Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (1973) poses an interesting and thorny moral conundrum. In this story, the narrator describes the utopian city of Omelas, whose very utopianism, prosperity, and unspoiled happiness depend on the perpetual misery of a single child, hidden and locked away in a dark, squalid basement. For this reason, Omelas can also be thought of as a dystopia or an almost utopia. The narrator tells us:
They all know that it [the child] has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
The narrator suggests there is no clergy in Omelas to enforce these terms, and there is also no mention or hint of a deity who speaks directly to the people to lay down this law (even if a god did so, of course, that wouldn’t de facto make the law moral). It appears just taken for granted that these are the terms, enforced, like other moral norms, by the “impersonal authority” of the norm, to use the phrasing of philosopher Elizabeth Anderson.
The Moral Dilemma
The child, it should be mentioned, is not completely hidden since the citizens are allowed to visit it. Those who learn of – or go to see – the child feel “shocked, sickened, angered, outraged and impotent” about the life it has to live, but they end up accepting this one injustice so as to ensure the happiness of the rest of the city. Children also learn of the child’s existence and purpose:
They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms….The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.
Some citizens, though, do not accept this deal – this infliction of torture and suffering on one for the sake of the many; and so they decide to walk away from the city. These citizens, both young and old, are “the ones who walk away from Omelas”. Their walking away is their protest, their ethical stance, their refusal to accept the price of their well-being. To these brave dissenters, their happiness is spoiled through the knowledge of the child’s existence and the attendant guilt. They cannot live comfortably with the terms presented to them.
Connecting Omelas to the Real World – and Antinatalism
In a previous article, I discussed how this story can act as an analogy for antinatalism (the view that assigns a negative value to birth and deems procreation morally wrong). To summarise, antinatalists can be seen as the ones who walk away from Omelas, who believe that the good lives of the majority depend on perpetuating a world in which an innocent minority will endure terrible lives. We could say that this gamble – the risk of a miserable existence – is the price we pay for creating (mostly happy) people.
In some ways, creating good lives does not seem to depend precisely on the suffering of others; if the suffering child in Omelas, for example, were relieved of its torture, the universal happiness of Omelas would crumble, but if the same happened here to those with miserable lives, others wouldn’t lose their prosperity and happiness.
Nonetheless, antinatalists may still reject the setup of the world (the suffering minority and happy majority) and refuse to perpetuate it – and choose to ‘walk away’ from it – through their anti-procreative stance. Moreover, we could say that at least some of our prosperity (currently) depends on the suffering of others, such as the clothes we buy and the sweatshops they come from or the minerals used in the production of technology and the abject slave-like conditions involved in their mining. Then there’s the fact that the level of consumerism and energy consumption in developed countries drives climate change in a way that affects those in developing countries the most. There are solutions to these issues that may materialise in the future, but since a child in the West born today – and potentially its own descendants – will be entangled in the hardship of others, many believe that this makes procreation a morally problematic act.
Regardless of whether or not antinatalism truly maps onto the story of Omelas, we are still left with the question of whether one who disagrees with the terms of Omelas or our own world should walk away from it. One could argue that if someone is ethically committed to justice, then it is possible that walking away from Omelas – despite being a radical act of conscience – may not actually serve this aim. The child will remain in the city, after all. The difference in the case of antinatalism, meanwhile, is that not procreating isn’t exactly walking away from the world since you still live in it and, therefore, still have many opportunities to tackle injustices (including minimising suffering, without ruining the happiness of the majority, as in the case of Omelas).
The Omelas-type question was raised previously in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880), which Irina Uriupina has likewise connected to antinatalism. In The Brothers Karamazov, we find the following dialogue between the intellectual Ivan and his brother Alyosha:
“Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature – that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance – and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.”
“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?”
“No, I can’t admit it.”
Elsewhere, Ivan remarks that “I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child”. With this in mind, Uriupina states:
we are constantly answering this question when we choose to either produce our offspring or not. We are aware that some of them will become those tortured kids, who will involuntarily pay the price for our desire to propagate our species into the future. And we say ‘Yes, we agree to enjoy the happiness founded on the tears and blood of a little victim. No problem there’.
