Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hanging out in Omelas

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.


  1. If I could make the Omelas deal for Toronto I would, in a heartbeat.

    I find this interesting. How do you know that it wouldn't be your child?

  2. I think you're just morally wrong here. It's the fat man and the train:

    You are standing at a switch and a speeding train is going to hit and kill ten people. If you flip the switch the train will avoid those ten people but hit one person instead. Almost everyone agrees you should flip the switch.

    Alternatively you are standing by the train tracks and the train is going to kill ten people. This time, instead of flipping a switch you can push a very fat man into the path of the train. The man is so fat that he will slow the train enough and the other people will live. Ignoring the fact that you can't actually know this would work, this strikes people as an appalling thing to do.

    If dire circumstances make it so that you have to choose which lives to save, then choosing the greater number is correct. If in order to save the lives of people you have to take the life of another person, that is totally unacceptable.

  3. Even more proof I'm not a normal person. Fat man can suck it.

  4. I think Sthenno's examples merely show that the "typical" person's morality system isn't particularly consistent or well thought out.

    There is no real difference between the two scenarios. In both cases there are 10 people who will die if you do nothing, or 1 if you take an action. The fact that the fat man won't get killed if you don't push him in front of the train is no different from the fact that the 1 person on the other line won't get killed if you don't flip the switch.

    I don't deny that most people (including myself) feel an intuitive difference between the two, but I don't think this feeling alone is enough to make a convincing argument that the first example is moral (or at least, not morally repugnant), and the second isn't.

  5. There is a real difference between the two scenarios, and I think dismissing our feeling about it in favour of reducing the entire dilemma to a body count is a mistake.

    If saving more lives is always worth giving up a smaller number of lives, then shouldn't we all have various test results on a database somewhere, and the moment it is determined that we can save three or four lives with transplants and such we should be abducted and chopped up?

    Is an armed robbery where someone is killed justified if the money is used to feed the robber's family of four (we can even assume that the robber didn't mean to kill anyone, it may have even been accidental and, moreover, that this is not addressing a temporary need, but actually allowing the children to grow up to lead productive lives where they would have otherwise starved)?

    There is more to morality than body counts. The point of the question is to help us think about what that more might be because we really don't understand it.

  6. @Matt in the Hat

    I don't. I would be heartbroken if it was but it does not change my decision.


    I think the key element here is uncertainty. In the fat man example we don't push the fat man in the real world because we don't know. Will he stop the train? Would it stop anyway? Will someone else save the day? We don't push the fat man because we are sure he will die but we aren't sure it will save anyone else. This is entirely sensible.

    In a bizarro world where we have perfect information I think we do have an obligation to push the fat man. We know it is trading 1 life for 10. It isn't easy but I think it should be done that way - in a world of perfect information we cannot view the act of refusing to be involved as morally neutral.

    The Omelas example obviously exists in this bizarro world where a being can magically make the city a paradise. We *know* that 30 less people will be murdered next year. We *know* that people that would otherwise freeze to death will not. We *know* that the dozen children who will be horribly abused and neglected in the city will be freed from that abuse. With that perfect knowledge I think the choice to have one child suffer instead is absolutely required.

    If you don't buy that, then I ask you if there is a difference when the agreement is already in place. If the child is already suffering then should you step in and free them despite the fact that so many will immediately start suffering when you do? What choice do you make in that scenario?

  7. Obviously the perfect information issue is a real complicating factor for sure. The train question has been tested across a variety of cultures with the same results. Intuitively, there is something about dragging someone into a situation which they don't seem to be a part of that people think is wrong. Exactly what crosses the line is unclear, but a big part of it is surely that in reality you don't know everything, so that's a pretty good rule. If you push a fat man in front of a train and it doesn't slow down enough to save the others, then you just straight up committed murder. Basically almost all of the worst people in history were people who convinced themselves that for one reason or another it was right to kill some people. We know that a regular person is going to react differently to hypothetical perfect information questions than you, or I, or Ziggyny would - they just aren't as good at suspending their normal way of thinking about things to answer the question being asked instead of the question they imagine should be asked.

    All that being said, I'm not sure that even with perfect information you can simply reduce things to some kind of calculation of bodies and property damage and emotional suffering so easily. I think my example of the armed robber above works: with perfect information do you support that robbery? Do you support the organ transplant? Do you really think that a society where people are regularly chosen at random to be sacrificed for the greater good would actually be a good society to live in?

    As for Omelas, how do we justify punishing that particular child for the wrongs of everyone else? What about the tenant that it is better to let 100 guilty people go free than to wrongfully convict one innocent person. Inflicting punishment and suffering on people who have done nothing to deserve it is pretty much the worst thing we can do.

