Recently I was reading a discussion of the Penn State football rape scandal on John Scalzi's blog. Both Scalzi and tons of random commenters talked a lot about the story "The ones who walk away from Omelas" which you can find by googling very easily but which is probably not legally available on the net. It is a story about Omelas, a paradise, a city where there is no crime, no poverty, no soldiers, no police, no jails, no suffering. With one small caveat: There is a single child living in a tiny space in the city that is in constant agony, suffering from both terrible neglect and isolation. Every member of Omelas is shown this child at some point as they grow up so that they understand that this is the price they must pay for the wonder that is their city. Mostly they are horrified but eventually come to terms with it while others feel they must leave. None can offer even a moment's comfort to the child because that would destroy the pact that keeps the city safe. The commenters on the blog talked about how the Penn State organization was like the city of Omelas where a few children suffered terribly to support the elite.
I find this idea really interesting because of the way people react to it. In the blog post many people said that Omelas was an example of a most horrendous society and that they would rescue that child regardless of the danger or consequences. The fall of the rest of the city was meaningless; the child must be saved. It was clear that anyone that supported such a society was a monster. Wandering around the net reading various other takes on the issue I found similar conclusions. Generally people decry the city as evil and insist that there is a moral imperative to rescue the child and that tearing down such a monstrous civilization was not a loss but rather a gain. I see it in exactly the opposite way.
Omelas is of course a magical place where somehow the peace and prosperity of the city is linked to this child's suffering so we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions; rescuing the child will have immediate and certain repercussions. While it is undeniably evil to cause such suffering and do nothing about it even though the means to stop it is at hand, it is also evil to force suffering upon the rest of the populace. What would we say to the loved ones of the first person murdered after the child is freed? "I am sorry they died, but the child had to be saved." How about the second, or hundredth murder victim? "I am sorry all one hundred of these people died, but the child had to be saved." What shall we say when the first person dies of exposure or starvation in the streets? "I am sorry you died in horrible agony but the child had to be saved." It is hard to imagine how you would console all the victims of rape and murder when war first came to the fallen city. "I am sorry everyone you know has been violently killed and abused, but the child had to be saved."
If we truly believe that a single child's suffering must be alleviated at any cost then we must believe that every child starving in Africa right now must be worth saving - and yet those who cry out to save the child at any cost go out for dinner and a movie instead of sending that money to a desperate country to save a life.
The single child in Omelas is not more deserving of mercy just because you know their address!
This is probably the most extreme example I have seen of people confusing themselves about their moral obligations. We have a real difficulty differentiating between the importance of one person's suffering and many. It has been proven that a story about a single person's suffering gathers much more in the way of donations and support than several people simply because the donors end up being overwhelmed by the problem. I cannot see how I can save all the children in Africa so I shall save none, but I can see how I would save one child in Omelas so I will do that, even though I could save the child in Africa with minimal difficulty and the child in Omelas being saved would be catastrophic.
If I could make the Omelas deal for Toronto I would, in a heartbeat. Would it be awful? Yes. Would it be even more awful to read the news each day and hear about abused children, murders and other suffering that could have been prevented? Also yes.