This post was inspired by a phone call I made a few days ago to my mother where I informed her I was turning vegetarian - I knew it would be rough but it turned out significantly worse than I expected still. The phone call quickly turned sour as she believed I was making a grave mistake and that I was being unjust. This was not unique - I talked to two other individuals raised in East Asian households which elicited similar if not stronger responses. One friend told me that coming out vegan elicited a stronger response than coming out as gay.
Effective Altruism's moral roots are weird. Really weird to those raised on a western ethical system and absurdly weird to those raised on an eastern ethical system.
This is because following the virtues of effective altruism can often lead to conflict within Eastern ethical systems. Being virtuous requires us to stick to a moral code, even if that means clashing with personal relationships. Otherwise, virtue would demand that we keep doing things that aren't morally right just to keep the peace in our circles. This dilemma can be difficult for everyone, but it's particularly challenging for those of us brought up in Asian households.
Take my mother's moral compass, for instance. It closely reflects the Chinese ethos, which in turn is heavily influenced by Confucian principles. In the Confucian view of virtue, the focus is on fulfilling one's duties within a socially hierarchical and communal framework. This is articulated through key concepts such as "ren" or benevolence, often expressed through the cultural concept of "mianzi" or face, which is deeply embedded in social relationships. A core expectation within the family is to fulfill one's duties, especially towards one's parents.
In the eyes of Confucian virtue, my vegetarianism disrupts this order. The sharing of food, often including meat, is a significant social ritual in Chinese culture, promoting family cohesion. My deviation from this norm is seen as a violation of the principle of "Li", disrupting harmony and causing displeasure at the family table. My mother’s emotionally charged conversations with me reflects this deep-rooted cultural clash.
In many Asian cultures, there are two important ideas. The first is "guanxi," or the idea that everyone is connected and relies on each other. The second are the unbreakable responsibilities to your parents, called "filial piety." These ideas are a big part of the way people think and act in these cultures, and they create a complicated set of rules and expectations for how people should behave.
This can make it hard for someone to do something different, because it might upset this delicate balance. Often, what's seen as most important is what's best for the family or community, even if it means sacrificing your own personal beliefs.
So, for someone from these cultures to take on the role of an Effective Altruist - someone who tries to do the most good possible - it could be seen as going against their culture and disappointing those around them. It's like they're rejecting their roots and the values their community holds in high regard.
While pursuing an Effective Altruist moral framework may be hard for all, it is certainty harder for those of from these Asian backgrounds. The communal ties and expectations so core to eastern philosophy does not appear in the west.
Vegetarianism itself was made all the more challenging by the meat-heavy diets reguarly seen on dinner tables in Asian circles today. The rapid development of Asia has led to an increase in meat consumption, as the rise in living standards often associates meat with luxury and nutritional completeness. For many families who could only enjoy meat sparingly in their earlier years, its abundance now symbolises not just improved economic status, but a diet perceived as more balanced and nutritious.
Looking back on that intense conversation with my mum, the feelings of disappointment and disagreement remind me how complicated it can be to bring western ideas like Effective Altruism into eastern ways of thinking. Effective Altruism isn't just about changing our habits—it's a whole new way of thinking that can sometimes be alien to those around us.
The path of an EA often presents greater challenges for individuals raised in Asian cultures where the emphasis shifts from communal responsibility and harmony to individual actions and beliefs. The hardship and complexities of this interaction, sadly, often fly under the radar. Sometimes, we should recognise cultural nuances and ethical disparities that might make this journey more difficult for some than others.
Thank you to Bill for this guest post! He's written a more philosophical companion post called Do I have to be a bad child to be virtuous? If you're interested in sharing your story as a guest post or interviewee on the EA Lifestyles blog, send me a message!