The Expanding Circle

This is the 46th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Would you put a man in a cage? Last week, the blogger Hari Balasubramanian wrote a post about how, in 1906, “Ota Benga, a pygmy from the Belgian Congo, found himself sharing a cage with an orang-utan at the Bronx Zoo as part of a tableau intended to illustrate the stages of evolution.” Benga had filed teeth that came from “a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people,” but his captors mistook that for “a sign of cannibalism.” They duly “scattered bones in the cage.”

Having related Benga’s tale, Balasubramanian asked:

“The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?”

One way to answer such a question is to look at whether there is a trend to how we have changed in the past, and try to imagine what will happen if that trend continues into the future. I am usually sceptical of alleged trends, but there is one that makes sense to me: the expanding circle.

This idea of “the expanding circle” was first written about by the Irish historian WEH Lecky in his 1869 book, A History of European Morals. Lecky wrote that the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has expanded through history like a circle. “At one time,” he explained, “the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”

In other words, more and more people moved from the category called The Other into the category called Us. Over the last three centuries, women have been empowered, slavery has been abolished, people of other races and sexual orientation have been treated as equals, and so on. Some, such as the philosopher Peter Singer, even ask for this circle to be expanded to include animals. But all this is in the Western world.

While the philosophers of the West might look at the expanding circle as a fait accompli, the circle simply hasn’t expanded much in large parts of the world. Take the Congo, for example. Much as we feel outraged by Benga being locked up in a cage, the events of 1906 pale before what is happening in the Congo today. An Associated Press (AP) report from 2003 informed us that pygmy activists from Congo had approached the United Nations alleging that they were being eaten. The AP report said:

“Army, rebel and tribal fighters— some believing the pygmies are less than human or that eating the flesh would give them magic power—have been pursuing the pygmies in the dense jungles, killing them and eating their flesh, the activists said at a news conference yesterday.”

The Economist recently wrote that for “six groups of pygmies for whom data exist, two have a life expectancy of 24 years and the other four about 16 years.” Benga, who never ended up as food, lived into his 30s.

In many parts of the world, the “moral circle” hasn’t yet expanded enough to include women in it. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent Qatif rape case in Saudi Arabia, in which the victim of a gang rape was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes for daring to be alone with a man who was not her husband. The Saudi king commuted the sentence after an international outcry, saying, according to Reuters, that the rape was “discipline” enough to make sure that the victim would “learn the lesson”.

In India, too, the circle has a long way to go. In much of the country, women are still treated as second-class citizens, female foetuses are routinely selected for abortion and homosexuality is effectively criminalized by the Indian Penal Code. And then there’s caste and class and religion. Identity politics, which thrives on keeping the circle from expanding, dominates our political landscape.

And yet, I am hopeful that the 21st century will see billions of circles expanding around the world. The force that I believe will make this possible is a much-maligned one: globalization. As the world opens up and everything becomes interconnected, the barriers between cultures and societies will crumble. As we become dependent on others for our prosperity, we will stop seeing them as The Other. Trade will melt barriers—though for that, barriers of trade have to melt first.

In 2107, I believe, people will feel outraged that in 2007, governments across the world stopped us from trading with each other, without restraint, to mutual benefit. It will appear bizarre and morally wrong. But that is a subject for another column, and I’ll sign off here wishing you a great 2008.

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I’d earlier blogged about Hari’s post here. The AP and Reuters stories were brought to my notice by Nitin Pai.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.