DRMacIver's Notebook

Does a fish have a face?

Does a fish have a face?

I'm trying a new thing today, which is to integrate my daily notebook practice, my daily rereading practice, and a bit of randomization of decision making. I don't plan to do this every day, but I may do it more often.

The basic mechanism:

  1. I pick a book of my choosing.
  2. I generate a page number uniformly at random from the main book contents.
  3. I pick an interesting passage and copy it out here.
  4. I then write something inspired by it.

If this takes off I'll probably build some tooling into the notebook for getting me to do this properly but for now I'm mostly hand cranking it.

This is partly inspired by having recently-ish been listening to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. I'm deeply indifferent to Harry Potter but have been enjoying their sacred text reading techniques. This process in particular is very loosely inspired by their (in turn somewhat loosely interpreted) practice of Lectio Divina

Today's reading comes from Finding Our Sea Legs, page 126:

While he hedges his bets when it comes to dogs, it is hard to imagine Levinas having much time for the idea that a fish might have a face, or the idea that I could be infinitely responsible for a fish. Fish, as far as we human beings are concerned, are more alien to us than the stranger who knocks on our door, or the dog who wags his tail in greeting. They move in a different element, they have no lungs, their blood is cold, not warm, they do not sleep. And yet, while they may not have faces in the sense that Levinas means, they still hav efaces, in the ordinary everyday sense: We can look them in the eye, and these denizens of another world can look back.

This might seem like a strange passage (of course fish have faces) but the idea of a "face" in this context is more about our experience of the other as a person. Backtracking to earlier in the book (pages 52-53) we have the following passage:

This curious and seemingly paradoxical idea of the 'face' is that the heart of Levinas's phenomenology of ethics. When we encounter the face of another [our relationship] is 'straightaway ethical.' When I encounter another person, I find myself responsible for them - I find myself unable to do anything other than to respond to them as another person - whether I like it or not.

So the question of whether a fish "has a face" is about whether our interactions with a fish have this phenomenological character: Do we treat a fish as a subject of ethical experience?

Experiences on this tend to differ, both by person and by context. Many people are vegetarian precisely because they experience animals as ethically relevant, and I know one person who as a child became vegetarian in a way that they literally framed as not wanting to eat anything with a face, a category in which they included fish.

Personally, I don't consider fish to be all that ethically relevant (oddly, I consider animals more ethically relevant than fish and yet I eat animals and mostly don't eat fish. This is primarily for environmental reasons though). I will not mourn the death of a fish. And yet, encountering a fish out of water, gasping on dry land, it is hard not to feel sorry for it. In the abstract, I don't care about the fish, but confronted with the actual reality of the fish and its suffering, it is hard not to experience it as ethically relevant, as having a face.

Almost (I may have been subconsciously inspired in my choice of book) entirely coincidentally, yesterday I was listening to the Mindscape podcast episode with Paul Bloom, the author of Against Empathy (which I haven't read). His essential argument is that this empathic experience leads us astray from good ethical behaviour. It causes us to overfocus on the individual in front of us - this empathy is what causes us to treat the fish as ethically relevant even if we don't "rationally" believe it to be. It's what causes us to be kind to our neighbour but ignore millions of people living in poverty.

It's also what causes us to overvalue people like us and undervalue people different to us - it's much easier to be empathic to someone whose lived experience we can easily understand, and if we tie our ethics to our empathy then we will tend to prioritise those like us and neglect the Other.

Of course, one can bite this philosophical bullet and say that yes we should be rational in our ethics but also we should consider fish as ethically relevant. This is how you end up with things like Effective Altruists who are very concerned about wild animal suffering. It's possibly they're right - I don't agree with their concerns, but I don't think they're in principle invalid.

I do think he has a point, and that a certain amount of rationality and deliberation in ethics is important, but I think too much of that will drive us towards utilitarianism, which is more like policy than the sort of living ethics that I think improves our behaviour in day to day life.

It's worth using rationality as a tool to improve our ethical behaviour, but emotion is key to effective rationality, and empathy and the experience of the other is a crucial tool in navigating any sort of rational ethics.