    As for the city where the deal has already been made, let's remember that culpability for doing bad things is rarely diluted by more people doing them. When ten people conspire to commit a murder, they are all guilty of murder. When an entire city conspires to torture a child, they are all guilty of torturing a child. What should happen to such a city? To me, the punishment of having to live in the normal human condition does not seem overly cruel a punishment for that.

  8. The armed robber is an interesting case. Obviously I support robbery as a better alternative than death but we have to consider what the robber's other options are. Has he gone to every food bank in the city and come up short? Has he checked every charity, asked his relatives, begged on the street? In Toronto it is practically impossible to reach that position since anyone who is desperate can get enough food to live for free. It won't be great food but dying from starvation is simply not a possibility unless other factors enter into it. Robbing someone to feed someone is not acceptable just because your family is starving, there must also be no other way. (Like, say, selling your firearm.)

    The organ donor one very much revolves around knowledge. Obviously we don't know if killing person X will save persons A, B and C because a new donor might come up tomorrow or B might die on the operating table anyway. In the real world it is insane to hunt down organ donors because of that lack of knowledge. In bizarro world the answer might be very different.

    You argue that we cannot justify one child's suffering when they have done nothing to deserve it. That is true. However, there are children, in Toronto, right now, who are beaten by their parents and raped by their relatives. How can you justify leaving them to their fate? There are people in Kingston Penitentiary from Toronto who are innocent of any crime (we don't know who, but we know they are there). How can you justify leaving those people in prison? You cannot!

    Given that there are people suffering incredibly by no fault of their own it would be entirely unjust to not alleviate that suffering. When faced with two injustices and the unavoidable choice between them we must decide which injustice is greater and stop that one. All the innocent Torontonians in jail and all the Torontonians dying to murder, or being abused, or dying of cold aren't doing it because the world is just. You can correct that injustice and the cost is a much smaller, but equally random injustice. I think when you have that choice you must simply choose the smaller injustice.

  9. Sthenno, the point I was making is that the first example - where we flip a switch - is morally equivalent to pushing the fat man (in a world with perfect information, as per the succeeding comments) - I wasn't making a statement about whether either act is moral or immoral per se, only that they were equally (im)moral i.e. I maintain that there is no real difference between the two scenarios, IF (big if) you assume perfect information and limit your possible action space to either (flip switch/don't flip switch) and (push fat man/don't push fat man).

    The thought experiment is the classic example of the problems inherent in a purely utilitarian moral system. There's a reason that "common sense" morality draws (in a rather messy fashion) from a number of moral viewpoints.

  10. Red, I think you are evading the question by not assuming perfect information, just as you think I am doing in the Omelas situation. I could ask did the people in Omelas examine their other options in terms of fantastical pacts they could enter into that would save their city from suffering? By arguing that we can't make a parallel to armed robbery or to force organ donation - aren't you essentially arguing that we can't engage in perfect-information thought experiments about real world morality, and therefore, that the correct solution to the Omelas problem is: "That is a silly story with no relevance to real life morality"?

    I can accept that answer - it may well be the case that these thought experiments are asking us nothing other than - "Is it better for one person to suffer (or die) than ten people to suffer (or die)?"

    But I think we can learn something from these questions. Let's change the question - suppose you could make the Omelas deal, but instead of saving everyone from suffering, it would save one child from suffer. The one child it would save is suffering the same amount, but at the hands of a relative, or even a disease. Would you say that it makes no difference whether you make the deal or not? One child's suffering is worth another's? If you argue that it would no be because of the pain and suffering to the family of the sacrificed child, what about the joy and happiness of the family who's child is rescued? If that's the *real* reason we shouldn't do it, then can't we pose a plausible scenario where we know the happiness gained by saving one person is greater than the suffering caused by killing another?

    Part of our moral system is accepting that terrible things happen, and not blaming ourselves for them. We don't consider mudslides or earthquakes immoral. If one person is going to die unless they get an organ transplant because they have a disease, that is an amoral situation. Killing another person to harvest the organ they need (let's say it is a homeless person whose life is generally miserable, who has no friends or family who would miss him, and, just for good measure, who is generally cruel and tends to have a negative impact on everyone who encounters him) is not amoral, it's straight up murder. We could even know that the homeless person isn't likely to live long because of his life conditions, and that by the time he dies his organs will be of no use for transplant because he has recently started abusing drugs.

    No friends, no family, drug abuse, mean, short life expectancy - none of these are capital offenses. We can't be justified in killing him on some net balance argument. This doesn't even require perfect information - even in the real world we could be very certain that this trade of life for life would be a benefit.

    Now let's say you can save two or three lives instead. Would you say it's a moral obligation to kill the miserable, short-lived, won't-be-missed homeless man? Assuming you are still with me that this is completely immoral, what crosses the line in the Omelas situation? Is is the sheer volume of lives saved and suffering prevented?