If you wouldn’t have created a world where some people pay with their tears and blood for the happiness of others, if you really and truly would never have created such a world, why are you arguing in favor of its continuation now?
The Case for Remaining in Omelas
Paul Firenze, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wentworth Institute of Technology, has provided an ethical defence of those who choose to remain in Omelas. He begins with a quote from the Analects of Confucius, where one of the master’s disciples, Zigong, proclaims, “I do not want others to impose on me, nor do I want to impose on others.” To which Confucious replies, “Zigong, this is quite beyond your reach.” Indeed, it is not really possible to live in the world without imposing on others or having others impose on us. The Ones Who Walk From Omelas creates an extreme, fantastical scenario in which we are really forced to address the question of how much imposition is permissible, and to the antinatalist, the impositions that actually exist in our world are enough to justify saying “no” to procreation.
Firenze, in his essay, wants to argue that the majority in Omelas, who benefit from the lone, unfortunate child, suffer costs, too – and moreover, those who remain in Omelas “accept these costs as the price of imposing on the one who suffers.” Firenze opines that those who remain in Omelas don’t just do so through rationalisation (the child at least never knows what happiness is) but also “through a realization that the child’s suffering is actually a call to live a moral life, not simply for oneself, but for others. And I think ultimately this is the source of their moral strength, and therefore the source of their genuine happiness.”
Firenze stresses that his ethical defence is a comparative one: those who remain in Omelas are, in his view, morally superior to those who walk away, but they are by no means morally perfect people. To illustrate why he thinks those who remain follow a better moral code, he invites us to imagine the moral possibilities and lives of those who walk away. How could their walking away be morally better than those who remain?
Firstly, Firenze imagines, “They could decide to live as solitaries in a kind of Hobbesian or Lockean “state of nature.”” To live in the Hobbesian state of nature would be undesirable since it is a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” to use Hobbes’ description. “To live as a solitary…is to live outside of morality—to reject all morality, which is necessarily concerned with how we treat others. It is to live by oneself, and for oneself,” Firenze adds. However, this is questionable. Doesn’t the fact that the dissenters walk away indicate that they have a level of conscience and compassion that means they are committed to morality, and won’t suddenly abandon it when outside the city of Omelas? One could rebut this and argue, nevertheless, that their conscience is due, in large part, to the socialisation and culture they experienced in Omelas, and outside the city, there is always the risk of moral collapse. Firenze then considers:
Perhaps the ones who walk away could join an already existing society, like our own society. Is this morally preferable to Omelas? If so, it is difficult to see why. Is it because no one individual is forced to suffer, against their will, for the happiness of others? This sounds like an overly optimistic and generous description of our society. Is there any reason to think that the society into which they might walk will be better than the one they left? Omelas presents a high moral bar to clear.
The ones who walk away could also form social contracts of a Hobbesian or Lockean variety: in the case of Hobbesian authoritarianism, a sovereign ruler is given all power and isn’t punished if the power is abused, while in n the case of Lockean libertarianism, individuals only work together for the sake of preserving one’s own property. “These might be morally preferable to Omelas, but this would certainly take some argument,” states Firenze.
It is also possible that those who walk away might want to build another Omelas, just without the suffering child. This might be a less prosperous but more ethical society. Yet in creating this ‘New Omelas’ they have not actually solved the very thing they took issue with in the first place – the suffering child in ‘Old Omelas’. Firenze writes, “They have merely left it behind in the hopes of not contributing directly to its suffering. But it is unclear how this walking away absolves them of responsibility any more than those who remain.”
