Friday, March 28, 2008

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

One of the ethical concepts I have the most difficulty grasping is that from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. For those of you who have not read the story (and are too lazy to do so), it is a short story based on the moral concepts of utilitarianism. Essentially, there is a town that is perfectly happy and perfectly pleasant, with the caveat that this perfection is supported by, and reliant upon, the constant suffering of a single child. To alleviate the child’s suffering would relieve the town of that which magically makes it such a utopian place to be, and as a result, the child remains suffering. When the children of the town are considered old enough to understand, they are brought to see the child, so that they too may understand the foundation upon which their fortune is based; and as a rule, the vast majority of the inhabitants understands and accepts this trade-off; but some do not.

Those are the Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas; they may be children, they may be adults. But either way, at some point in their lives, they realize they cannot accept the suffering of a child in exchange for their own happiness, and so they leave the utopia of Omelas. It is never explained why or to where, merely that “they know where they are going”.

And this is the part of the story, morally speaking, that I cannot comprehend. I can perfectly understand the utilitarianism view- that the child’s suffering maintains the utopia for tens or hundreds of thousands, and as a result, is justified- exitus acta probat, ‘the result validates the deed’.

I could understand if the ones who walked away from Omelas sought to change it, either from within by convincing their fellows to abandon their utopia in the name of justice, or from without through force of arms (not that it would be particularly difficult, as apparently even a kind word is enough to dispel the utopia).

Instead, they merely walk away, never to return. It seems to be as though this is an endemic method of dealing with third party moral quandaries in today’s world. We find China’s human rights record to be abhorrent- and yet we take no overt action. One could argue, indeed, that the situation with China is not similar; we do take action with China over their human rights record. We refrain from full-scale military action because it is not politically or militarily expedient.

However, those who walk away from Omelas appear to have no such concerns. The thought does not appear to enter their minds to take action against Omelas, itself, something they consider unjust- they merely remove themselves from it, in a way, perhaps, attempting to separate the moral responsibility. The responsibility for the child is no longer theirs- they take nothing from the child. Others, indeed, are benefiting from this captive, and not they.

And yet, the sense has always been in my mind, that this is nothing more than a smoke-screen. A tacit acceptance through willful ignorance is still acceptance, but of a less moral character; it is one thing to accept a harm done, knowing full well that you are doing harm but accepting it because the result is important. It is another thing entirely to accept a harm done without complaint because you looked away; that is instead moral cowardice, not strength. The ones who walk away from Omelas pretend that they do not see, in order that they may consider themselves more ‘pure’.

This I cannot accept. I am willing to accept a difference in moral values- so long as you are willing to openly embrace those values, rather than hiding behind them when it becomes convenient to do so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Our comfort as a society depends today upon the suffering of many. More so than a society that harms only one.

Really. The needs of the many, and all that. It's like sacrificing things to the Gods in return for their safety and protection. And while that's generally unproven superstition, if it is accurate, then why not. Think of how happy that one child is to be chosen to be so selfless.