Almost everyone is happy, festive, and peaceful in Omelas, a fictional utopian society depicted in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. Even in this seeming utopia, however, comfort comes at a price. For reasons unspecified, the suffering of one child is necessary to maintain order and peace in the rest of the society. If the child were to be set free from the basement it is caged in, the entire city of Omelas would collapse entirely.
Every citizen knows about the existence of the child. Occasionally, young people and adults visit the child and see the tragic conditions it is placed in. Severed from human interactions, fed scanty meals, and isolated in darkness, the child lives in a constant state of despair. Although the visitors feel a momentary sense of indignation at such a corrupted aspect of their society, however, most of them decide to ignore the child and to move on with their lives. On the other hand, a few who cannot withstand the injustice choose to abandon their pleasant lives and to walk out of Omelas.
Given that happiness in Omelas only comes at the expense of a tortured child, it becomes questionable whether Omelas is truly a utopian society. Le Guin’s short story illustrates an ethical theory called utilitarianism. This doctrine places a heavy emphasis on the well-being of the majority; it claims that an action is morally justifiable if it guarantees the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. While utilitarianism may be logically sound, it has flawed implications when put into practice.
One interpretation of the short story is that it is an allegory of exploitation in a capitalist society. Today, the problem of exploitation is prevalent across the globe. According to a report published by the International Labor Organization in 2016, “an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labor.” However, many of us simply tolerate this social injustice when we buy inexpensive clothes, packaged foods, or electronic devices without considering the weight of our actions. Whether we realize it or not, our prosperity and convenience often depend on the children in the basement: the underprivileged, exploited workers.
In a broader context, the story serves to challenge the popular utilitarian mindset in today’s world. There are countless compromises embedded into our everyday lives: companies generate wealth by firing employees, universities earn prestige by rejecting certain applicants, and people gain acceptance from society by assigning scapegoats. Although we theoretically adhere to a set of humanist values, reality binds us to various social contracts that require some form of sacrifice. Le Guin’s story not only reminds us of this truth but also kindles a desire to grapple with our blind acceptance.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a classic short story that carries both timely and timeless messages. The ethical dilemma presented in the story forces us to redefine ethics and to consider the issues that Le Guin implies are at stake in our society.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin are available online as pdf files. Happy reading!