  11. I didn't intend to avoid your examples - rather I thought that you were posing them as real world scenarios and answered as such. If we assume that they are perfect information scenarios then we have to add a lot more assumptions in I think. In the robber scenario we obviously must assume that the robber has tried every possible means of getting food that does not require violent coercion and failed. This would imply that the society has sufficient food to feed the robber's family but chooses not to share it and furthermore that the specific individual the robber is robbing will not share even given the robber's dire need. In this case given that society, aware of these people are starving to death, does nothing, then I think the robber is justified in taking risks with other people's lives and using violent means. I don't like it, but in this scenario his options are bleak either way.

    I see the 'chop you up for parts' scenario a little differently than Omelas. In the case of Omelas we are preventing things like imprisonment of innocent people. It isn't an outside agency, it certainly isn't 'natural', and we cannot claim to be morally neutral. We know our society is committing grievous moral wrongs on innocent people and we can reverse that by taking the Omelas deal. I agree with you about the homeless man - we cannot go around killing people to save other people from the amoral situations you describe.

    I guess both of my points revolve around the idea of previously existing injustice. Someone dying from kidney failure is not an injustice that society must answer for and it is in no way a justification for violence towards others. Refusing to supply people with enough food to live is an injustice, so I can potentially support violence to correct the situation (in extreme circumstances and only where no alternatives exist, obviously). In Omelas society itself has the choice between injustice and injustice. Given that I choose the smaller injustice.

    How about this experiment: You have a city called Omelas10 where there are 10 children living in utter misery to support what is otherwise a paradise. You are offered the option to free all 10 of them from their situation and restore their lives and happiness in exchange for one other random child taking their place. I would argue that you must take that option - 10 children suffering is much worse than 1. By your previous logic it seems to me that you would argue to keep all 10 children suffering. Is that so?

  12. I think we are going back and forth on the idea of what we get to count as external, amoral sources of harm and what counts as human caused sources of harm. I try to show you my side by saying that it would be wrong to kill one person to save others from disease, then you try to show me your side by showing that if the harm is from the same source in both cases, then surely I should agree with you.

    But I think that is the point of the train thought experiment and it is central to my argument about Omelas. Whether something is moral or not has a great deal to do with how people are treated by other people, not only with the outcome in terms minimizing suffering and death (and maximizing happiness). I think ultimately this is probably the source of our disagreement about Omelas - the source of the deal, and the source of the suffering it is preventing, strike us differently. But given that the deal is clearly magical and that there is no magic in real life, I think different viewpoints can probably be justified.

    With Omelas, the global condition of human suffering seems fundamentally amoral to me (though many of the instances of that condition are not amoral) while a situation where an entire society actively decides to leave a child suffering for their own benefit seems a distinctly moral problem.

    I think in the case of Omelas10, I would certainly choose Omelas over it. But then, if I was courageous (which I ma well not be) I would start trying to gather up forces for a revolution against the people who are forcing this choice. And if it's God who is forcing this choice on us in the magical Omelas universe then I'd rally forces to start working on the tower of Babel.

    If a serial killer asks you whether they should kill 12 or 4 more people, assuming they are sincere and the people are chosen at random, the right answer is 4. The next right move is to go to the police with the description of someone you are fairly certain intends to kill four people.

  13. I agree that we disagree about the nature of normal human suffering. If I believed that the general run of human suffering was amoral then I can totally buy that the Omelas deal is an immoral act - because you are changing the grand scheme of human life (no moral change) but also torturing one specific person (negative morality). I also view the deal as amoral, that is, somehow the child's suffering is fuel for the paradise: An unpleasant but necessary condition. If you see the deal itself as an evil act then I can see how weighing the conditions of the deal would be less relevant.

    I don't believe in the amorality of normal human life though, and our society isn't organized that way at all. We imprison people for crimes rather than just sitting back and saying that criminals preying on people is just part of the human condition. We imprison these criminals even though we are certain that a few innocent people go to jail by accident and many lives are ruined regardless of guilt. I think that imprisoning people is necessary (that doesn't mean our society needs to do it more than now, just that it needs to do it sometimes) and in that way we violate the moral code you have outlined. Imprisoning these people is an injustice, but I think it is a lesser injustice than simply allowing criminals do do whatever they want. The criminal justice system and the overwhelming majority of the population agree with me.

    Your argument seems to rest on that assumption of a default state of the world and that simply not interfering with the default is a morally neutral stance. It seems something akin to "Do no evil." I don't think that there is such a thing as a default state. There is only what is and what can be depending on what I do and standing there refusing to act is a thing I can do. My stance could be summed up by "Do the most good."

