The Trials of Salemo

The Conclave of Elders of the city of Salemo considered themselves to be the most humane of consequentialists. While they took the doctrine of the greater good to be sacrosanct, they all swore a common vow never to lose sight of the individual. Yet they faced a perennial problem: every year, when new elected officials joined the assembly, a flurry of inhumane proposals for the betterment of the majority were advanced by the incoming functionaries, usually premised on the harrowing suffering of some small minority.

What was needed, the elders decided, was some means to teach the new administrators the true value of human suffering. How much more sensitive and more humane would their policy prescriptions be, if only they knew what it was like to be the unlucky remainder of some callous hedonic calculus!

In seeking to thus educate the city’s new administrators, the Elders had no desire to inflict actual torment; they were people of the highest ethical standards, after all. Yet how could one convey understanding of suffering without suffering itself?

It was decided to set the finest alchemists and chirurgeons of Salemo to work on the problem. After many weeks of dissecting, distilling, and refining they reported back with good tidings: they had succeeded in isolating the essence of traumatic memory. By inserting a needle – with meticulous care – into the brain of a subject, living or dead, they were able to extract a trace of a rare fluid, carrying an imprint of a person’s memories. This could then be placed in a centrifuge, where, once accelerated, memories would rise in reverse proportion to how heavily they bore on the heart of the one who had lived them; recollections of bliss evaporated off a fine gas, leaving a dull sediment of horror, torment, and pain.

Once isolated, this rarefied sum of suffering could stored in a phial and later ingested. Its effect was almost immediate, and infinitesimally brief. As the sediment was processed by the recipient’s nervous system, it was incorporated in the labyrinths of their memory as a new imprint, bypassing the manifold of experience entirely. This was not, admittedly, quite how it seemed at that instant to one who drank from a black phial, however. As far as they were concerned, they had just undergone some hideous torture or rape, or witnessed their children murdered, or gnawed on the bones of their dead friend as hunger sapped the last life from their frame. Still, the more educated of those who drank from the phials knew they could not really have undergone such painful episodes, not least because the five seconds or so during which the phial took effect was simply not long enough to contain the experiences that seemed to been newly etched into their consciousness. The chirurgeons were absolutely convinced of the same.

The elders were also relieved to discover that the phials seemed to lack the usual effects associated with trauma. Those who drank from the phials were momentarily appalled, devastated, humbled, and wracked with imagined loss; but the effects wore off rapidly. While they kept the new memory with them, they did not suffer nightmares, panics, or other such symptoms, at least more than any other citizen of Salemo.

Thus it was that the elders initiated the Rite of Empathy. Each year, the incoming officials would drink from forty black phials, each containing the essence of some awful memory. Over the course of a few hours, the hundred or so novitiates would accumulate more recollections of horror than any one person had endured in their entire lifetime. In the process, they would gain a true understanding of the depths to which human experience could plunge.

The effects were impressive. A new quality of kindness and humanity seemed to settle upon the functionaries of the city. Never again would some hot-headed factotum suggest the forced harvesting of organs of refugees, or the torture of children to elicit confessions from parents, or the use of rape as a weapon of war!

And yet there were those among the elders who felt that their brethren had erred; indeed, had erred in precisely the way they were concerned to prevent. Could it really be humane to burden anyone with such heavy knowledge? To truly grasp the extent of our capacity for pain?

Their concerns were dismissed. Humane though they were, the elders of Salemo were still consequentialists, and reckoned no basis of disvalue save that of experience itself. And the phials did not induce experiences, but merely create memories, hence were incapable of causing true harm. Of course, these memories in themselves could induce images of great vigour and intensity, but this was no different in principle from the books and limelights of Salemo which served as its current basis for moral education. One could already read detailed accounts of the follies of the Great Purge, after all, coupled with etchings depicting the agonies of those who fell victim to it, and any reader with an active imagination could not help but project themselves into the story. Viewed in a certain light, the Phials merely served to make such empathic projections more vivid and accurate.

It was also noticed that those who had undergone the Trial of Empathy displayed some striking differences in their consequent dispositions. In particular, many refrained from the eating of iceflowers, even those who had previously been prone to overindulge in them. The general understanding was that this was a consequence of the fact that harvesting of iceflowers was conducted in deep caves largely by children, the better to navigate in the cramped conditions, and was painful and occasionally dangerous. As a result, it had provided the source of more than one of the essences of the black phials. Confronted with the – rare and unavoidable! – suffering involved in the gathering of iceflowers, then, many of the new administrators could not bring themselves to eat them.

To many in the Conclave, this seemed the height of irrationality. After all, the process of gathering iceflowers , like all other industries of Salemo, had been subjected to the most careful hedonic calculus; indeed, all the more assiduous given the young age of those involved! The indubitable fact remained that a single child could gather three dozen iceflowers in a few hours, providing sumptuous culinary delights to many. The process was admittedly risky, but the dangers were rare enough to be easily outweighed by the benefits to the broader populace

What was to be made, then, of the fact that of those who had undergone the Trial, some could no longer take any real pleasure in iceflowers? Since the cultivation of flowers was morally justified, reckoned the elders, such empathic scruples served more as a burden than a blessing. Why (some darkly wondered), if all in the city were to share in such a revelation, none would be able to enjoy the sublime joy of the flowers any longer, a catastrophic loss of value

In light of such concerns, it was decided that – despite various expressions of interest from scientists, mystics, and sensates – the use of the phials was to be strictly confined to the hundred or so officials undertaking the Trial of Empathy each year. Likewise, the place of the Trial itself was moved from the Public Assembly Room to a more private location, a small domed annex some hundred yards from the Conclave of Elders.

An unfortunate effect of this was that, during the time of the Trial, the wails and lamentation of the new magistrates were now audible to the Elders in the Conclave Tower, should they have cared to listen. But by common consent, they chose to cover their ears.

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