We should be grateful to New York Times columnist David Brooks for his meditation on Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The story makes us reconsider certain aspects of our society we are likely to ignore.
Le Guin describes Omelas as a “idyllic, magical place,” full of “handsome buildings,” “lovely parks, and “delightful music.” There is only one fly in the ointment. All the citizens are aware that a small child is locked in a room sitting in its own excrement and living on a half-cup of cornmeal a day. The child used to cry out for help, but now just whimpers. The citizens know of the child’s plight, but they also “understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of friendships, the health of their children…depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
Brooks summarizes the moral dilemma the citizens of Omelas face: “That is the social contract in Omelas. One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed.” How do the citizens of Omelas respond to this difficult situation? Some reject the social contract and walk away from Omelas; but most people “feel horrible for the child …and then they return to their happiness.”
The story affects us because we cannot help but believe that it has some relevance to our own situation in a mature capitalist economy, a system that produces happiness for a large number of people at the same time it accepts misery for others.
What would we do if we were citizens of Omelas? Brooks thinks the most of us would be troubled, but accept the tradeoff of someone’s misery for widespread prosperity:
” In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values based on the idea that a human being is an end, not a means…. It is wrong to enslave a person, even if that slavery might produce a large good …. And yet we don’t live according to that moral imperative. Life is filled with tragic trade-offs.”
Brooks recognizes that some will refuse to accept the bargain: “They will walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity.” But Brooks sides with those who stay: “The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend on.” The story’s value is that it reminds us of “all the tragic compromises built into modern life.” Most people will be troubled by the misery of the child, but they will still accept it as an a necessary price for prosperity.
In Brooks’ telling, the citizens of Omelas must choose between two courses of action. They can quit the society or accept the human misery it causes as somehow necessary. But I would like to suggest a third course of action. The citizens of Omelas might try thinking like a lawyer. Lawyers are doubters by profession who ask lots of questions. One question a lawyer might ask is “ How do we know that it is the suffering of this child that causes our prosperity?” A possible reply might be “Everyone knows that. It’s common knowledge.”
But that response spurs a second question–“Where’s the proof?” Is this connection between misery and prosperity a proven law of nature we must accept or just a rationalization of injustice we tell ourselves to justify unnecessary suffering? And if there is some causal connection between misery and prosperity, how strong is it? If we raise the child’s daily portion of cornmeal to one cup a day, will the lights go out all over Omelas? Maybe the causal connection is much weaker; the child’s misery only increases our prosperity a little bit. In that case, the citizens of Omelas may find a small decrease in prosperity is a small price to pay to end needless misery. It also might have the added benefit of decreasing global warming
History gives us an example of this more active response to the recognition of human suffering. At one time not so long ago slavery was considered to be a foundation of our society and a necessary cause of our prosperity. But then some citizens decided that the cruelty of slavery was too high a price to pay for that prosperity. But they didn’t leave the society; they fought to change the social contract. And they won. Not only didn’t the lights go out in America, soon it became common knowledge that slavery was not only inhumane, but also an extremely inefficient mode of production.
Here is a link to David Brooks’ column. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/13/opinion/david-brooks-the-child-in-the-basement.html?_r=0
Here is a link to the Le Guin short story: http://www.kareyperkins.com/classes/445/omelas.pdf