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‘[T]hey, Like the Child, Are Not Free’: An Ethical Defense of the Ones Who Remain in Omelas

In the Analects of Confucius, 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.” Confucius replies, “Zigong, this is quite beyond your reach.”1 Now, Confucius does not seem to be saying here that this freedom from imposition is beyond the reach of Zigong in particular, but rather, when seen in the context of the master’s overall teachings in the Analects, it is beyond the reach of every one of us to live without imposing on others or having others impose on us. Humans simply are the kinds of creatures who must impose on others and therefore must recognize as legitimate the imposition of others on them. We are not solitary individuals who, like Zigong, can, or even should, want to live beyond the demands of others.

The passage from the Analects is relevant here because Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” asks us to think about the degree to which our happiness is intertwined with others, and therefore how much we can rightfully expect from others and how much they can rightfully expect from us.2 LeGuin’s narrator paints a picture of a city, Omelas, in which the general happiness of everyone in the city is the result of an extreme imposition, an extreme cost to one very unfortunate person. But as I will argue, while the happiness of the people of Omelas comes at an extreme cost to one, this in no way means it is without cost to those who benefit from it. In fact, I will argue that the people who remain in Omelas recognize and accept these costs as the price of imposing on the one who suffers. They recognize, as Confucius does and Zigong does not, that living without these reciprocal impositions is, and ought to be, “beyond our reach.”

The illustrator Andrew DeGraff provides an evocative image of Omelas in his book Plotted: A Literary Atlas, in which he imagines the “geographies” of various literary works.3 I especially appreciate how DeGraff has given the space outside the city and its encircling mountains, the so-called Eighteen Peaks, as much room in the image as the city itself, emphasizing that the dark “unknown” outside Omelas is as important to our understanding of the story as is the city itself. The title of the story, after all, is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” even though we only learn of their existence in the story’s final paragraph. And it is the genius of LeGuin’s story that the narrator invites us to speculate continuously, giving us just enough detail to get our imaginations going.

Before discussing the dark unknown into which some will walk away, it is important to consider what they walk away from, and why. The narrator begins by describing a summer festival during which a procession moves through idyllic streets, “under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings,” heading toward the “Green Fields,” where “boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race.”4 This exalted tone quickly gives way to an almost neurotic attempt by the narrator to convince the reader that the people of Omelas are simultaneously happy and real people:

“these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.”5

And again,

“How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children—though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.”6

The narrator eventually gives up the task of description and concedes that, “Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.”7

Having left the reader to imagine her own vision of a genuinely happy society, the narrator reveals the “reason” for this happiness. At the heart of Omelas there is a child of about ten, who lives in a dark room, in abject misery. The narrator’s description is heart-rending, and it is impossible to read it without feeling “shocked, sickened, angered, outraged and impotent,” as do the people of Omelas who learn of, or go to see, the child for themselves. Because, as the narrator tells us,

“They all know that it 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.”8

When this is first explained to the children of Omelas, who are told of the child’s existence and purpose sometime between ages eight and twelve,

“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.”9

These terms are difficult at first for everyone in Omelas, but most come to accept them through a combination of rationalization (the child could never really know happiness now) but also, I will argue, 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. But of course, not everyone accepts these terms, and not everyone stays. Some find the terms unacceptable, and they walk away from the city into the dark unknown beyond the Eighteen Peaks.

Before discussing those who walk away, I want to address briefly one possible ethical question regarding the so-called “terms,” and how they are enforced. This would seem like an important question: does some “god” or “power” command and/or enforce these terms? But I do not think this question is all that important. If a god does command compliance with these terms, it should not matter to our moral evaluation. Gods can, and have, commanded all variety of immoral things. Only a follower of the untenable “divine command” approach to morality would equate a god’s commands with moral, as opposed to merely prudential, good. In addition, the narrator suggests there is no clergy in Omelas to enforce this divine command. There is also no mention or even hint of a deity who speaks directly to the people. It just seems taken for granted that these are the terms. The terms are enforced, like nearly all moral norms, by, in the words of philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, the “impersonal authority” of the norm.10 The institutions and practices of Omelas could simply enforce these norms, by the impersonal authority with which norms constrain behavior. Those who cannot be governed by these norms cannot live with the terms, and they walk away. Those who remain accept the “horrible justice” of the norm and work to improve the lives of everyone else in Omelas—save one. It is central to the practices which make Omelas what it is that those who live there accept the burden of the interdependence of happiness.

As this essay is an ethical defense of the ones who remain, I should say that my defense is a comparative one. That is, those who remain in Omelas are, in important ways, morally “superior” to those who walk away. Those who remain are by no means morally perfect people, simply people who I believe live by a better moral system than those who walk away. To illustrate why, it will be helpful to imagine the moral possibilities for those who would walk away. In what ways, if any, could their moral lives be “better” than those who remain?

They could decide to live as solitaries in a kind of Hobbesian or Lockean “state of nature.” Hobbesian nature is a state of war of all against all, were life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and would probably be especially so for those raised in the comforts of the city of joy.11 Life in a Lockean state of nature is usually portrayed as more benign, but this is precisely because Locke imagines his solitaries living by “laws of nature,” instilled by a spark of divinity.12 What Locke is really seeing, though, is that even thinking about true, natural, human solitaries is impossible. Humans carry their socialization with them, so while Locke is right that many solitaries would follow the normative dictates of an “impersonal authority,” these dictates would be the product of their socialization, not some innate divine spark, “conscience,” or natural law which they somehow intuit. To live as a solitary, however, 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. It is to be like Confucius’s erstwhile disciple, Zigong—to seek something beyond the reach of a moral person.

