Crossposted from my blog.  

The horror of fish farming

One of my professors in college taught a class about effective altruism—a social movement about doing good effectively. Whenever he was talking about the scale of animal suffering, all the statistics he talked about were about the suffering of non-fish. It became a running joke—friends and I would make jokes like the following: “a gunman robs a bank, kills over 4 non-fish” or “one (non-fish) death is a tragedy, a million fish deaths are a statistic.” But this professor, despite explicitly ignoring fish whenever he talked about a problem, was nonetheless more pro-fish than almost all people. Because no one cares about fish—at all.

I remember when I was young, my grandmother would take me and my brother fishing. This was seen as a totally innocuous, fun way to spend a weekend. The general attitude towards fishing is almost exactly opposite to the attitude towards, for example, hunting: liberal parents in blue states are not happy letting their children hunt land creatures, the way they are happy to let their children hunt fish. This is unsettling—hooking fish into the mouth to yank them out of the water so that they suffocate to death is seen as just a bit of innocent fun.

Elsewhere, I’ve made the case against land-based factory farms—great, industrial torture chambers, that routinely mutilate animals, give them too little space to move around, castrate them with no anesthetic, and force them to spend their lives covered in feces and filth, in constant agony, disgust, and boredom. I’ve even argued that factory farming is the worst crime in human history—worse than whatever very bad crime you’re thinking of.

The cruelty of the farm industry is not limited to the versions that are on land. The fish farming industry is unspeakably horrifying. We have built hell and consigned the fish to it. And far more animals are tormented and killed in fish farms than in land-based factory farms. The aquaculture industry may be the single worst industry in the history of the world—causing more suffering than any other. This judgment may sound surprising, but it’s hard to deny if one thinks fish suffering matters at all given the sheer numbers. One undercover report on fish farms found:

Workers’ abusive handling of fish, including slamming and stomping on fish, and violently throwing fish, including treating them like basketballs performing “trick shots”

 Workers cruelly killing fish by slamming them on the ground 

Live fish have their eyes eaten by fish who are underfed and hungry and mistake their pupils as food 

Ineffective anesthetization during vaccination and fin clipping 

Fish thrown into buckets and left to suffocate in piles of the dead and dying 

Conditions so filthy that fish must be vaccinated 

Painful spinal deformities, and fungus growth on fish intended for human consumption, including fungus eating away at the faces of the fish 

Extreme crowding in barren conditions and high death rates of eggs and fish

Lewis Bollard notes “The fishing industry alone kills 3-8 billion animals every day, most by slow suffocation, crushing, or live disemboweling.” So roughly the same number of fish are killed in horrifying, inhumane ways every few days as there are people on earth. It takes longer for the fish to suffocate than for us to drown, and so is probably more painful. The most up-to-date report—and also one of the most conservative—found that the least sentient fish that they surveyed experience suffering about one-twentieth as intensely as human suffering. Let’s grant this—and use the conservative estimate of how many fish are killed by people—only 3 billion per day. If a fish’s death is only one-twentieth as painful as a human death, then every day, the total painfulness of fish suffering is equivalent to the painfulness of one hundred fifty million human deaths. But if there was a disease that infected one hundred fifty million people every day, and gave them an experience as painful as being killed by “slow suffocation, crushing, or live disemboweling,” it would clearly be the worst thing in the world. This disease would cause the average person to experience a painful death seven times per year. Maybe you think that fish suffering is inherently only 1% as bad as human suffering (this seems like totally irrational prejudice, as I’ll argue later, but let’s grant it). Well then fish slaughter would only be as bad as inflicting on one and a half million humans, every day, an experience as painful as cruel slaughter. But if there was something like that—something that would force each human to endure the painfulness of disembowelment every 15 or so years—it would clearly be the worst thing in the world. So even by insanely conservative assumptions, fish slaughter alone—which is responsible for a minuscule portion of the cruelty of the fish industry—is the worst thing ever.

Fish are used to having open space in the ocean. So the cramped conditions of fish farms—totally antithetical to their natural ways of living—are extremely stressful for them. As a consequence, fish constantly crash into each other, causing painful injuries to their fins. Peta notes “Large farms can span the size of four football fields and contain more than 1 million fish.” Disease is common, and fish aren’t given enough Oxygen, making it hard to breathe and resulting in chronic stress and low energy. Often, up to 40% of fish are blind, and half have hearing loss because of the the extreme prevalence of disease. On fish farms, it’s not uncommon to see the bones of live fish, as parasites have eaten all the way to the bone.

Death Crown at The Scottish Salmon Company in Loch Carron on Vimeo

It’s hard to imagine that level of suffering. Hopefully, such parasites kill the fish quickly, so they don’t have to endure the horrorshow of their skin being eaten. A whopping 40% of fish die before they are ready to be slaughtered—they’re seen as a disposable byproduct, whose death is a minor annoyance rather than a tragedy. Something must be deeply wrong with fish farming, if it kills 40% of fish by accident.

