Perspectives: A fishy dilemma?

Steaming food on a wooden spoon The vegetarian movement in the UK started in the 19th century and was linked to religious movements

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Can three tiny drops of fish sauce create an ethical dilemma? They did for a relative of Daniel K Sokol - a London barrister and medical ethicist.

As part of the Perspectives series, BBC Religion and Ethics asked him to explain more.

Daniel K Sokol Daniel K Sokol has sat on committees at the Ministries of Defence and Justice, and is the author of two books on medical ethics

"I spend much of my working life trying to solve people's problems. For the past 5 years, I have written a column for the British Medical Journal under the sobriquet Ethics Man, addressing the ethical dilemmas of clinicians.

For example, the case of the surgeon who wants to perform an experimental procedure on a seriously ill patient or the medical team is in conflict over whether to treat a patient aggressively or palliatively, a junior doctor wonders whether he must heed the dreaded call for a doctor on the plane.

Today, however, I am off duty.

I want to hear nothing of moral or legal problems. I seek the simple life.

Fishy dilemma

Sadly, there is no escape from life's ethical problems. Over lunch, a close relative seeks the family's advice on a moral problem. Last week, she invited six friends for dinner.

Start Quote

If your friend was Jewish or Muslim, would you have put some pork in the dish? Probably not, so perhaps you have prejudices against vegetarians?”

End Quote Dinner party guest

One was a vegetarian who believed eating animals was wrong. As my relative was preparing the meal, she reached for the fish sauce and paused.

She needed only three drops, but remembered that her vegetarian friend ate no fish. The fish sauce was a subtle but key ingredient, and creating a separate dish for her friend at this late stage seemed a great inconvenience.

She concluded that her friend would most probably never find out, and dripped in the three drops.

The vegetarian ate the meal with apparent relish.

Breach of trust?

Just as she finishes her story, two voices around the table - our makeshift ethics committee - express their disapproval. "You've totally breached your friend's trust," one says. "She told you she was a vegetarian but you deliberately ignored it.

"It would've been different had you added the fish sauce by accident, but you thought about it and did it anyway!"

"You've completely disregarded your friend's moral principles," chimes the other.

Fancy some fish sauce?

Tom Yum Soup

Fish sauce is a pungent, salty, thin brown sauce, made by fermenting small, whole fish in brine. Vegetarians can use soy sauce instead. Use it in these recipes:

Taste the flavours of Asia in tom yum soup

Season chargrilled sea bass in summer rolls

Add it to give depth to tomato and chilli jam

"If your friend was Jewish or Muslim, would you have put some pork in the dish? Probably not, so perhaps you have prejudices against vegetarians?"

I try to work out how many vegetarians there are in the family: the answer is none.

An older relative comes to the chef's rescue. "But what harm has she done to the vegetarian if he never finds out? You've got to think about this pragmatically, not in terms of abstract principles."

He notes that the vegetarian appeared to have no idea that the meal contained any fish.

In fact, he enjoyed the meal.

A meat-loving, legally trained member of the committee sides with the chef: "It's only three drops. Three tiny drops. It's de minimis.

"Vegetarians probably eat such quantities of meat and fish every week without even being aware of it. Not guilty."

Wronged but not harmed?

Another relative offers a more nuanced analysis. He says that the vegetarian cannot be harmed if he never finds out, but that he is nonetheless wronged by the chef's deliberate deception and breach of trust.

It is possible, he says, to be wronged without being harmed, just as it is possible to be harmed without being wronged, as when a coconut falls on the foot of person walking under a coconut tree.

In that last case, the unfortunate stroller is harmed by the coconut but it would be odd to say that he was wronged.

Who eats what:

  • Vegetarians do not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of slaughter.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs; this is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs.
  • Pescatarians will include fish and/or shellfish in their diet but not meat.
  • Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products which are derived from animals.
Morally trivial?

"Perhaps," I finally observe in an attempt to put things into perspective, "adding the three drops of fish sauce was wrong but somewhere near the mild end of the spectrum."

"It is not," I say jokingly, "a hangable offence."

"Morally trivial!" exclaims the chef. "Just like pinching envelopes from the stationery cupboard at work for your personal use."

"Nothing like pinching stationery from work," frowns one of the original critics, "in this case, we're not dealing with an impersonal company but a friend's fundamental principles.

"That's no trivial matter."

Common sense?

As is often the case in moral disputes, each party believes that their own view reflects the common sense position and the views of others represent minority positions held by a handful of moral tyrants or lunatics.

Your view

While the morality of the fish sauce dilemma, or indeed any other moral question, cannot be resolved by popular vote, perhaps the collective wisdom of readers, through their comments, can assist our lunchtime ethics committee?

The question

Knowingly adding three drops of fish sauce to a dish when one of the many guests at a dinner party is a vegetarian (who believes eating animals is wrong) and when it is highly unlikely that the vegetarian guest will ever find out is:

1) not morally wrong

2) morally wrong but only trivially so

3) more than trivially wrong

Please post your comments below."

The views expressed here are those of the individual authors, not the BBC.

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