I wish to defend changes to my vegetarianism which I think I should make when I move to Korea in October. The charge that I need to defend such changes from is, I take it, that I’m giving up ethical principles on the grounds of convenience. These ideas came to me today so very unpolished.

The Korean language does not have a word for vegetarianism. By this I mean that while I believe there are ways to translate ‘vegetarian’ into Korean, your average Korean does not understand what it is to be a vegetarian, so trying to be a vegetarian in Korea involves continual, case-by-case explanations of what one can and cannot eat. Presumably, given the large numbers of Buddhist monks in Korea, veganism is well understood, but the distinction made by vegetarians as to whether the obtaining of an animal product involves killing the animal or not doesn’t seem to be. I suppose this is similar to my lack of understanding of kosher and halal: if I was serving food to someone following one of these, I’d have to ask a lot of questions to make sure I was getting it right.

Food is an important part of any culture, but it is particularly so for Koreans (that is, relative to my own culture). The equivalent of “how are you?” in Korean translates as “have you eaten yet?”. When you come into work/office/whatever in the morning or after lunch, Koreans will enthusiastically ask you about the details of your breakfast or lunch: they will ask exactly what it was that you ate. Last year in Korea I visited a traditional market at lunchtime, and watched as workers came around and set out trays of soup with eight to ten side dishes for the workers on each stall; this is a far cry from packing some sandwiches or going for a pasty. And eating food communally—that is, sharing the same dish—is seen as important (this last in stark contrast with nearby Japan).

The reason why being a vegetarian in these circumstances is very difficult for me is not because the lack of Korean vegetarians means there is a lack of vegetarian ingredients available. Someone who cared more about the content of their dishes than me might find it very hard to live somewhere where they find themselves eating plain rice and noodles all the time. But I don’t have a problem with eating plain stuff; when I cook for myself, I just eat piles of vegetables most of the time, so this is not the issue.[1] The reason is rather that avoiding eating out or at others’s houses, and taking up everyone’s time in trying to figure out whether a dish has meat in it (and almost certainly getting it wrong at least half of the time), are both ways in which I refuse to make efforts to integrate myself into the local culture, in non-trivial ways thanks to the considerations of the previous paragraph. I think that it is on a par with refusing to make any efforts to learn any Korean. By contrast, having very specific, not generally recognised food requirements as a foreigner coming to live in the UK or in the US—though it’s hard to think up an example of such requirements thanks to multiculturalism—is not on a par with refusing to learn any English, because for us cultural integration works differently.

I will come onto the reason why and to what extent I think that the issue of cultural integration carries ethical weight. First I turn to my own vegetarianism. I have been a vegatarian for almost eight years (September 2005). My initial motivation was speciesism: I am not willing to kill and eat humans, and there is no difference between humans and other animals that justifies killing and eating them. I later learnt that producing meat is an order of magnitude less efficient than growing crops to eat, and so in the world we live in it is selfish to want to eat meat when so many people are without food. Though I think this is an important thing to keep in mind when thinking about what we eat, it’s always been speciesism that has made me think that it is strictly morally wrong for me to eat meat; compassion for animals, nor compassion for humans in poverty, have any relevance.

At the age at which I adopted my vegetarianism I hadn’t studied any philosophy. In studying ethics here at Oxford, both the way I think about the whole business of ethics, and some of my particular ethical beliefs, have changed. I don’t want to try to expound the outlook I’ve adopted[2] in full here (mostly because it’s been too long since I’ve studied ethics, and also because I certainly don’t claim to have everything worked out), so I’ll just state two of my conclusions as are relevant to what I want to say in this post, without making any attempt to justify them. (1) The primary concern of ethics is the kind of people there ought to be, not the kind of actions they ought to do. What is it to be just? That is the question we must answer before we can say, what is the just thing to do in this situation.[3] The concepts of an action being right and wrong can be employed in certain situations, but they don’t always make sense: though I think it’s objective what it is to be virtuous, for a given action there is no guarantee that there is an objective answer available as to whether it is either morally required, permissible or forbidden. (2) I am pretty sure there are no actions which are wrong “whatever the consequences”. But I think that there are some which come pretty close (e.g. torture, to take something I have long been particularly concerned about).

