of philosophical clean-up is required.

So far, fish have been seen more as pure reflex machines. But they propagate a “new image of the fish”. How does it look?

According to the old conception, the fish is a small machine. When he is born, he is already equipped with everything he needs to survive. This is the old image of fish, which also includes the idea that fish only have a three-second memory and would immediately forget everything. But over the last 20 years it has been recognized more and more that fish are enormously capable of learning, that they have memory skills over many hours, days and weeks, that they can learn not only individually but also socially. Intelligence is not only related to the physical, but also to the social environment. And fish are amazingly good at that. They hunt in cooperation and share their roles in it. That assumes they know a little bit about what they are doing.

However, this only affects cognition, i.e. the fish's "ability to think". How about the pain

It has only been possible for about ten years to prove that fish are even able to absorb harmful - or as they say: noxious - stimuli and process these stimuli in the brain. So you have the physiological prerequisite to feel something like pain. That wasn't even clear before, simply because nobody really cared. It is an ethical aspect that is now also driving research.

But the famous argument is still going around: “no brain, no pain”. According to this, fish cannot perceive pain because they do not have a cortex at all.

That argument really got around in no time, and it stands out because it's so simple. But you can also refute it with a simple example: We humans see with the help of the neocortex, more precisely with the help of the visual cortex. So it could be said that we see because we have a visual cortex. Birds do not have these, no eagle, no falcon has these brain regions. Does it follow that they are blind? Obviously not. They have something else that takes over this service, they call it a "bead". As soon as you understand this, you will also see the error of the “no brain, no pain” argument.

How can you tell that fish can be in pain?

For example, there is the way fish react. For example, when there is pain, we avoid touching the injured area or we take care of it. The cat is licking a wound. Fish that have been injected with acetic acid on their lips will begin to rub their lips against the bottom. This is not a purely “nociceptive”, i.e. reflex reaction, the entire behavior of the fish changes, it looks as if they are fully focused on this state. It is similar to ours when we are in pain. The fish can learn on the basis of experience and they can react differently to the injury, depending on the dangerous situation. This distance between reflex and flexible reaction is an important step towards a conscious sensation.

What would such a “fish consciousness” look like? It is probably not a real self-confidence.

I would speak of a “phenomenal consciousness” in the case of fish. It is characterized by sensation, feeling, touching, such as feeling hunger, smelling something, being tired. It makes sense that you don't have to have a high level of self-esteem to feel something. The more we are ready to admit that fish are capable of learning, the more we have to attest that they have a conscious experience of the environment. The fish is a relatively cognitively demanding creature, and it would be surprising if its pain were, so to speak, completely unconscious. It would be strange to say: the being is in pain, but feels nothing. The term would be used incorrectly.

So can we feel with the fish?

That doesn't mean that. Strictly speaking, the aforementioned conclusion by analogy only leads to the assertion that the fish feels pain, but not to statements about how it feels. The animal welfare organization Peta once published a poster showing a fish on the hook and next to it a man with a fishhook in his cheek: “How would you like that?” It says underneath. The poster does have an effect, but the direct transfer of our pain perception to other living beings also hides something. Because it's not about whether the pain feels the same for the fish as it does for us. Fish pain is probably very different, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. It is very important not to get confused.

What are the consequences of attributing pain to fish?

It is interesting that we converge in the result of both reports - the biological and the philosophical. We believe it is fair to say that Pisces feel pain. I hope that the report will have an impact on animal welfare legislation for the commercial handling of fish, but also on private fishing and consumer behavior. From a commercial point of view, it would above all hit the deep-sea wild capture and aquafarming. When fish feel pain it is torture to let them suffocate, as happens in deep sea fishing. Quite apart from the fact that tons of fish are entangled in nets or shredded and torn alive. In aquafarming, one would have to determine more precisely which stunning methods are permissible before slaughter - the animals are certainly not completely unconscious when they are hurled or frozen. In factory farming, you should also consider how many fish you should keep in how much space.

And the private happiness of the angler would also be affected?

Some techniques, such as “catch and release”, are already banned in Switzerland, but not in other countries. Because there are few fish or because you don't want to use all the fish you catch, you catch them and then throw them back into the water. If that hurts the fish, I think that's irresponsible. The fact that trout are released as a hobby so that they can then be caught - a small edition of the Roman Circus Maximus, so to speak - is simply an unprofessional way of dealing with a creature that feels pain. There may also be restrictions on the weight and size of the fish that can be legally caught.

What does this affect the consumer?

I observe that many people are careful with meat, but consider it safe to eat fish. If they realize that the fish is not that different from the mammals, that there is something that pleases them and that they shy away from, then their attitudes will probably also change. It could lead to a decision, for example, not to eat fish that have been caught in the wild at sea or not to use fish products at all.

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