Tuesday, May 16, 2006

To Walk Away from Omelas

What about that, eh! I have just stumbled on this parable dealing with the justice of utilitarianism. Just as I was gonna let go of the subject …! Ah, well then; just a little bit more …

The story is “ The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and it gives the setting of the town Omelas, a utopian place of happiness and delight. Everything at Omelas is pleasing and lovely, apart from the one thing: The happiness of the citizens is dependent on an unfortunate child being kept in filth, darkness and misery. All adult citizens know of the child, and they all know it has to be there, as all their good fortune is dependent on its misery.

Some of the people walk away from Omelas, as does the author by allusion, and the story ends.

"The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Read Ursula K. Le Guins story at http://teacherweb.ftl.pinecrest.edu/crawfor/apcg/Unit1Omelas.htm

Le Guins story is variations on a theme by William James (1842-1910). He writes:

“Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fouriers's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”

It seems to me, that we should not be content until all are in Omelas. Further I don’t see what the big deal is. Why should it not be possible? For everyone to strive for the same thing there has to be a common principle. If the common principle is achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, it always allows for the miserable child of Omelas. If the principle is the idea of every life’s equal worth, we can not allow for any scapegoats.

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