Eating fish but no meat? You are probably suffering from the Pescatarian Paradox

Regardless of your own personal views on the morality of eating meat and fish, the facts are clear: humanity’s current habits are not good for the environment, our health or animal welfare. And knowing all this, it can be difficult to continue with a meat-based diet instead of switching to full veganism.

Of course, there is a convincing counterargument to that: being vegan is difficult. Or rude, or invalidating, or any number of other undesirable things – which is why some people choose to simply limit their meat consumption to fish or seafood.

But does that decision really solve the ethical problems it is intended to answer? A bit no, actually. So why is it so popular? A recent study delved into the reasoning behind the dietary choices of ten pescatarians to discover the secret – and the results were nothing short of paradoxical.

What is the Pescatarian’s Paradox?

Before we can understand the paradox of the pescatarian, we need to do some background research. If you’ve ever embraced ethical vegetarianism, you’re probably already familiar with the meat paradox: the conflict between loving or even loving animals while simultaneously supporting an industry that is intrinsically dependent on their suffering and death.

And we can go further. There’s also the cheese paradox, which those same ethical vegetarians use every time they consume eggs or milk: a combination of claiming to care for animals and their welfare, while at the same time relying on some pretty heinous practices to meet their dairy needs.

With that in mind, you can probably figure out the pescatarian’s paradox: the problem lies somewhere in the middle, versus those witch sitters who avoid most meat but allow fish or seafood into their diet.

For many, this position is a sensible compromise, eliminating the worst aspects of the meat industry without going too extreme. But philosophically, this may be the thorniest position of all: despite what many believe, fish can probably feel pain; they can be depressed, they can get stressed, and they can love and care for their little fish families.

Also, the fishing industry is not particularly “friendly” to the environment – ​​another common justification for not using meat from land animals. For example, livestock farming is known to produce almost 15 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, including about two-thirds of global emissions of nitrous oxide – a gas whose global warming potential is almost 300 times that of carbon dioxide. But commercial fishing also has a huge impact in this regard: according to 2021 calculations, bottom trawling alone – that is, catching fish with heavy nets that drag across the seabed – emits roughly the same amount of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as entire fishery. aviation industry.

And here’s the thing: ethical pescatarians must know about these problems. They at least presumably accept that animals can suffer and believe that they should be spared pain. They are even willing to completely overhaul their diet to take that into account.

And yet that is absolutely a dead animal on their plate. So why don’t fish count?

Why your diet is making you uncomfortable

At the heart of all these riddles is the concept of cognitive dissonance: the oh-so-human ability to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and the psychological discomfort this causes.

Let’s say you are an animal lover, but you also eat meat. Well, there’s no way around it: you want animals to die. For example, every time you eat a BLT, you enjoy the fact that someone killed a pig. So how can you say you love animals?

It’s not fun to think about it, right? That’s why our minds rebel and usually choose one of three options to resolve the psychological tension: we can change our values ​​and decide that we don’t actually like animals that much; we can change our behavior and become vegan or vegetarian; or – and this is generally the most popular choice – we can continue as we are, and make some sort of excuse as to why everything is actually fine.

With the meat paradox, these excuses are traditionally summed up as the ‘Four N’s’ – the name stands for Natural, Normal, Necessary and Nice – and if you want to see examples of them, check out the comments section to the right. now. Eating meat can cause pain, suffering and death to billions of animals every year, supporters claim not eating it is simply unfeasible in the real world – it’s unhealthy, or difficult, or even just not that tasty to go vegan.

The cheese paradox is circumvented in a slightly different way: it is often justified by abstraction. It is not without reason that there is a trend in Western countries towards less consumption of fluid milk and higher cheese consumption: as a newspaper from last year put it: “the further a product [is] removed from its animal origins, the more willing humans [consume] It.”

So which course will the pescatarians choose?

Defending your dinner

According to the study, there are three main ways pescatarians justify their dietary ethics – and the first is something we’re already familiar with. It’s the idea that pescatarianism is simply a practical compromise between the carnistic and vegan spectrum: yes, eating meat is bad, the study participants agree, but cutting all It would be too difficult, or too extreme.

Is it a logical argument? Not really – as the authors note, “feasibility is a subjective perception that can neither be proven nor refuted by objective arguments.” But is it effective? Certainly, “the participants in this study were able to provide a variety of justifications for their current consumption of aquatic animals,” the study notes, defending their behavior by pointing to issues such as a lack of cooking skills, a lack of time, a desire to fit socially, in terms of health or in terms of taste pleasure.

If these excuses sound familiar, they should: It’s basically a repeat of the Four N’s ​​of carnistic cognitive dissonance. Perhaps that’s surprising – by rejecting terrestrial meat, a pescatarian is unlikely to be swayed by these arguments – but there’s another psychological trick that solves all the problems here: fish, some pescatarians in the study argued, don’t matter. as much as fish. other animals.

“When asked why participants continued to eat aquatic animals but not terrestrial animals, limited cognitive skills and an inability to feel pain were consistently cited as reasons for their decision,” the authors report – before pointing out that “evidence of cognitive skills and pain perception in fish is increasing.”

That was not the only strategy the participants used to distance themselves from the fish. Some pointed to the perceived evolutionary distance between ourselves and non-mammals in the water; Others claimed they could probably kill a fish themselves, “view[ing] this as a compelling argument justifying their consumption of pre-processed seafood,” the study says (this particular approach could lead to some strange conclusions, like the participant saying they wouldn’t eat “one of those fish that look like a hundred” .years old and big.”)

For others, psychological distance stemmed from actual, physical distance. The researchers discovered that cows and sheep had personalities; they could be friendly faces that the study participants saw every day and bonded with. Fish, on the other hand, were virtually invisible, both literally (participants were unlikely to see fish being farmed or living in the wild, and were therefore rarely confronted with the reality of their diet) and metaphorically, with many subjects reluctant to investigate or question their choices too closely.

In other words: cognitive dissonance? Just don’t think about it.

But it’s the last tactic that may seem the most baffling: When confronted with the discrepancy between their values ​​and their behavior, some pescatarians chose to – well, more or less deny that they eat meat at all.

“Despite being asked to identify themselves as pescetarians, most participants appeared to be less confident in their identity as pescetarians than expected,” the authors found. “This was reflected in the interchangeable use of the words ‘vegetarian’ and ‘pescetarian’ […] Some participants even compared their dietary habits to a predominantly plant-based lifestyle, despite their consumption of various animal products.”

It’s a strange tactic, but not uncommon: as many as one in four self-identifying vegetarians admit to eating fish, despite… well, you know. It may not even be completely unfair: seven out of ten participants indicated that they wanted to become vegetarian or vegan some period, even if those plans were, shall we say, not exactly set in stone.

But ironically, adopting this position may be the very thing that delays that professed goal. “[The] Comparison could allow pescetarians to socially distance themselves from meat eaters, making their choice to consume only marine animals seem more ethical,” the authors point out. “This is a potentially beneficial comparison that alleviates cognitive dissonance by creating a more positive and moral self-construction.”

In other words, aspiration is more important than action. “[Participants’] Generally expressed values ​​such as concern for animal welfare and environmental impact are more important to them than the question of whether they would eat a tuna sandwich for lunch,” the researchers conclude.

So, how can we solve the pescatarian’s paradox? It’s easy. It turns out there are no pescatarians – just a bunch of vegans who eat fish.

Isn’t that a relief?

The study was published in the journal Qualitative Research in Psychology.

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