Posted 2006-02-16 00:00:59 by
Speaking of relativism, today I read about a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It's not so much a narrative as a description of a city -- Omelas -- where “everyone is content. There are no crimes, no enemies, no wars; all is good. Then, well into the story, a child is introduced. This child was forced to dwell in a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas where he or she (it is not disclosed if the child is a boy or a girl) is tortured.” In some unexplained way, the torture of the child leads directly to the city being such a great place to live, and everyone living there knows this.
My first thought was that the point the story was making was the same of the old joke where the teller has his head in the freezer and his feet in the oven, but on average, he's perfectly fine. That is, you can't always rely on averages to measure success. Disparity matters as well. Another useful thought experiment is a nation ruled by a dictator who achieves incredible, godlike happiness by imprisoning and torturing all of his citizens. On average, the nation is doing fine. The difference between that and Omelas is that there are probably a lot of people who would make the Omelas tradeoff, even if they weren't going to be one of the citizens. Hell, there are probably a lot of people who would volunteer to make the sacrifice. But that would be noble; the child doesn't know why it is being tortured.
Another way to interpret the story is as an allegory for animal testing. This is not a bad parallel. The primary difference I see here is that in Omelas, the victim is sentient. Why does pain in a sentient being count for more than pain in a nonsentient one? Clearly there are some organisms, some animals even, that lack a complex nervous system and thus can't feel pain as we know it, but certainly mammals can. I can't think of a good, objective reason why human suffering is worse than, say, a rabbit suffering. But if you want to break it down further, I can't think of a good, objective reason why hurt done to animate matter is worse than hurt done to inanimate matter. It just is. There is no objectivity to be found here. The plucked flower and the fusing hydrogen atom just don't push the same buttons.