Every part of the life cycle of fish is horrifying. Before slaughter on the fish farms, fish are starved for a few days to a month. One impressively detailed report on fish slaughter noted:

Animal welfare was not of concern during the development of slaughter methods for fish. Instead, the methods used to slaughter fish were developed to achieve a uniform product, efficiency, and processor safety. Common slaughter methods include carbon dioxide narcosis, live chilling, asphyxiation (suffocation) in air, live gutting, percussive stunning, and electrical stunning. The method of carbon dioxide narcosis is the method routinely used in commercial slaughter, which consists of placing fish in water with high levels of dissolved carbon dioxide. Studies on this method show that fish have an immediate and strong aversive reaction to entering the carbon dioxide solution. The fish are left in the water until they stop moving, then they are taken out of the water, sliced, and bled out. However, they do not immediately lose consciousness via this method, but are merely rendered immobile. And because they are slaughtered as soon as they stop moving, most are killed when fully conscious.

There are no legal protections of fish. It’s totally legal to kill them by, for example, pulling the skin off them while they’re still alive—as is sometimes done. Whatever you could imagine doing to a fish to kill it is perfectly legal. In addition, Animals Australia notes:

Up to a quarter of fish in fish farms have stunted growth and float lifelessly at the surface of the tanks. These fish are known as ‘drop outs.’ According to research by Royal Society Open Science, these fish exhibit behaviours and brain chemistry almost identical to those of very stressed and depressed people.

The ‘drop out’ fish were found to have significantly higher levels of cortisol, a stress-response hormone, as well as increased activity of the serotonergic system, which is involved in sleep, hunger, respiration, mood and more. Problems with this neural system have been associated with severe mental illness, including depression.

“I would not go so far as to say they are committing suicide, but physiologically speaking, they are on the edge of what they can tolerate, and since they remain in this environment, they end up dying because of their condition.”
– Marco Vindas, Royal Society of Open Science

Farmed fish live in very stressful conditions, vastly different to what they have evolved to cope with in the wild. Fish in aquaculture farms are forced to live in crowded tanks and endure unwanted interactions with other fish, handling by humans, struggles to get food, and sudden changes in lighting, water depth and currents. Just like pigs and chickens, fish in intensive farms live a life of suffering.

Here’s a plausible principle: if a being is conscious enough to essentially get depression, we should not put them in situations where a greater population of them does get depression than there are humans on earth. If oodles of fish are aimlessly floating, totally dejected, unwilling to perform basic tasks, something has gone deeply wrong. And we know what has gone wrong. We have put them in cruel, alien conditions. If fish designed farms for us, they’d be horrifying—fish neither know nor care what brings us joy. But the same is true when we design farms for fish.

It is undeniable that we are inflicting profound mistreatment on literally trillions of fish. There are relatively few ways to defend this unimaginable infliction of suffering and, to quote GA Cohen, “some of them are lousy and others are just as bad.” But each of the basic arguments falls into one of two categories of argument. The first type of argument claims that fish can’t feel pain, the second claims that their pain isn’t bad.

Series: Plenty of Fish on the Farm | The Breakthrough Institute

Yes, fish feel pain


The evidence that fish feel pain is relatively widespread. Here is some of that evidence:

When fish are injected with venom, their heart rate goes up, just like ours does when we’re in pain.

This isn’t just an automatic response. We know this in the following way. Trout are scared of new objects. When they’re in a lot of pain, on account of being injected with vinegar, they ignore their fear of new objects and swim in a random direction to get away. But if they’re given morphine—an anesthetic—then they start being scared of the object again. So fish respond to painkillers.

In one experiment, some fish got a shock whenever they went to some part of a tank. They learned to avoid that part of the tank.

Trout make tradeoffs. In the earlier experiment where they get shocked if they go to part of a tank, if a friend is hanging out in that part of the tank, they’re willing to go to that part of the tank to hang out with their friend (this is the one time I’ve found fish sort of endearing).

When fish are given painkillers, their abilities to detect harmful external stimuli are hampered. This is best explained by the painkillers numbing the pain, which is part of how they detect external stimuli.

Fish are pretty smart. They can solve mazes and remember where tide is low and high, after just seeing it once. Some fish can remember the identities of fish they’ve watched fight.

There’s decent evidence that fish dream. But to dream, they have to be conscious. If they’re conscious, they can feel pain.

This evidence has been enough to change the minds of the majority of people studying the topic, who started out pretty skeptical.

So the evidence that fish feel pain is pretty overwhelming. As Braithwaite, author of the most detailed book on the subject declares, “there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals.” But let’s be super conservative and say that there’s only a 50% chance that they can feel pain. You shouldn’t cruelly mistreat trillions of beings unless you’re pretty damn sure they can’t feel pain. If you are not sure if they can feel pain, you should not risk causing more suffering than has existed in all of human history. Because of the mindboggling number of fish, even if they might not feel pain, their pain in expectation is enough to thoroughly outstrip the badness of all human pain.

