The Moral Dilemma Behind Happiness In Omelas

In Ursula Le Guin’s, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, we see a paradoxical dichotomy presented that questions our morals. It asks us to question something that may work well in theory but perhaps not as well in real life. It asks us about the whole over the part and whether this is a good model for society. Is the city of Omelas a true utopia? This is the overall question presented to us. Utopia’s are imaginary, idealistic, and often times impractical worlds, the city of Omelas being a perfect example for this. Omelas is an impractical utopia, everyone is deserving and worthy of a good life, humanity is not something to be decided upon.

The child is dehumanized throughout the story by referred to as “it”. In this post I will be using the words they/them/their (singular) in effort to bring my point of the worth of the child’s humanity across.

The model for Omelas is inherently flawed. It would be different perhaps, if the child wasn’t a child, or if the child had spent it’s whole life not knowing much else. However, this is a child who was once part of the exterior world “the child, […] has not always lived in the tool room.” A tragic hero, they have fallen from their status of normalcy to being slave to a societies need for happiness.  This is not an adult who understands sacrifices and can willingly accept and take on the responsibility of an entire populations happiness; this is child, they do not know about commitment or the need of greater good, the child is living a miserable life against their will. Which brings up the question, are the people in Omelas subject to an Ella Enchanted like curse where their feelings are redundant? Do they assure themselves that the child is fine? Are they also subject to a logic of “it can always be worse”? If that is what happens, the truth is things can always be much worse, but our measure for progress shouldn’t be be, “how much worse can things get?” but “how much better can things be?” We can see from the ending of the story, that the former is exactly what the people in Omelas tell themselves, “it [the child] is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy” the people delude themselves into believing that the child is deserving of whatever pain and suffering befalls on them. Why, after initially feeling such rage over the the the captivity of the child, do they eventually “realize” i.e. convince themselves, that the child “would not get much good from of its freedom”? Guilt. This is the ultimate moral dilemma in Omelas, to choose between the happiness of the whole or the happiness of one, and the guilt of having to live with both decisions. Who is included in the whole though? Definitely not the child. The most telling part about our humanity however, might not even be with how the people lie to themselves in order to sleep at night, but in the reaction of” those who walk away from Omelas.” What they tell us when they walk away, is they are not trying, they are avoiding the guilt of Omelas by not trying to liberate the child but also not trying to help the city if the child ever were to be liberated. Perhaps, there is nothing they can do but leave. The people in Omelas live pleasantly, with nothing nagging their minds, but those who leave, what nags at their minds?

It is significant that those who leave, leave alone. I believe it speaks to our unwillingness to bring about change on our own. They walk away from the city but they also walk away from the child. They do nothing in an effort to change, but this shouldn’t just be attributed to us as people, but us as a society. In practice, would we actually go through with this? Probably not, this would spark outrage. Why though? Why not exist with perfect happiness? I believe it is because we are all, whether consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fact that justice is not based on equality but on equity. If we can not exist in such a way, we are all subject to the captivity of each other. Just like in Omelas, “they [the people], like the child, are not free.” Their mistake, however is in believing “there is nothing they can do.” Ironically, the views of equity in justice might be more idealistic than the city of Omelas, but it is what we want, true happiness. What Omelas has is unbound happiness, not tied to or rooted in anything but the misery of a single child. What they have “it doesn’t matter”, as long as they are happy, but is this really true happiness?

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