Firenze believes that those who walk away misunderstand what real human freedom is. It is not to be completely free from imposing on others and others imposing on you. It is, morally speaking, to interact with the constraints of life – the inevitable impositions – in a way that mitigates potentially negative effects. “This is ultimately an ameliorist approach to morality,” says Firenze, which contrasts with the eliminationist or rejectionist approach of those who walk away or the antinatalists. In the real world, we can at least cut ourselves from, or reduce our interactions with, some systems of harm and oppression through the choices we make, such as what we buy (or don’t buy) and who we vote for. These are choices that may make us less well off while benefiting the least fortunate.
What’s more, just as the suffering in an individual life makes possible the experience of positive emotions and the development of virtue, so too does the suffering child in Omelas allow everyone else to flourish. The narrator tells us:
Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child they are so gentle with children.
Yet, as I pointed out in my article on Omelas and antinatalism, this still amounts to the ethical dilemma of whether the unhappiness of a minority justifies the happiness of a majority. In other words, “Can the aggregated happiness compensate the extreme suffering of even a single person?” asks the Swiss philosopher Bruno Contestabile.
On the one hand, if the ethic we are guided by is to maximise aggregate happiness (utilitarianism), then the terms of Omelas appear to be justified; to free the child from suffering would drastically reduce the happiness of everyone else. On the other hand, if people make the free choice to remain in Omelas, knowing what the price is, is this not a form of injustice and victimisation? From the perspective of Kantian duty-based ethics (deontology), treating the child as a means to our own ends would be wrong, irrespective of how good the consequences are. Yet if a lone individual – or group of people – decided to rescue the child without gaining the consent of everyone else in Omelas, ruining their happiness as a result, this would also seem to be a violation of our duties towards others. Perhaps, then, the decision to free the child must be unanimous. Firenze concludes his essay by saying:
Ultimately, my critique of the ones who walk away is that while they hold Omelas to be a place of unacceptable evil precisely because of the child’s situation, they have no plan for how to ameliorate the child’s suffering. This amelioration could only come, if it is ever to come, from within Omelas itself. Those who remain are at least in a position to eventually realize, and to make others realize, that the moral duty which ties them all to these admittedly grotesque “terms” is of their own making (and it is made by all of them, together). And then, if and when they eventually reach that day of realization, and the child is brought out of that room, out of its misery, and is comforted, and made happier, and it is decreed that from that day forward no child will be kept in such misery ever again, the ones who will do this, with no opposition, the ones who will have moved even closer to their moral perfection, will be the ones who remain in Omelas, not the ones who walk away.
This is an important critique of the ones who walk away. If you walk away from Omelas, you can longer raise your voice in the city, amongst those who remain. You will not be able to campaign for the child to be freed from misery; you will not be able to engage with other citizens to change their minds and reject the norms and terms you most passionately oppose. However, it is also true that walking away itself could act as a powerful message, encouraging those who remain in Omelas to reconsider what they take for granted. And the more people who walk away, the greater impact this act of protest will have. As with any ethically motivated action that goes against the grain, the more people who dissent, the greater the likelihood that wider society will listen.
It is true that those living in Omelas who oppose the terms of its existence would still benefit from those terms, but this does not necessarily imply moral hypocrisy. Again, if staying leads to more opportunities to change the system, then that would be the more ethical choice. Similarly, someone who was a socialist, for instance, might not think walking away from the capitalistic society they live in and going to live a solitary life in the woods is the most effective way to achieve the political change they want. Furthermore, if he or she continues to benefit in some way by living under an economic system they disagree with, this doesn’t mean they, therefore, endorse capitalism.
If Firenze’s argument could persuade someone who would otherwise leave Omelas to stay, it seems unlikely that they would remain as happy as those who always wanted to stay, given that their conscience propelled them to leave in the first place. They may still get to enjoy the prosperity of the city, but they may not be able to live peacefully and comfortably, like everyone else can, knowing that the suffering child remains in the dungeon.
Wanting to walk away from Omelas may be the moral instinct of some, and to resolutely decide to take this path is admirable and understandable, but it is not clear if this is the most moral action possible. As uncomfortable as it may be, the most responsible and effective decision could be to remain in Omelas, with, of course, the injustice against the child in mind, and the resolve to free the child and never to allow such a situation to arise again.