Fish pain is bad


Fish pain is bad because pain is bad. Pain is bad because of the way it feels. Think about what it’s like to suffocate or be disemboweled. It doesn’t matter who is suffocating, the experience is still bad. That suffering is bad is just about the most basic ethical truth—denying it is insanity. I don’t just think this because I’m a weird utilitarian. Utilitarianism—of the type I endorse—says pleasure and pain matter and nothing else does. The nothing else part is what makes it radical—everyone sane agrees that pleasure and pain do matter. And if pain matters, then fish pain must matter.

Maybe you think that fish suffering isn’t bad because fish are very unintelligent. But why in the world does this matter? Suppose you’re in intense agony. Would that be made any worse if you were smarter? If intelligence amplifies your pain, then the pain of smarter people would be worse than the pain of stupider people. Is Von Neumann’s pain worse than mine just because he’s smarter? Of course not—intelligence has nothing to do with how bad pain is.

Suppose that when you were in pain, there was a pill that made you very stupid, but you experienced the pain just as intensely. Would it be worth taking the pill? If being unintelligent makes your pain less bad, then the pill would make the pain less bad. But this is clearly crazy. Pain is bad because of how it feels—but how it feels has absolutely nothing to do with how smart the victim of it is.

Some humans are severely mentally enfeebled. Some might even be as enfeebled as fish. Is their pain mostly irrelevant? No, of course not. Is babies’ pain irrelevant because babies are dumb? No! So it can’t be mere unintelligence that makes one’s pain mostly irrelevant.

Maybe what matters is that fish are part of an unintelligent species. But why does species matter? It seems like the badness of your pain depends on facts about you, rather than about others. But whether your species is intelligent is a fact about others. So it can’t affect the badness of pain.

Suppose we killed all humans except the most mentally enfeebled. Would their pain stop being bad? What if they had babies for many generations, such that almost all humans who ever lived were very unintelligent? Of course not! Or suppose we discovered that some mentally enfeebled people had a strange disease that didn’t affect them cognitively, but made them their own species. Would this make their pain not bad? Well, if species matters, and this disease made them part of an unintelligent species, then it would make their pain not bad.

Maybe you’re not sure about all this. Well, if you’re not sure, then you shouldn’t risk something that might be the worst thing ever by orders of magnitude. If you’re not sure whether something is the worst thing ever, it’s still a very, very serious problem.

Fish are a basic test of our empathy. They are weird and slimy and gross and hard to empathize with. They are not cute, they cannot cuddle with us. There is no political coalition nor side of the culture war that makes a big deal out of representing their interests. But they can suffer. Trillions of them scream silently because of our actions. We, as a species, are failing the basic task of having a modicum of empathy for these poor, defenseless creatures. Every three days, we kill more fish than there are humans, because we totally ignore the interests of such creatures. Humanity is carrying out a crime of unimaginable proportions.

If you only empathize with those who are cute and cuddly and look like you, that is not real empathy. If you only put yourself in the shoes of the victim when the victim reminds you of yourself, that is an utter failure of empathy. Even if you cannot imagine being the recipient of some experience, if you know it is a horrifying one—if you know you would scream in agony if you were to experience it—you should see it as something worth preventing.

The solution is relatively simple. We, as consumers, should stop paying for the cruel mistreatment of fish. Until fish farming becomes remotely humane, we should stop paying for fish. In addition, the government should impose strict regulations on fish farming, and potentially ban it altogether. As individuals, we should donate to organizations that help save fish from unspeakable cruelty.

Literally trillions of fish are being killed in horrifying ways. The world is almost entirely silent about this crime of unimaginable proportions. Compared to the crimes we commit beneath the seas, every other issue pales in comparison. If you eat fish, that is probably the worst thing you’re doing, unless you’re a serial killer. One shouldn’t take actions unless they could justify them to the victims of the actions. But we could not justify our actions to torture and disembowel fish to the fish themselves. If we ever come across aliens that are very different from us, but intelligent, they should pay very careful attention to how we treat fish. If we can’t meet the low bar of not torturing them en masse just because they are different, then we are truly a violent, cruel, and inhumane species.


New Comment
49 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:45 AM

The most up-to-date report—and also one of the most conservative—found that the least sentient fish that they surveyed experience suffering about one-twentieth as intensely as human suffering.

You cite this as though this is a fact that was discovered through some sort of empirical research, but of course it’s nothing of the sort.

Even the claim that fish can suffer, at all (much less “one-twentieth as intensely” as people suffer!) is not sufficiently well-established to take as given. (It seems false to me, for example.)

And the Rethink Priorites report you link in fact says:

  • These estimates are, essentially, estimates of the differences in the possible intensities of these animals' pleasures and pains relative to humans' pleasures and pains. Then, we add a number of controversial (albeit plausible) philosophical assumptions (including hedonism, valence symmetry, and others discussed here) to reach conclusions about animals' welfare ranges relative to human's welfare range.

And, indeed, they sure do make many philosophical assumptions that are very controversial, such as:

For simplicity’s sake, we assume that humans’ welfare range is symmetrical around the neutral point.

