Death Aquatic

Can science tell us how chefs should treat lobsters? The Independent this week implies it can. It seems that this is important to diners who want reassurance that their dinner has not been killed in a “barbaric” manner.

Science may of course discover the quickest or easiest method of killing. Norwegian researchers in particular have dedicated significant time to this research. Of methods including ice, nitrogen gas, freezing, gradual or rapid heating, piercing of ganglia, salt baths and carbon dioxide gas, apparently electricity is best. A commercial product, “Crustastun” offers the ability to replicate this in the kitchen. However, the retail cost of £2,500, puts this out of the reach of all but the richest, most gadget obsessed or humanitarian seafood lovers. But there is a more basic question: do lobsters really feel pain?

Arguments used by the affirmative camp rely on scientific evidence of the similarities between crustaceans and humans. However, our own understanding of pain is a subjective conscious experience, often but not invariably accompanied by some form of injury. It is only an inference that even other humans experience similar pain to us. Then there is a spectrum where responses to stimulus or injury appear more dissimilar the less the organism is related to human life. Ambulant organisms generally react in some way to harmful stimulus. Even the Mimosa Pudica folds its leaves when touched. It might be reasonable to assume that other mammals experience something akin to our pain, but the jump to a lobster seems a long one. Drawing the line is difficult so some, such as The Shellfish Network, refuse to do so, insisting that protection should be extended to prawns, mussels and oysters.

Those on the other side tend to prefer to use consciousness as the criterion. Disney aside, it is intuitively difficult to conceive of a conscious lobster (though Sebastian is of course a crab). This approach is still problematical: consciousness is just as difficult to pin down as pain and it is not clear exactly why this should be the important test. Our intuitions also seem to resist using consciousness as the test: few would consider spiders, butterflies, ants or worms as conscious, but many would be unhappy at unnecessary cruelty to these creatures. While there could be other explanations, a key aspect seems to be our intuition that they feel something akin to pain.

Some may put such concerns down to simple misguided anthropomorphism based on beliefs such as that lobsters “scream” when they are cooked. There may be something to this. It does seem strange that diners appear much more concerned with the manner of a lobster’s treatment than the fact of its death. One would assume that from a lobster’s (theoretical) perspective, its concern would be the other way round.

There may be a more straightforward explanation for the apparent concern. While I cannot pretend to have an answer to whether lobsters experience pain, I suspect that most diners’ concerns relate mainly to their proximity to the killing. Fresh food may be the key to success in a restaurant, but many are squeamish if forced to think how their dinner met its end. The baleful gaze of a tank of lobsters is hard to ignore. By contrast, a tuna is a vertebrate with a larger brain, yet it is rare to hear concern over the way they are caught. It is probably no coincidence that we normally meet tuna in the form of a steak or a dinky sliver of flesh balanced on seasoned rice.

Science cannot yet tell us whether other creatures feel pain, though it can give us techniques for feeling less squeamish about the killing of our dinner. However, rather than seek the reassurance of technology in exceptional cases, it may be that our efforts would be better spent on recognising and acknowledging the effect of our wider consumption preferences. This could assist in engendering a more responsible attitude towards our environment and the other creatures that live in it.

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5 Responses to Death Aquatic

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Interesting post, especially for those like me who tend to follow Singer’s sentient-utilitarian stance on ethics. It seems to me that a crucial issue is how we are defining pain, and in particular which definition we consider to be morally relevant. As with all ethical matters, I consider this to be a matter of choice rather than of truth.

  • Dennis J. Tuchler says:

    More likely than not, killing animals for food is painful, in most cases to the animals. So, to avoid pain caused by humans (we can’t avoid pain caused by other things experienced in the wild), avoid killing animals for food and, indeed, avoid all efficient raising and marketing of animals for food.

    It won’t happen. Here, the utilitarian project runs up against a hard and high cultural wall.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Dennis, I certainly agree that a serious attempt to change our current practices would require a cultural shift that at this stage seems rather unlikely, at least in the short term. In the longer term, I think our intuitions about what is or isn’t realistic tend to be highly unreliable.

    But I also want to pick up on the following comment in Paul’s post: “our own understanding of pain is a subjective conscious experience”. I don’t entirely agree with this statement, but I do think that this is *one* of the senses in which we tend to use the word, “pain”, and I think it’s pretty clear that lobsters (for example) do not have the cognitive capacity to process the relevant signals coming from their nervous system in a way that would give them the kind of experience we are referring to here. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for other animals (possible exceptions being great apes, dolphins and whales). As Paul also points out, there appears to be “a spectrum where responses to stimulus or injury appear more dissimilar the less the organism is related to human life”.

    Another point of course is that just because a particular ethical approach is likely to come up against a “high cultural wall” doesn’t mean it’s wrong. One can be a utilitarian and still be pessimistic about the prospects for actually improving well-being. In this context, I remain of the view that preserving human civilisation, and preparing for the all-too-likely major environmental-geopolitical-technological crises (not to mention the possibility of extreme-impact events), is what we should mainly be focusing on right now.

  • I like this post.

    “… I suspect that most diners’ concerns relate mainly to their proximity to the killing. Fresh food may be the key to success in a restaurant, but many are squeamish if forced to think how their dinner met its end. The baleful gaze of a tank of lobsters is hard to ignore. By contrast, a tuna is a vertebrate with a larger brain, yet it is rare to hear concern over the way they are caught. It is probably no coincidence that we normally meet tuna in the form of a steak or a dinky sliver of flesh balanced on seasoned rice.”

    I think you mean here that diners’ concerns relate mainly to their proximity to *what is perhaps a horrific* killing. It’s not simply proximity, but proximity to the sort of killing involved. If the lobsters were zapped to death immediately, then it seems people wouldn’t care so much. Similarly, I have been to many back road restaurants which purport to have their own chickens or ducks out back somewhere. People aren’t generally too concerned about the welfare of the poultry due to how they are killed.

  • I teach this subject to my undergraduate students, both as a stand alone issue in practical ethics, and as an intro to the philosophy of mind. David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster” (published in Gourmet of all places) makes an *excellent* text for introducing students to these topics. And of course, it is a wonderful read, pedagogical purposes aside.

    http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/consider_the_lobster

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