Eat Fish But Not Meat? You’re Probably Suffering From The Pescatarian’s 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 great for the environment, our health, or animal welfare. And if you know all this, it can be hard to justify continuing with a meat-based diet, rather than switching to full veganism.

Of course, there’s a convincing counterargument to that: being vegan is hard. Or gross, or emasculating, or any number of other undesirable things – which is why some people choose instead to simply limit their meat consumption to fish or seafood only.

But does that decision really resolve the ethical problems it’s meant to answer? Kind of no, actually. So why is it so popular? A recent study delved into the reasoning behind 10 pescatarians’ dietary choices to figure out the secret – and the results were downright paradoxical.

What is the pescatarian’s paradox?

Before we can understand the pescatarian’s paradox, we need to do a little background research. Now, if you’ve ever embraced ethical vegetarianism, you’re probably already familiar with the meat paradox – the conflict between liking or even loving animals, while at the same time endorsing an industry that intrinsically depends on their suffering and death.

And we can go further. There’s also the cheese paradox, employed by those same ethical vegetarians every time they consume eggs or milk: a juxtaposition of claiming to care for animals and their welfare, while simultaneously relying on some pretty horrific practices to get their dairy fix.

With that in mind, you can probably work out the pescatarian’s paradox: it’s the problem somewhere in the middle, facing those fence-sitters who eschew most meat but allow fish or seafood into their diet. 

To many, this position is a sensible compromise, cutting out the worst aspects of the meat industry without going too extreme with their diet. But philosophically speaking, it’s perhaps the thorniest stance of all: despite what many believe, fish probably can feel pain; they can be depressed, they can get stressed out, and they can love and care for their little fishy families.

Neither is the fish industry particularly “kind” to the environment – another common justification for forgoing meat from terrestrial animals. It’s well-known, for example, that animal agriculture produces nearly 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, including some two-thirds of global nitrous oxide emissions – a gas whose global warming potential is nearly 300 times as much as carbon dioxide. But commercial fishing is also hugely impactful in this regard: according to calculations from 2021, bottom trawling alone – that is, catching fish using heavy nets that drag across the seabed – emits roughly the same amount of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as the entire aviation industry.

And here’s the thing: ethical pescatarians must know about these problems. At the very least, they presumably do accept that animals can suffer, and believe that they should be spared pain. They’re even willing to completely overhaul their diet to account for that. 

And yet, that’s definitely a dead animal on their plate. So why don’t fish count?

Why your diet makes you uncomfortable

At the core of all of these conundrums is the concept of cognitive dissonance: the oh-so-human ability to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time, and the psychological discomfort that this provokes. 

So, let’s say you’re an animal lover – but you also eat meat. Well, there’s no getting around it: you want animals to die. Every time you eat a BLT, for example, you’re enjoying the fact that somebody killed a pig. So how can you say you love animals?

It’s not nice to think about, is it? That’s why our minds rebel, generally choosing one of three options to resolve the psychological tension: we can change our values, and decide we don’t actually love animals all that much; we can change our behavior, and go vegan or vegetarian; or – and this one is generally the most popular choice – we can carry on as we are, and invent some kind of excuse as to why everything is fine, actually.

With the meat paradox, these excuses have traditionally been summarized as the “Four Ns” – the name stands for Natural, Normal, Necessary, and Nice – and if you want to see examples of them, just take a look at the comments section right now. Eating meat may cause pain, suffering, and death to billions of animals every year, adherents argue, but not eating it is simply unfeasible in the real world – it’s unhealthy, or difficult, or even just not as yummy to go vegan.

The cheese paradox is evaded slightly differently: it’s often justified by abstraction. Not for nothing is there a trend in Western countries towards less liquid milk consumption and higher cheese consumption: as one paper from last year put it, “the further a product [is] removed from its animal origin, the more willingly people [consume] it.”

So, which tack do the pescatarians take?

Defending your dinner

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

Is it a logical argument? Not really – as the authors point out, “feasibility is a subjective perception that can neither be proven nor disproven by objective arguments.” But is it effective? Certainly: “the participants of this study were able to provide a multitude of justifications for their current consumption of aquatic animals,” the study notes, defending their behavior by pointing to things like a lack of cooking skills, time constraints, a desire to fit in socially, health concerns, or enjoyment of the taste.

If those excuses sound familiar, they should: it’s basically a rehashing of the Four N’s of carnist cognitive dissonance. Perhaps that’s surprising – after all, by rejecting terrestrial meat, a pescatarian is presumably not swayed by these arguments – but there’s another psychological trick that resolves any problems here: fish, some pescatarians in the study argued, don’t exactly matter as much as other animals.

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

That wasn’t the only strategy deployed by participants to distance themselves from fish. Some pointed to the perceived evolutionary distance between ourselves and aquatic non-mammals; others claimed that they could probably kill a fish on their own, “view[ing] this as a conclusive argument justifying their consumption of pre-processed marine animals,” the study says (this particular tack could be taken to some strange conclusions, such as the participant who said they would not eat “one of those fishes that’s like a hundred years old and huge.”)

For others, the psychological distance stemmed from actual, physical distance. Cows and sheep, the researchers discovered, were seen as having personalities; they could be friendly faces that study participants saw each 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 faced with the reality of their diet – and metaphorically, with many subjects reluctant to investigate or interrogate their choices too closely. 

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

But it’s the last tactic that might seem most baffling: when faced with the mismatch between their values and their behavior, some pescatarians chose to – well, sort of deny that they eat meat at all.

“Despite asking for self-identifying pescetarians, most participants appeared less confident in their identity as pescetarians than anticipated,” the authors found. “This was expressed through the interchangeable usage of the words ‘vegetarian’ and ‘pescetarian’ […] Some participants even likened their dietary practices to predominantly plant-based ones, despite their consumption of various animal products.”

It’s a strange tactic, but not an uncommon one: as many as one in four self-identifying vegetarians admit to eating fish, despite… well, you know. It may not even be entirely dishonest – seven out of the 10 participants expressed a desire to go vegetarian or vegan at some point, even if those plans were, let’s say, less than firm. 

But ironically, adopting this stance may be precisely what is delaying that professed goal. “[The] comparison might allow pescetarians to socially distance themselves from meat eaters and thus, makes their choice to consume only marine animals appear more ethical,” the authors point out. “This is a potentially advantageous comparison that functions to alleviate cognitive dissonance by creating a more positive and moral self-construct.”

In other words: aspiration is more important than action. “[Participants’] commonly expressed values of caring about animal welfare and environmental impact hold more significance to them than whether they consumed a tuna sandwich for lunch,” the researchers conclude.

So, how to solve the pescatarian’s paradox? It’s simple. It turns out, there are no pescatarians – only a bunch of vegans who eat fish.

Isn’t that a relief?

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

Leave a Comment