Hedonism, according to which welfare is determined wholly by positively and negatively valenced experiences (roughly, experiences that feel good and bad to the subject).

Valence symmetry, according to which positively and negatively valenced experiences of equal intensities have symmetrical impacts on welfare.

And many more.

What’s more, the actual numbers were generated by a very complicated process of surveying an extensive literature in animal psychology and related fields, and converting some exceedingly complex, (in many cases) very uncertain, and (in most cases) qualitative findings, into numbers. This process involved many essentially arbitrary steps, judgment calls, philosophically questionable reifications, etc., etc., such that it is extremely unclear whether the resulting values even mean anything at all, much less whether they map well to anything like our usual concept of “suffering”, or any other concept at all.

So this numerical ratio which you so blithely quote is not even close to being well-grounded enough to be able to support anything like the sort of argument you give.

I think the poster acknowledges that the number 20 is somewhat ad hoc and handwavy, for example they go on to do the calculations later in their post assuming fish suffering is 100 times less than human suffering. So they have given the number a factor 5 uncertainty.

Although, when I was reading the post, I saw that as more a rhetorical "trap" than a real point. As soon as the poster says "fish suffering is 20 times less important than human suffering" it invites everyone to focus on the number 20, and start trying to work out if a ratio of 100 or 1,000 would align better with their own instincts. The trap is that anyone who accepts the real premise: that human suffering and fish suffering are somehow interchangeable up to some exchange rate, is already going to be snared by the argument because even gigantic factors are going to make fish farming work out as a bigger problem than say, gun homicides or traffic accidents.

They don't give a factor 5 uncertainty. They add a 100x discount on top of the 20x discount — counting fish suffering as 2000x less important than human suffering.

There's a trollish answer to this point (that I somewhat agree with) which is to just say: okay, let's adopt moral uncertainty over all of the philosophically difficult premises too, so let's say there's only a 1% chance that raw intensity of pain matters and 99% that you need to be self reflective in certain ways to have qualia and suffer in a way that matters morally, or you should treat it as scaling with cortical neurons, or only humans matter.

...and probably the math still works out very unfavorably.

I say trollish because a decision procedure like this strikes me as likely to swamp and overwhelm you with way too many different considerations pointing in all sorts of crazy directions and to be just generally unworkable so I feel like something has to be going wrong here.

Still, I do feel like the fact that the answer is non-obvious in this way and does rely on philosophical reflection means you can't draw many deep abiding conclusions about human empathy or the "worthiness" of human civilization (whatever that really means) from how we treat fish

One objection to this method of dealing with moral uncertainty comes from this great post on the EA forum: it covers an old paper by Tyler Cowen which argues that once you give any consideration to utilitarianism, it's common knowledge that you're susceptible to moral dilemmas like the repugnant conclusion, and (here comes the interesting claim) there's no escape from this, including by invoking moral uncertainty:

A popular response in the Effective Altruist community to problems that seem to involve something like dogmatism or ‘value dictatorship’—indeed, the response William MacAskill gave when Cowen himself made some of these points in an interview—is to invoke moral uncertainty. If your moral view faces challenges like these, you should downweigh your confidence in it; and then, if you place some weight on multiple moral views, you should somehow aggregate their recommendations, to reach an acceptable compromise between ethical outlooks.

Various theories of moral uncertainty exist, outlining how this aggregation works; but none of them actually escape the issue. The theories of moral uncertainty that Effective Altruists rely on are themselves frameworks for commensurating values and systematically ranking options, and (as such) they are also vulnerable to ‘value dictatorship’, where after some point the choices recommended by utilitarianism come to swamp the recommendations of other theories. In the literature, this phenomenon is well-known as ‘fanaticism’.[10]

Once you let utilitarian calculations into your moral theory at all, there is no principled way to prevent them from swallowing everything else. And, in turn, there’s no way to have these calculations swallow everything without them leading to pretty absurd results. While some of you might bite the bullet on the repugnant conclusion or the experience machine, it is very likely that you will eventually find a bullet that you don’t want to bite, and you will want to get off the train to crazy town; but you cannot consistently do this without giving up the idea that scale matters, and that it doesn’t just stop mattering after some point.

So, what other options are there? Well, this is where Cowen’s paper comes in: it turns out, there are none. For any moral theory with universal domain where utility matters at all, either the marginal value of utility diminishes rapidly (asymptotically) towards zero, or considerations of utility come to swamp all other values.

I say trollish because a decision procedure like this strikes me as likely to swamp and overwhelm you with way too many different considerations pointing in all sorts of crazy directions and to be just generally unworkable so I feel like something has to be going wrong here.


I feel like this decision procedure is difficult but necessary, in that I can't think of any other decision procedure you can follow that won't cause you to pass up on enormous amounts of utility, cause you to violate lots of deontological constraints, or whatever you decide morality is made of on reflection. Surely if you actually think some consideration is 1% to be true, you should act on it?