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 come together to form social contracts of a Hobbesian or Lockean variety. A Hobbesian contractarian society would be a kind of authoritarian society, where the sovereign is given all power with no recourse if this power is abused. A Lockean society would (without Locke’s “religious” foundations to constrain it) be a kind of libertarian society, where the only reason to work together would be for the sake of the individual’s own self-interest, or as Locke himself says, for “the preservation of their property.”13 Can we really say that these societies would be morally preferable to Omelas? Hobbesian authoritarianism? A libertarian society of purely self-interested individuals? These might be morally preferable to Omelas, but this would certainly take some argument.

Perhaps they might try to reconstruct a society based on all the good things in Omelas, only without the one obviously bad thing—the suffering child. Call it New Omelas. But in creating New Omelas they have not done away with the very thing they most reject—the child’s suffering. 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. It is true that whatever life they make for themselves outside Omelas will be, to some extent, their own life. They will no longer be enjoying life directly at the expense of the child kept in misery. But it seems sure that the life they make (in New Omelas or elsewhere) will be colored by their former life in Omelas, even (or especially) to the extent they might reject what happens in Omelas and try to make their new life a negation of their life there. Those who walk away and attempt to form a society more perfect than Omelas (that is, one without the child’s suffering), nevertheless carry the child’s suffering with them as a model of what not to do. How is this different from the ones who remain? They too, as we will see, use the child’s suffering as a kind of negative example for their own behavior toward others.

The ones who walk away from Omelas are not necessarily bad people. In rejecting the suffering of the child, they show sympathy toward that suffering. However, one can easily imagine those who walk away being self-satisfied, in the way that many who “stand on principle” look down upon those who “compromise” with brute reality: “At least my happiness is no longer at the child’s expense,” they might say. “It is my own doing.”

I think part of the explanation for this way of thinking is that the ones who walk away have misunderstood what constitutes human freedom, and how this freedom relates to our moral life. They believe freedom is to be as Zigong wishes to be: free of all imposition on and from others. But real human freedom is not to be completely liberated from the power of others and their demands. Human freedom is not to try to walk away from all constraints, but to interact with these constraints so as to mitigate their potentially negative effects. Those who walk away see freedom as a form of negative liberty. Those who remain have a deeper understanding of their own freedom. They realize that to be free in the sense of having no limits on what one does is impossible. Morality is doing the best we can with what we are given—to work with the powers that be, the world as we find it, to create the best self and world we can imagine. This is ultimately an ameliorist approach to morality. Sometimes the best we can do is to slow down the pace at which things get worse, as we do when we, say, opt for the lesser of two evils.

As was mentioned earlier, the narrator tries constantly to convince us that the people of Omelas are simultaneously happy and real people—that they are not flat characters. They are not stupid or simple. The narrator struggles to “make us believe” that this kind of happiness is possible. Why is this such a struggle? I think the word the narrator is searching for to describe the life of the people of Omelas is that they are flourishing. And no wonder the narrator cannot make us understand this situation. For many of us, the word happiness connotes a purely subjective inner experience (or state) that is different for each person. Happiness is both intense and necessarily fleeting. It cannot be sustained for long periods of time due to the intrusion of life’s complexities. Also, what makes you happy will not necessarily make me happy. The thought of a night at the opera fills you with joy and me with dread. So, if the people of Omelas are consistently happy, their happiness must be so easily achieved and maintained that it can only be of the simplest variety, working on the simplest of people.

Flourishing, on the other hand, requires a broader view. It requires us to look at the overall trajectory of one’s life. As Aristotle says,

“[T]he best and most complete virtue [arête; excellence]…will be [expressed] in a complete life. For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one day; nor, similarly, does one day or a short time make us blessed and happy.”14

This is why the narrator can describe the people of Omelas as genuinely happy, without being simpletons. The overall arc of their life is a good one. They are raised in a virtuous and discriminating society, and they affirm the overall goodness of this society, even after, especially after, they learn of the existence of the suffering child. 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.15

The existence of the child requires the people of Omelas to locate the source of their own happiness outside themselves and their own subjective experience. Walking away is an attempt to break this link. It says, “My happiness is my own affair, my own doing.” For those who remain, the child serves as an anchor, a constant living reminder that our happiness requires others, and that others’ happiness requires us.

But this is a very high price.

All the possibilities inside or outside Omelas seem to be morally compromised because of the child’s suffering. We are right to think, as those who walk away seem to think, that the world would be better if the child did not suffer—better to have a world where this child (like all children) need not suffer. Thus, releasing the child may end up being the most moral thing one could do in this situation, but it is not the only moral thing. Morality and immorality do not necessarily exist in a binary world of 1s and 0s, of all or nothing, of right and wrong.

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.

  1. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, trans. Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 5.12. ↩︎

  2. Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in American Short Stories Since 1945, ed. John G. Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 347-351. ↩︎

  3. Andrew DeGraff, Plotted: A Literary Atlas (Pulp/Zest Books, 2015), 121. ↩︎

  4. Leguin, 348. ↩︎

  5. Leguin, 348. ↩︎

  6. Leguin, 348. ↩︎

  7. Leguin, 348. ↩︎

  8. Leguin, 350. ↩︎

  9. Leguin, 350. ↩︎

  10. Elizabeth Anderson, “Beyond Homo Economicus: New Developments in Theories of Social Norms,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 29 (2000), 182. ↩︎

  11. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson (New York: Penguin, 1968), 186. ↩︎

  12. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 271. ↩︎

  13. Locke, 351. ↩︎

  14. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd edition, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 1098a18-20. ↩︎

  15. Leguin, 351. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Paul Firenze is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, where he teaches classes in ethics, philosophy and religion.

Issue 1 Volume 2

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From the Editors November 2017

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