“Imagine if you will, a utopia that was dependent upon the suffering of a single child” I smugly asked a fellow employee (a philosopher) , as I popped a Keurig into the coffee machine. Without raising his head, he continued to pour hot water over the green tea in his infuser mug. He lifted the mug, which was now full, turned and stopped for a moment before departing, to say ” If a single child suffered, then there was no utopia”. Deflated, I sprinkled creamer upon my coffee, and returned to my desk to ponder the best approach to my blog post.
Ursula Le Guin was inspired by “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” written by the psychologist and philosopher William James, who contended that “[If people could be] kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain soul on the far off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment,.. how hideous a thing would be [the enjoyment of this happiness] when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain”.
Contrary to William James who believed that people would not agree to such a social contract, Le Guin shows us a society that, like our American society, accepts the moral ambiguity of the unjust suffering of an individual (or the few or many, as the case may be) for the “happiness” of the privileged (few or many, as the case may be). Privilege by definition, exists at someone else’s expense.
There is little to no plot in the story, just a trap that is sprung upon us on page four “Then let me describe one more thing”, leaving us feeling uncomfortable. After consideration of cruel treatment of the child who pleads” Please let me out, I will be good” (page six), would we walk away from Omelas in protest or in quandary, or would we stay and accept, by the logic of Immanuel Kant that the rationality of the greater good is the ultimate good; that saving a drowning man out of compassion or pity is not a morally good act.
I admit that I would stay in Omelas. My government for example, has in it’s counterinsurgency efforts against al-Qaeda, and in my name also, committed itself to a policy of drone activity in Pakistan, which by the reckoning of Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institute, has caused the deaths of ten civilians for every militant killed. I am thus no better than the citizens of Omelas.
The narrator states that “There was no king, They did not use swords or keep slaves” ( page two). There is no moral authority in the story. The narrator draws us in and makes us complicit when he/she says “Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your fancy bids..” (page two). We can add orgy or drugs if we so choose, to sweeten the deal in our imagination. The narrator switches from the past tense to the conditional tense ” I think that there would be no cars or helicopters” (page two) ….we, the readers, are made partners in the construction of this story, that is conditional upon our inclination. Each reader may construct his or her story.
There is no escape, no salvation in the story ” The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”.