There are lots of people who have tried to esstimate the intensity of fish suffering.  I think the rethink priorities report is the best methodologically--but the others tend to estimate that fish suffer more.  If you note in the RP report, they say that those controversial philosophical assumptions don't affect the end result much.  I agree that it's very uncertain--this report gives the lowest estimate I was able to find. 

If you note in the RP report, they say that those controversial philosophical assumptions don’t affect the end result much.

They say this of some of their assumptions (a small subset, really), not all of them. (And I am not sure I believe them even about that subset.)

I think the rethink priorities report is the best methodologically

This says more about the fundamental problems with the entire endeavor (not to mention the epistemic sloppiness of animal-rights advocacy in general) than it does about the RP report’s conclusions.

I agree that it’s very uncertain—this report gives the lowest estimate I was able to find.

Surely this can’t be true.

For example, my estimate is that the “intensity of fish suffering” is “zero” and/or “undefined” (either answer may be appropriate, depending on how you construe the question). That’s much lower, I think you’ll agree, than the number given by the RP report!

Now, perhaps you don’t consider me a credible source on this question. That’s fine. My point, however, is this: if some people think that “fish can suffer” is both true and something that can be meaningfully measured or estimated, but other people think that “fish can suffer” is silly, incoherent nonsense, then the following things will be true:

  1. The former sort of people will be the ones engaging in such estimation/measurement efforts, and producing such reports.

  2. The former sort of people will, almost necessarily, be the sort of people who care about animal rights, animal welfare, animal advocacy, etc.

  3. That means that the set of people who take the question (“how intensely can fish suffer”) seriously, and attempt to produce an answer, will be selected for being the sorts of people who are inclined to come up with an answer that implies we should care about the suffering of fish.

Thus when you say “well, I went looking for serious attempts to measure/estimate the answer to the question ‘how intensely do fish suffer’, and here are the answers I found”, you will of course get stuff like this “one-twentieth as much as humans”, and are pretty much guaranteed not to get answers like “not at all, in fact the question is confused to begin with”—but this outcome will be almost uncorrelated with which answer is actually true.

That's all true, but it's essentially nitpicking. Nothing important hangs on those estimates being correct. I sure hope you're not going to keep eating farmed fish based on the estimates being imperfect. Why would you assume fish don't suffer? The cortex isn't doing something magically different to raise the suffering of mammals above some threshold into the realm of "real" suffering. Much less language and conceptual thinking making human suffering the only real kind.

Animals very likely suffer, it's just emotionally unpleasant for us to accept that, so we find excuses to not think about factory farming.

That’s all true, but it’s essentially nitpicking. Nothing important hangs on those estimates being correct.

But of course it does. If those estimates are wrong (and if they are, why should they only be wrong by such a piddling factor as, say, 5? why not instead 10^5? Or 10^50? beware of anchoring bias!), or, even worse, if they are simply meaningless, then the conclusions of the report are of no value and no relevance.

Consider what you’re saying. A group of researchers and philosophers work on this massive report, with its innumerable details, numbers, long chains of reasoning, a mountain of literature reviewed, etc., and you say—oh, it doesn’t matter if any of these numbers they came up with are right? Is that really your position?

(Would you say the same thing if the report’s conclusion was that animals basically don’t matter morally? If that turned out to be the way the numbers come out?)

I sure hope you’re not going to keep eating farmed fish based on the estimates being imperfect.

I sure hope you’re not suggesting that I should stop eating farmed fish based on such philosophically shaky reasoning!

Why would you assume fish don’t suffer?

I do not assume this; I conclude it.

The cortex isn’t doing something magically different to raise the suffering of mammals above some threshold into the realm of “real” suffering.

Citation needed, I’m afraid. (And the word “magically” is, of course, a fnord.)

Animals very likely suffer, it’s just emotionally unpleasant for us to accept that, so we find excuses to not think about factory farming.

On the contrary, I’m perfectly well aware of factory farming.

Consider that people who do not share your conclusions may actually, in fact, disagree with you, both about values and about empirical claims.

Yes, it all hinges on that missing citation about continuity of brain function. After 23 years of studying brain computations, I've reached the conclusion that a sharp discuntinuity relevant to suffering is wishful thinking. But that requires a good deal more discussion.

This is a much deeper issue. I probably shouldn't have commented about it so briefly. I've resisted commenting on this on LW because it's an unpopular opinion, and it's practically way less important than aligning AGI so we survive to work through our ethics.

For now I'll just ask you to consider what direction your bias pulls in. I'd far prefer to believe that fish don't suffer. And I humbly suggest that rationalists aren't immune to confirmation bias.

Yes, it all hinges on that missing citation about continuity of brain function.

Just on this? Nothing else?

It seems to me that there are quite a few controversial, questionable, or unjustified claims and steps of reasoning involved, beyond this one!

If you disagree—well, I await your persuasive argument to that effect…

For now I’ll just ask you to consider what direction your bias pulls in. I’d far prefer to believe that fish don’t suffer. And I humbly suggest that rationalists aren’t immune to confirmation bias.

