Penn State, Omelas, &c.
So, maybe you’ve heard about this thing that happened at Penn State. The media has suggested that Penn State is “enduring a sex scandal,” but I would argue that a more accurate description might be that Penn State was “complicit in a child-rape scandal.” In any case, apparently a bunch of cats in the football program and the Penn State administration covered up some child rape that was going on, you know how it is. A bunch of the students are rioting because some guy named Joe Paterno (hahah, doesn’t “paterno” mean “parent”?) got fired over it.
I don’t really care about Joe Paterno and all that, because football. I did want to bring up something that I read about it, though, from John Scalzi, this post called Omelas State University. He lays out what are some pretty obvious rules about what you should do if you see a grown man having sex with a ten-year-old in a shower, read them if you’re some kind of completely morally bankrupt bullshit asshole idiot. If you aren’t, then you probably already know those rules.
But he ties this together in the end with a short story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”:
…one of the great stories of science fiction is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was written by Ursula K. LeGuin. The story posits a fantastic utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.
It actually throws into stark relief something that’s always bothered me about this story. Like, bothered me so deeply that for a long time I wasn’t sure if I was reading it correctly. The problem that I have is this: walking away from Omelas is not a moral action. It’s a principled action and, I guess, good for you for having principles. But it’s not a moral action. The Ones Who Walk Away haven’t done any actual good in the world — they’ve sacrificed their comfort so that they didn’t profit from someone else’s suffering, but they haven’t measurably reduced, or even ATTEMPTED to measurably reduce that suffering. The system whereby this suffering has become institutionalized remains in place, regardless of whether or not the Ones get anything from it.
To put it in context, if we’re using the Penn State child-rape-scandal as an analogy, imagine that Joe Paterno was told about all the child-rape that was going on and, instead of just ignoring it (which is what he did), he quit his job and went to work somewhere else. Well…so fucking what? So what if he did that? How is a person morally more upright because they found out their school was covering up something terrible and then you walked away from it? Wherever you go, wherever you are, whoever you work for or whatever city you’re living in, you’d still know that this kind of shit was going on, and that you weren’t doing anything to stop it.
Man, morality isn’t about YOU. It’s about how you treat other people. The idea that you can preserve your morality by refusing to be a part of a corrupt system is illusory; it’s a means of preserving your sense of your own morality, but it’s still entirely independent of whether or not you’re really engaging in moral action.
I guess what Joe Paterno’s case suggests to me is that while a lot of people might be proud of themselves because they think they’d be the ones who’d walk away (probably they wouldn’t be, because the whole point is that the story is a metaphor for the fact that everything in your life that is good or nice is probably built on the back of SOMEONE’s misery, and what are you doing about that right now?), but I think that even if you do walk away, that pride is misplaced.
I think that walking away isn’t enough.