  14. There is nothing amoral about the way that people treat each other, but I think that there is something very amoral about how humanity treats itself. Humanity is more like an earthquake than like a human.

    I think we agree on the point that humanity as a whole is not very similar at all to a human, but somehow we see it as applying in opposite ways to the argument at hand. As you say, if we break the Omelas deal then other children will suffer at the hands of relatives and strangers. This is because we both know that humanity-the-force-of-nature does a lot of bad things to children.

    I think that certainly societies can be organized in better and worse ways, and I clearly have opinions about public policy. Sometimes I characterize people with differing opinions about policy as immoral (and I suppose depending on the specific difference I might even really think they are). But if two societies have different criminal justice policies - one which allows more guilty parties to go free but imprisons fewer innocent, while the other does the reverse - I don't think that makes one society more moral than the other on that information alone. Societies have to make many decisions based on utilitarian-type calculations.

    For every person in a society to be aware that sometimes innocent people go to jail because the justice system is fallible does not make an immoral society. For every person to be aware that a particular innocent person is in prison and to accept it makes that a society of immoral people (well, a society of people who are doing something wrong).

  15. If you want to do the most good then why aren't you in favour of chopping up the homeless man? His heart, kidneys, and blood will save many people. Instead you want to stand by, let the homeless man live a short and unpleasant existence, and destroy those organs which are needed to save lives.

    Along a similar but more fantastical line of thought... What if I was bitten by a zombie? It's a slow running zombie virus and I'm probably going to get to live a normal life for years but maybe I'll turn in a few days. When I eventually die I'm going to infect many other people.

    Should you kill me? Should I kill myself?

  16. Obviously we quarantine the potential zombie and kill them if that is necessary to prevent transmission. It is no different than a person contracting any other hideous disease - we do otherwise unconscionable things to protect the majority of society.

    There are good reasons not to kill the homeless man. One, it will make people terrified to know that the state might come by and kill them and this is a real cost: It won't often come up that we can kill one person and know for sure that this will save more than one other person but the terror will be constant. That doesn't apply to the other situations in the same way because there is currently the risk of imprisoning someone unjustly or them being randomly murdered so we replace that with the risk of being the Omelas victim instead. Both are bad but they are similar (very difficult to compare, clearly) and as such I feel confident balancing the Omelas choice on the rest of the equation.

    Obviously I do agree with Sthenno that we should endeavour to not cause harm at all but I don't think that a single unit of harm outweighs a million units of good. Where the scale tips is a difficult question of course and depends on the exact question being asked.

  17. It also lets them know that if they're actually 'useful' members of society that the state will look out for them. What happens when I really need a heart transplant? They go out and get one for me!

    Clearly the state needs to define what they consider to be useful (using the database Sthenno suggested, perhaps) and then if you want to be the one getting the bonus heart instead of the one getting harvested for hearts you could use those definitions to decide how to live your life.

    This would have the added bonus (on top of saving lives with the harvested organs) of giving incentives to people as a whole to behave properly. You could probably even end up in a paradise situation if the state used the right valuations of useful. (You could also end up in a terrible place if they used the wrong definitions of useful!)

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  19. I don't buy your explanation of the difference between the homeless man and the Omelas victim - unless it is rooted purely in human psychology. You seem to be saying that people would live in fear of the government killing them if the government were wont to do such things, but would not live in fear that they themselves or that their children would become the Omelas victim. That may be true. The trade-off argument, however, doesn't make sense because in the Omelas case you are losing the worry or being unjustly killed or murdered while in the homeless-harvesting case you are reducing the chance you will die from a terrible disease.

    But again, we can alter the homeless-harvesting case to try to get back to the root issue instead of the distractions. Let's say that the homeless-harvesting program is so successful that people pretty much don't have to worry about major organ diseases at all anymore. Let's also say that it really does just harvest from one particular underclass that the vast majority of society does not particularly think of as "real" humans. Let's further stipulate that the size of this underclass is very small, and that killing them saves lives from in the rest of society at a minimum of a five to one ratio.

    Would social activists making attempts to improve the lives of members of this underclass be wrong because they are threatening the lives of so many?

    I think you can see where this is going. Every time you find a difference we can eliminate that difference in the example and move the oppressed class closer and closer to the Omelas child.

    I suppose your standpoint is that at some point between here and there we will cross a line at which we can comfortably state that the oppression, torture or murder of a small group is worth it for the sake of the larger group. Maybe we are still a ways away from that with our society that keeps a miserable underclass to use as sacrifices to prevent one kind of illness, but I think the argument is really about whether there is a line at all here, not about what modifications we have to make to our homless-harvesting society to cross that line.

    It sounds like you are saying that it is right for the majority to oppress the minority, so long as both the size of the majority and benefit derived from the oppression are sufficiently large.