Certainly I am not immune to confirmation bias! (I prefer to avoid labeling myself a “rationalist”, though I don’t necessarily object to the term as a description of the social-graph sort…)

But that by itself tells me nothing. To change my beliefs about something, you do actually have to convince me that there’s some reason to update. Just saying “ah, but you could be biased” isn’t enough. Of course I could be biased. This is true of any of my beliefs, on any topic.

Meanwhile, here’s something for you to consider. Suppose you convinced me that fish can suffer. (Let’s avoid specifying how much it turns out that they can suffer, or whether comparing their suffering to that of humans is meaningful; we will say only that they do, in some basically ordinary and not exotic or bizarre sense of the word, exhibit some degree of suffering.)

Would I stop eating fish? Nope.

Why do you conclude that fish don't suffer?

Has anybody tried to quantify how much worse are fish farm conditions are compared to the wild? Since, from anecdotal but somewhat first-hand experience, wild environments for fish can hardly be described as anything but horror as well

If we anthropomophise a sardine, we discover his life is as hellish as can realistically be imagined. He is incessantly hunted for much of his short existance. His life consists of watching his family being devoured until he too is eaten. No other fate can befall him. The most known quote from the Killing Star describes his life extremely accurately: 

I have considered the ethical implications of ranch-based meat farming in this light. The buffalo will live a life of constant hunger, fear, fighting and fleeing. When he becomes frail (or injured, or sick), he will eventually be eaten by either hunters (if he is lucky) or scavengers. There is no other death possible on the savanna. But the bull in a herd in a large estancia, ranch or cattle station? He wanders as he pleases his entire life, free of predators, free of suffering and free of starvation. His death is, at least in the ideal, sudden, painless and unexpected. Would I rather be a buffalo or a ranched bull? 

I don't necessarily disagree, I stopped fishing because a worm writhing on a hook is gives me enough emotional discomfort. However the missing link is pain -> suffering. We know that this is not automatic, and we do not know how to tell if something is capable of suffering. We sort of infer it, and it's reasonable to assume that mammals are like that, after all, they can get PTSD and such. Some rather smart birds can get depressed, so it is another point toward them capable of suffering. I am much less sure that fish can suffer in the way we mean it. Do you know of any experiments that measure suffering rather than pain in fish?

Well, the depression thing seems like suffering.  But pain is a type of suffering.  Suffering I take is just negative mental states.  But pain is a negative mental state.  

Almost every sentence in your comment is a philosophically questionable claim:

But pain is a type of suffering.

I don’t think that this is true.

Suffering I take is just negative mental states.

I don’t think that this is true, either.

But pain is a negative mental state.

And this one might be true, might be false, depending on how it’s construed—but useless, even misleading, if not nailed down with sufficient precision and rigor.

In short, your argument rests on a tower of philosophical claims which are questionable at best, totally unjustified at worst.

Now, you may disagree with my evaluation (“questionable at best, totally unjustified at worst”), but the characterization (“your argument rests on a tower of philosophical claims”) is not seriously disputable. At the very least we can uncontroversially append “which are controversial” to that characterization. But that means that your argument, in order to be convincing or even to be taken seriously, must at the very least acknowledge the aforesaid fact.

What do you think suffering is if pain doesn't count? I'm genuinely curious.

See the comments to this post.

Utilitarianism says pleasure and pain matter and nothing else does.

A correction: only hedonistic utilitarianism says this. Preference utilitarianism, for example, makes no such claim.

True!  Will fix. 

The claim "fish can suffer and this is morally important" is not uncontroversial. Also, not all possible points of disagreement are related to biology. I mean, the reaction you just got proved as much.

I'm pointing this out because you've written several posts about related topics before, and all of them assumed more background agreement than is actually there. I'm not saying that understanding these disagreements will cause you to change your mind (in fact I think that's very unlikely), but just as a matter of effectively communicating, it would be worth trying; otherwise, you'll keep being frustrated with people reacting strangely to your writing.

I think it kinda works here just because many people consider "fish can suffer and this is morally important" plausible enough to take seriously. As you pointed out, the quantitative case is very strong; even a small probability makes it a moral priority. But I would not write stuff like "But let’s be super conservative and say that there’s only a 50% chance that they can feel pain." when e.g. Eliezer would put way less than 10% on fish feeling pain in a morally relevant way.

e.g. Eliezer would put way less than 10% on fish feeling pain in a morally relevant way

Semi-tangent: setting aside the 'morally relevant way' part, has Eliezer ever actually made the case for his beliefs about (the absence of) qualia in various animals? The impression I've got is that he expresses quite high confidence, but sadly the margin is always too narrow to contain the proof.

I don't know any place where he wrote it up properly, but he's said enough to infer that he's confident that consciousness is about higher-order thoughts (i.e., self-reflection/meta-awareness/etc.) This explains the confidence that chickens aren't conscious, and it would extend to fish as well.

If you can't justify a large chance, just using a small chance instead allows you to be Pascal mugged when that small chance is combined with a calculation that shows a huge amount of suffering.

Pascal's mugging usually involves tiny probabilities though, and you need to have pretty darn confident philosophical beliefs to go below 1% here.

