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About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Recent entries

Two Dreams

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The Fall Guy (and the Stampede)

This is the 51st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India…

A Few Thoughts on Limericks

The 50th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India, appeared today.…

Mentally Deranged

This is the 50th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India…

08 January, 2016

Tolstoy’s Chicken and the Expanding Circle

This is the 24th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I’m a devout carnivore, but a decade-and-a-half ago, I turned vegetarian for a year. My reasons were moral, and best illustrated by a story about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In his later years Tolstoy was a vegetarian, and one day he invited his aunt home for dinner. She said she’d come but insisted, ‘I must have chicken!’ Tolstoy paused at this condition, but then agreed to provide the bird. The lady duly came home, gup-shup happened, and then when they moved to the dining table, she found a live chicken on her chair, and a carving knife alongside.

‘We knew you wanted chicken,’ Tolstoy said, ‘but none of us would kill it.’

The story, as I know it, ends there—but I can’t imagine Tolstoy’s aunt ate Tolstoy’s chicken. She must have been rather exasperated, and Tolstoy was indeed a bit of a spiritual crackpot towards the end of his life. But the story of the chicken resonates with me. It demonstrates our denial when it comes to food. In our mind, there is a screen between the meat that we eat and the animals that are killed for that meat. We taste the flavour and enjoy the texture, but we behave as if the butchery never happened. We pretend that the chicken on the plate and the chicken on the chair are different creatures. But of course they are not. Tolstoy’s flapping, squawking chicken is Varma’s Chicken a la Kiev—and so, many years ago, I gave up meat.

Even if I later explained my subsequent regression by talking about recurring headaches and how my body was too used to meat to give it up, deep down I know that’s just a rationalisation. I didn’t have the strength of character to carry through on my resolve. I dreamed of luscious, succulent kababs, and ignored the screaming of the lambs.

The guilt and dissonance I still occasionally feel may soon be moot, though. Some fine scientists, much to be praised for their noble endeavours to better humankind, have recently found a way to grow meat in the labaratory, without a sentient creature being involved. Within a couple of decades, I predict, you will be able to eat a medium-rare steak that is, in every way, the same as any you would get today, except for the fact that no animal will be harmed in its making. The organ it will come from would have been manufactured a la carte, and would never have been part of a living creature. Tolstoy’s aunt’s grilled chicken leg would have nothing to do with Tolstoy’s actual chicken.

On that note, at the turn of this new year, let me tell you about a concept propounded by a gentleman named WEH Lecky way back in the 19th century: The Expanding Circle. Lecky posited that there is a circle of beings who qualify for our moral consideration as equals, and that this circle has tended to expand through human history. In prehistoric times, we might have regarded just our family or our tribe as being part of that circle, and everyone else would have been ‘the other’. Other tribes, then other nations, other races, and so on. But through time, that circle expanded. It began to include other communities and races, and eventually included all of humanity itself. It is this expanding circle that led to the end of slavery, to women being allowed to vote, to the great immigrant nations across the world, like the US of A. And this circle is still expanding.

The philosopher Peter Singer, in fact, argues that one day animals will be within this circle. He believes that one day we will be as aghast at meat-eating as we are today when we look back at slavery or women not being allowed to vote and so on. For a person in the 23rd century, looking back at the 21st, it will seem as astonishing that we once killed animals for food as it does to us that the great apostle of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, once kept slaves.

At this point, it is worth considering why the expanding circle expands. To my mind, and I say this with sadness, the reasons are instrumental. The circle expands because incentives change. The two main factors driving this are Trade and Technology.

Economics teaches us that every human being can provide value to this world (comparative advantage) and that voluntary trade always leaves both parties better off, leading to a positive-sum game. If ‘The Other’ is working hard to improve our lives, and it is in our interest to improve theirs, for that is how we profit, then the circle is bound to expand to include them. Immigration is great not just because of moral reasons, but because it helps societies and economies flourish. The larger our circles are, in whatever sense, the better we do.

Technology also plays its part. Until recently, half of humanity – the female half – was deeply constrained because that’s just how the comparative advantage game played itself out. Housework and raising large families took so much time that it made economic sense for family units to specialise, and for women to stay at home and for men to go out and be bread-earners. This got codified in social norms, and thus women got forced into subsidiary roles. That changed in the 20th century. Firstly, household technology freed up huge chunks of women’s time. Secondly, birth control gave them, well, more control over their bodies. There is much to be said for good intentions, but women’s empowerment really happened because of technology, and so hurray for technology.

And hurray for technology one more time, because if our circle expands to include animals, it will do so not because of the benevolence of meat eaters around the world, but because growing meat may no longer require the killing of animals. And here, consider the consequences of all animal products being manufactured without animals being involved. The incentives around rearing farm animals will change entirely. And so one day, cows and pigs and chickens and goats may go extinct not because we ate them, but because we stopped. The irony is delicious.

Posted by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal

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