Is it Cruel to Eat Oysters?

by Becky

February 23, 2021

Whether it is cruel to eat oysters has caused controversy and ethical debates since the publication of philosopher Peter Singer’s text, Animal Liberation, in 1975.

Even though subsequent editions of the book have reversed its viewpoint, many people do see the act of eating oysters as a form of animal abuse while others see it as a delicious treat.

Determining if it is cruel to eat oysters is subjective and depends on your ethical code. Studies show that while oysters are sentient beings, they don’t have brains and it is uncertain whether they can feel pain. However, oysters can be sourced ethically and do provide the body with nutritional value.

Many people have serious concerns about whether oysters feel pain if they are alive when cooked, and so they hold strong beliefs surrounding the ethical pragmatics of oyster consumption.

Whether it is cruel to eat oysters remains a controversial and vexatious topic that continues to infiltrate our society.

Is it Cruel to Eat Oysters?


An anthropological discovery at Marean’s cave site at Pinnacle Point suggested primitive humans from over 200,000 years ago feasted on shellfish.

But what scientists found was a coastal cave dwelling high above sea level that escaped ocean flooding and left behind a single cast-off shell, evidence for what could be considered the first eaten oyster.

For generations, people have debated the cruelty surrounding eating oysters and continue the debate today. Some people believe the practice of oyster eating is terrible and that it should stop immediately. Mainly, their reasons are that eating oysters: 

  • Is a form of animal abuse.
  • Pose significant health risks.
  • Damages the ecosystem.
  • Unethical, immoral, and inhumane.

In contrast, other people believe oysters are a delicious delicacy, that is neither harmful nor unnatural to eat. People, including some vegans, who eat these bivalves believe that:

  • Oysters have substantial health benefits, especially for children and pregnant women.
  • Oysters feel no pain.
  • Oysters have aphrodisiacal properties. (Although commonly believed, this is a fallacy).
  • Eating oysters is not unethical, immoral, or inhumane.

As a result of the nuance between these schools of thought, only the convictions of each individual can determine if eating oysters is cruel or not.

Do Oysters Feel Pain?

Some studies suggest that oysters, also known as bivalves, can feel pain. Yet, other research shows that oysters do not have a brain - the organ that processes pain - and, therefore, cannot feel it.

Known in biology as the functional doppelgänger to plants, oysters have no capacity for pain. Evolutionists have concluded that to feel pain; a sentient being must have both “a nervous system and a brain as they are nature’s tools for sensing and moving away from painful stimuli.”

While oysters have a nervous system known as Crassostrea virginica – a system that includes central and peripheral [sensory] cords – they are void of a brain. Still, shellfish have sensory cells to detect damage resulting from various painful stimuli.

To support this, according to Animal Hype, oysters feel pain due to their nervous system’s sensory cords, regardless of not having a brain.

In his essay, Christopher Cox writes: “Moreover, since oysters don’t have a central nervous system, they’re unlikely to experience pain in a way resembling ours – unlike a pig or a herring or even a lobster.”

Professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado, Boulder, negated that idea when he said, “...we don’t know this is so. It’s not important if oyster pain or the pain felt by any other animal resembles ours. They have their own pain, and their pain matters to them.”

Numerous definitions of pain exist, but the fundamental components are twofold: a reflex response and suffering, or the subjective perception of the receptive event. While putative painful stimuli are measurable, the experience of pain itself is not. The capacity an animal has to experience nociception is subject to natural selection.

Nociceptive reactions do not require awareness or a capacity for extended sensory perceptions. But the animal’s experience with pain does include higher neural operators that scientists and researchers have yet to understand fully.

Animal sentience has become a philosophical issue that some animal welfare activists claim needs more attention and awareness.

Some activists believe that the morally and ethically right choice to make if there is a question of an oyster’s sentience is to err on the side of caution and avoid consuming them.

The contention also argues that if a being is considered sentient, it should have moral consideration. However, the issue that provokes many is that if there is any doubt surrounding an animal’s sentience, it is morally permissible to assume they are not sentient. 

Are Oysters Alive When Cooked?

Oyster dish

While chefs generally do not cook living, unshucked oysters, they are most commonly still alive when eaten. A raw, freshly shucked oyster is said to taste the best as it is full of flavor. But what is a shucked oyster?

Shucking an oyster is the process of separating its meat from its shell, thereby killing it. Oyster eaters believe that keeping the bivalve alive until the point of consumption is ideal for the best taste and safety.

It is risky to eat a dead oyster raw because when something dies, it begins to decompose. You can use specific methods to determine if the oyster is shucked or unshucked. 

Do Vegans Eat Oysters?

Vegans do not consume animal products, and oysters are animals. However, the debate about whether oysters feel pain befalls even the vegan population, and like the rest of society, leaves some to believe an oyster’s capacity to feel pain is either equivalent to a plant or like that of other animals.

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham once said, “the question is not, Can they reason? Nor can they talk? But can they suffer?”

This simple yet profound idea is the foundation of moral reasoning for many ethical veganism and vegetarianism forms. But an animal’s capacity to suffer is not the only decision-making factor for ethical eaters.

Determining whether an animal is vegan or not should not fundamentally depend on their primary response to stimuli, but if they have a brain to process pain as it is the “fundament for consciousness and suffering.”

What About Oyster Farming?

Oyster farming involves the breeding and raising of oysters for their pearls, meat, and outer shells. Since as early as the 1st century BC, humans have practiced oyster farming and have manipulated the cultivation of these bivalves by first conditioning broodstock (or the “parent” oysters).

Farmers will control where, how, and when their oysters spawn, eat, and live. Oyster hatcheries grow and harvest oysters, while oyster farms account for over eighty percent of all oyster consumption. 


In the end, whether it is cruel to eat oysters is a subjective determination that only each individual can make for themselves by using their own set of ethics, values, and beliefs.

Some will always believe that oyster-eating is a vile and inhumane practice, while others will always believe it is a delectable addition to fine dining cuisine.

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