This is true - but the logic wrt brain function says to me that the proper chance that fish suffer is very high. The neural circuits are different in complexity but not fundamental type (representations about the world including bodily state, etc) from humans.

Whether or not fish suffer, it seems people are mostly ok with the existence of "suffering farms" as long as they're out of sight. It's just a nasty fact about people. And once you allow yourself to notice suffering, you start noticing that it's everywhere. There's a good book "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" where the author lives in a cabin in the woods to be close to nature, and then gradually starts to notice how insects are killing each other in horrible ways all the time, under every leaf, for millions of years.

And so, whether or not fish suffer, maybe I should try to be less ok with "suffering farms" in general. Though if I take one too many steps on that road, people will kind of take me for a loony - but maybe it's still worth it?

The strongest counterarguments against this point of view that I know are based on some kind of human specialness. Like, all these things in nature sure do eat each other in horrible ways, but they were doing it before we came along, and none of them would feel the slightest remorse about eating me. That maybe makes it ok for me to catch and eat them - but farming them still seems bad. Let's farm plants, and hope they don't feel too much pain.


I was going to call you out for a bit of a bait-and-switch in the paragraph starting 'Lewis Bollard notes...'

Lewis Bollard notes “The fishing industry alone kills 3-8 billion animals every day, most by slow suffocation, crushing, or live disemboweling.” So roughly the same number of fish are killed in horrifying, inhumane ways every few days as there are people on earth.

because the 3-8 billion number is for *wild* fish killed each year, not farmed fish (Lewis Bollard cites this article which explicitly states 'Marine invertebrates and farmed fish are not included in this estimate'). I can think of several reasons why eating wild caught fish is less bad than farmed fish (eg. the fish were not brought into existence by demand for them, wild conditions are less bad (?) than farm conditions, they were going to die anyway and dying a 'natural' death for a wild fish is plausibly no better than dying after being caught etc.)

However, after a cursory bit of background research it seems like the 3-8 billion figure massively *understates* your case. Two estimates that I found here and here suggest that the actual figure for annual farmed fish killed per year is somewhere between 50 and 170 billion.

Your paragraph using the 3-8 billion figure is still misleading, but the truth only strengthens your case.

You quote 3-8 billion per day, then the other numbers you mention are annual numbers.  3-8 billion per day would be ~1-3 trillion per year.  Seems your first reaction may have been more accurate.

Oh damn, you're right. That was a stupid mistake. 

Yes, so the 3-8 billion fish per day does overstate the number of farmed fish killed. The real number of farmed fish killed per day is somewhere between 0.1 billion and 0.5 billion, which is a lot less than the wild fish killed per day.

At some point, Utilitarians are going to have to come up with a specific weighting of moral patienthood weight between different individuals.  

By their behavior, we can see that it's highly variable (a factor of hundreds or more, even between different existing humans, much more between some existing humans and most potential humans, and more still between humans and animals, and between different animal individuals).  It's hard to take the project to be legible about effectiveness in altruism if this difference remains unacknowledged and without any attempt to calculate it.

For me (not a Utilitarian, so discount my opinion as you see fit), I think that slight increases in a human enjoyment is worth large losses in even mammals, let alone fish or insects.  

I don't think Utilitarians are a sufficiency homogenous group for them all to agree to any kind of specific weighting. And I don't really see why that is a problem. Each individual utilitarian might be internally coherent, that doesn't mean the group will agree on anything much or be coherent taken together.

You say you are not a utilitarian, and then you offer a utilitarian argument (my understanding of your argument: fish suffering is worth human enjoyment). Maybe we are using the words differently, but I would say anyone who is trying to weigh up the suffering/pleasure on either side of a decision to determine its morality is fundamentally a utilitarian.

Many (most?) people do not approach ethics in this way at all. They take axioms like "murder is wrong" or "eating fish is natural" and the pleasure or suffering that follows as a consequence of the actions taken is irrelevant to their morality.

True, I didn't mean that Utilitarians must agree on a weighting, but that each person who makes a Utilitarian-based argument for behavior change must have this weighting as part of their model.  And that the conversion factor across individuals is a valid point of disagreement, even among those who share a general framework.

I am neither a utilitarian nor a deontologist (not sure precisely what I am, mostly a "muddled human mess", with MANY of my actions and beliefs illegible, even to me).  But I'm happy to discuss the effects of various frameworks, and I (perhaps mistakenly) took the post to be a utilitarian-like framework for recognizing one kind of suffering, presumably with the intent to reduce it.

Thanks for clarifying, that makes sense.

I also have no idea what I am. Maybe something in the vein of something I think Hume proposed, where you are a kind of second-order utilitarian. (You use utilitarianism to determine a set of rules of thumb, you then follow those rules of thumb instead of actually being a utilitarian.)

No part of my argument assumes that one is a utilitarian. 

Apologies if I misunderstood - on re-reading it, I don't actually see any explicit conclusions or weighting framework for decision-making based on the assertions made.  I did assume you were implying some Utilitarian-like model where fish have moral weight, enough to override human preferences.  

