Two news reports this week call into question the wisdom of eating fish, a small but important part of my diet, leaving me uncertain what to do.
Let me start by acknowledging that most people do not accept a fundamental premise of this post, namely the connection between reason and diet. Such people may pay lip-service to ideas (such as that animals think and feel and are generally sentient in a way fundamentally like ourselves) that should lead them to change their dietary habits. But the principles don’t in fact inspire any change. For most people, dietary change based on respect for animals is not, as William James put it, a genuine option. I’ll discuss that a bit later on.
I’ll start with the simpler of the two stories, reprised in an editiorial in today’s NY Times.
Many New Yorkers have come to love the convenience, taste and aesthetic appeal of sushi. But as The Times reported Wednesday after testing tuna from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, sushi made from bluefin tuna may contain unacceptable levels of mercury, which acts as a neurotoxin.
If you regularly eat as few as six pieces of tuna sushi a week, you may be consuming more mercury than the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.
As it happens, I might be one of those people. (It’s hard to say. I have sushi 2-3 times a week, and usually include one tuna maki in my order. Is a maki 1 or maybe 2 pieces, as the Times is counting them, or all 6? Who knows. This kind of imprecision in a investigative piece is maddening.) I also sometimes have fresh tuna in other forms, such as salads.
Why do I eat fish at all? I was a strict vegan for three years, with some of the usual reasons but not all of them. In addition to concerns about my own health and that of the environment, I objected on grounds of cruelty to how animals were reared, and how they were killed, and how many were reared and killed for food. But I didn’t object, per se, to the general idea of humans killing animals for food.
Fish by and large live in the wild, and the conditions of farmed fish, such as catfish, are not the miserable ones that cattle, hogs, and chickens endure. And while death by driftnet is surely painful, it’s probably not worse than the death a fish would experience naturally. Mercury concentrations raise a big concern, but otherwise, from a health point of view, I’ve found an enormous difference between fish oil and animal fats.
So the same fish that get caught in those driftnets largely escape the net of objections that led to my veganism. Which brings us to the other report, also summarized in a Times editorial, this one from Monday.
Until All the Fish Are Gone
Scientists have been warning for years that overfishing is degrading the health of the oceans and destroying the fish species on which much of humanity depends for jobs and food. Even so, it would be hard to frame the problem more dramatically than two recent articles in The Times detailing the disastrous environmental, economic and human consequences of often illegal industrial fishing.
Sharon LaFraniere showed how mechanized fishing fleets from the European Union and nations like China and Russia — usually with the complicity of local governments — have nearly picked clean the oceans off Senegal and other northwest African countries. This has ruined coastal economies and added to the surge of suddenly unemployed migrants who brave the high seas in wooden boats seeking a new life in Europe, where they are often not welcome.
The second article, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, focused on Europe’s insatiable appetite for fish — it is now the world’s largest consumer. Having overfished its own waters of popular species like tuna, swordfish and cod, Europe now imports 60 percent of what it consumes. Of that, up to half is contraband, fish caught and shipped in violation of government quotas and treaties.
If current fishing practices are unsustainable, they are wrong. Period. And a consumer such as myself ought to consider his or her contribution to that wrong. Ultimately, it is our purchasing dollars that sustain any unsustainable practice, whether it is unsustainable in practical terms, such as mechanized fleet fishing, or in terms of cruelty, as the factory farmed cattle industry is.
The “ought” is a moral one, of course. For anyone to feel its force, however — for it to have any practical consequences on behavior — it has to be what William James called a genuine option. James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, spelled this out in a seminal essay, “The Will To Believe.” (There are copies of the essay here and here.)
Without delving too deeply into James’s theories (which deserve a post of their own, at the least), I’ll note that for him, a genuine option has to, first and foremost, be a live one. He describes live options this way:
Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,–it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Madhi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.
The example an interesting one. My first year as a grad student, I taught discussion sections for the big Intro to Philosophy class. The instructor was the department chair, Laird Addis, a proselytizing atheist. Though an atheist myself, I found his hard-sell offputting and his condemnations of religion alienating. He did, though, offer our clean-scrubbed Iowa farmboys and -girls a useful thought experiment. “Would you be a Christian if you were born in India or Iran or China or Cambodia?” he asked. “Surely the odds would be a lot lower.”
Custom, culture, habit, and peer pressure combine to give us many of the beliefs we have. My own odds of being an atheist would surely be lower were I not a third-generation one.
James himself says,
It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say ‘willing nature,’ I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,–I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set.
I live eternally in the hope that my fellow humans can cast off our prejudices and passions, imitations and partisanships, and the circumpressures of caste and set, and see cows, hogs, and chickens as we see dolphins and dachshunds. For my part, I’m going to rethink the question of tuna, yellowtail, and the even the shrimp that go into my tempura rolls.