This means that ethics is something that concerns all aspects of your life. Compare this to the law, which is only relevant for a limited domain of our activities. It doesn’t care if you watch TV all day, ceteris paribus. But it’s probably not conducive to virtue to do so, so ethics does have something to say. Similarly, conceptions of ethics based around right action, such as that which we might get out of a crude form of Christianity,[4] can lead to ethics only being concerned with, say, not murdering people and what you do on a certain day of the week. Now this doesn’t mean that the virtuous person is continually worrying about what is virtuous—quite the opposite. Nor does it mean that there is no role for principles. You can say that you’ll never murder anyone because you’re pretty sure that it’s never okay, and having the principle helps you in the heat of the moment. But you can say this while recognising that you might withdraw the principle.

This leads me to a new view of vegetarianism. The problem with eating meat is that it exploits other living things purely for the purpose of a very specific kind of pleasure. This is not to say that it’s not healthy (virtuous) to enjoy food, but that it’s unhealthy (vicious) to be willing to exploit the ecosystem as a whole (to the detriment of other humans), and certain creatures in it in particular (to the detriment of those other animals), purely because one enjoys eating a particular kind of food (which does not provide nutritional benefits you can’t get from elsewhere). The point here is still about speciesism, but the absolute prohibition has been rejected.

Now what this does is allow a distinction to be drawn between going to a Korean BBQ restaurant and eating slabs of meat, and accepting soup that has a tiny bit of meat added to it because that’s what Korean cooks do. On the crude speciesist reasoning above, drawing this distinction cannot be anything but rationalisation of weakness of will. But when we think of things in terms of the person I think I should be, there is plenty of space to say the following: I think that vegetarianism is part of the good life for man. I also think that making efforts to integrate with the culture of a country you visit is part of this good life. Now, while I wouldn’t make human sacrifices in order to integrate with a culture because I’m very confident in my belief that human sacrifice does not make for a good life, I’m not so sure about my belief about vegetarianism. So it’s compatible with aiming for virtue that I don’t worry about small amounts of meat, and indeed, I think it might ultimately be right that insisting on certain aspects of vegetarianism while living in another culture isn’t the virtuous thing to do—but either way, I’m not bound to the crude speciesist view that there’s an absolute prohibition. And since refusing slabs of meat and not cooking any meat does not go against integrating into the local culture, I can still respect my view that a vegetarian life is conducive to virtue with some possible caveats. You have to be pretty sure about some way of living before you should be willing to impose it on others in an environment where it really is an imposition (it isn’t in the west). I’m not sufficiently sure about my vegetarianism.

Here’s a device that I think might be useful in pursuing this topic further. Ignoring Korea: I drink milk and I am aware that the way this milk is produced involves inflicting a lot of suffering on animals. A common thing to say here is that milk production need not create such suffering, whereas slaughtering animals for food does. This is not particularly convincing because the vegetarianism is concerned with the actual world: killing animals for their meat need not cause suffering for there is a world in which they really like it (it would seem at first pass). So instead I think that the reason I am happy to drink milk is that the specific version of vegetarianism I adopt, given in terms of rules as to what I will and won’t eat, is a way of expressing a more general desire to avoid suffering for the purpose of enjoying food which fits in with my culture; and this way of expressing that desire is enough to move towards virtue. And this is precisely parallel to the different way of expressing the concern used in Korea.

As I say this is extremely unpolished.


[1] This is why I find being a vegetarian very easy: I have never lusted after bacon or lamb or whatever. The only thing I’ve really wanted that I can’t have, in all my years as a vegetarian, is gummy sweets with gelatine in them.

[2] The piece of work that has influenced me the most during my undergraduate studies has been J. McDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, The Monist (1979).

[3] I’m skating over a lot here. I don’t actually think that it makes much sense to ask what the just thing to do is, in most situations, but there does exist an answer to the question of what the most virtuous thing to do is, though it may be impossible to know it without being virtuous (and even then it might be impossible to know it propositionally).

[4] Though it’s been known since at least Plato’s Euthrypthro that you can’t just invoke a god and then have ethics be really simple.