If that's NOT your position, please clarify.

I challenge you to make any coherent argument for this. After a lifetime of studying brain function, I can't justify eating factory farmed meat, because there's no logical threshold between human brain function wrt suffering, and simpler animals. It's on a spectrum of complexity, not a binary category.

You're free to have whatever values you want, but not to claim consistency where it doesn't exist. Saying you care about some suffering and not other suffering isn't logically coherent - unless you really don't care about any suffering, just keeping the right social loyalties. Most humans just haven't bothered to work through a logically consistent ethical framework - they just care about what their ingroup cares about, since that is easy and pragmatically useful.

I'm not sure exactly what you want me to provide a "coherent argument for", but I'll take it as my decision to eat meat and fish (including factory-farmed.  Including veal and foie gras.  Excluding cetacians and endangered species for diversity-preservation reasons, and excluding humans, mostly for social-cost reasons, I think).

It's quite consistent to say that I care about both pleasure/satisfaction and suffering (and other dimensions of experience), and that some pleasures outweigh some (or even most) suffering.  It may mean that I'm a jerk or a utility monster, but it doesn't mean that I'm incoherent.  Note that part of my beliefs is that there a LOT of complexity which is hard to communicate, and things that may appear inconsistent to you are actually different situations to me.  

It's a complex topic, and I probably shouldn't have jumped in on the comments section. You are of course welcome to your own preferences; I only take issue with claims of logical consistency. Fish either do or don't suffer relative to the human suffering we care about; it's a question of fact, not preference. It's worth a whole post about the brain mechanisms underlying suffering. But I haven't written that post, because alignment seems more important, and I might just put it off until the small matter of human survival is settled. I also prioritize humans drastically over other animals but I'm pretty sure my ethical behavior is logically inconsistent and only pragmatically useful.

I don't claim to know whether fish suffer, nor really how much they suffer.  I will say that I distinguish pain from suffering (in an imperfectly modeled way, but consistent with the saying "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional"), and I'm suspicious that neurological studies I've seen seem to conflate the two. 

The question of importance (how much weight to give such suffering) is, as you say, more important.  I find it less important than the enjoyment of cheap, available seafood.  You don't have to.  This is a valid difference of preference without either of us being wrong.

Saying you care about some suffering and not other suffering isn’t logically coherent

Why? What’s logically incoherent about it?

I care about the suffering of people, but not the suffering (or, perhaps more accurately, “suffering”) of non-people. This seems straightforward enough.

Is there some logical theorem that dictates that I should care about things other than that which I do, in fact, care about? How can there be such a thing?

I can’t really be persuaded by this kind of argument, because suffering (and pain) is not coherent enough for this kind of calculus. Why couldn’t plants suffer? What about one-celled organisms? It’s arbitrary.

Plants can definitely suffer. They have a stress response that can be interrupted by small molecules, which we could suggestively call "painkillers," concepts like "suffering" do a good job of communicating important information to you about the state of a plant, etc.

Agreed that what to do about this is not fixed by that fact. Mostly I don't care about either plants or fish.

Plant suffering depends on completely unverified theories of subjective experience (See Suffering is possibly unmeasurable. We only know that we can suffer and we assume others can suffer because they seem similar enough to us. Plants are different enough than animals with central nervous systems that assuming they can suffer seems a shaky proposition. One could write a microcontroller program that makes some signal if it's circuit is damaged. Does that mean that program can suffer?

If you think that there's a bright line somewhere - some fact of the matter about where to really draw a category boundary around suffering, which requires a "theory of subjective experience" without which we can't usefully answer whether plants suffer - then I'm sort of disinterested in talking to you about plant suffering. Unless you want to change tacks and talk about the object level of plant cognition and plant stress responses? They're cool.

One could write a microcontroller program that makes some signal if it's circuit is damaged.

People are not fundamentally different from such a microcontroller. It’s signals all the way down.

One can try to do suffering calculus like in the original post, based on certain axioms, but these are unfalsifiable. Realistically, suffering calculus is based on a political and sociological consensus, e.g., the Overton window. Humans have political representation and Western civilization has human equality as a kind of axiom, at least nominally, so in the Western world there is a lot of incentive to reduce all human suffering (unlike in China, for example, where Uyghurs are marginalized). Animals have far less representation, so there is less incentive to reduce suffering. In my country, there is a Party for Animals with a few seats in Parliament, voted in by people (because axiomatically animals don’t have the right to vote) who do it to perhaps virtue signal, or because the human brain is wired to empathize more with similar beings, or for unfalsifiable philosophical considerations, or for some other reason which for other voting blocs is not in their Overton window. For plants the situation is far more dire. It is in principle possible that for large swaths of the public the Overton window shifts such that they will refuse to support the “slaughter” of plants. But what’s in the Overton window is separate from the facts and there are no facts of the matter about suffering.

I dislike when fish suffer because I feel sad, and because other people want fish to not suffer for moral reasons.