I was watching Swordfish on HBO last night, and toward the end, the John Travolta character (bad guy) posed the following question to the Hugh Jackman character (good guy): You have the power to cure all the world’s diseases but the price for this is that you must kill a single innocent child, could you kill that child Stanley?
That got me to thinking about Ursula K LeGuin’s masterful short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (I don’t feel comfortable linking directly to the story, but I’ll tell you that it’s findable on a Yahoo! search).
Well, I spent the day brooding about it, and I decided to research whether this story has ever been the subject of its own discussion. Nope. Several people have asked for it to be identified; and many folks through the years have brought up its theme as pertinent to a discussion already underway. But we’ve never devoted a thread to the story itself.
I identified myself on the Dope several years ago as one who would walk away from Omelas. But in my brooding today, it occurred to me that this would not be enough for me. Simply knowing about the child’s “abominable misery” would put a taint upon my soul that I could never clean away as long as I, through inaction, permitted the state of affairs to remain unchanged.
I would have to return to Omelas, rejoin the population, and find a way to free the child and work towards its healing. Failing that, I would work toward finding a way to subvert the terms that paid for the city’s happiness with the child’s misery.
P.S. I’m going to bed now. I hope we can have a nice discussion about all this tomorrow.
Also, or perhaps alternatively, do you think Omelas is us–that is, the affluent, industrial West, whose “lifestyle” depends on miseries elsewhere in the world, miseries we “know about” but keep mostly out of sight and out of mind?
I always kind of fantasied that “those who walked away from Omelas” would come back someday, all together, rescue the child and tear it all down. Ideally, that’s what would be done. What I would do? That depends entirely on how much power I have, on what can be done. If I can’t find some way to sneak the kid out, I’d go wherever the others who leave go, and try to convince them to come back in force to make Omelas give up the child. Convincing the people who live there is highly unlikely to work; they are by definition both ruthless and profiting from that ruthlessness.
I reject the existence of Omelas. Omelas is supposedly a place where the people are happy because of the suffering of the single child, but I maintain that that is not possible. If I were ever to find myself in a situation that resembled Omelas, I wouldn’t walk away; I would start looking for the holodeck generators or the actors’ green rooms or whatever, since that would be a more logical explanation than that it could be real.
Well, it could be for example the result of some social experiment by an unethical scientist from a more powerful culture; he tortures the kid and provides them with health and wealth via his advanced technology. The people might not be literally, directly happy because of what is happening to the kid, but in effect they are due to their deal-with-the-devil relationship with the scientist.
I’ll introduce the possibility, certainly (it can be argued that not having that possibility enslaves them, as well). I won’t be removing the possibility for them to find their own paths to joy and fulfillment.
If they find those paths, good for them. If they don’t, well, at least they had the opportunity to attempt it for themselves.
I would not rule out the possibility of volunteerng to take the child’s place, provided I knew someone would be working toward its healing.
I, for one, would NOT walk away from Omelas, and I reject the implied premise that those who do are morally superior.
If it were possible, I would volunteer to replace him. (Easy to say, I know. I probably wouldn’t, but I’d like to think I would. THAT would be the moral imperative, not rejecting the whole arrangement.) But of course, part of the premise is that it CANNOT be a volunteer and in fact, the victim can never know the reason for his fate.
But the fact that I can seriously say that I SHOULD volunteer allows me to say that the child should too, even if he can’t.
The reason the arrangement strikes us (well, me anyway) as repugnant is because it is impossible and the closest parallels in the real world would have terrible consequences. Torturing people in the real world is evil and has bad consequences for everybody. It is all too easy for us to convince ourselves that our cruel and immoral acts are necessary for some greater good, and it is almost never true. In the real world, it is therefore a very good rule that one must never compromise certain moral principles for the “greater good.”
But in the story, it is part of the premise that the child’s suffering really is for the greater good and we all know this for a fact. If we accept that this is true, it is immoral to end the arrangement and foolish to walk away.
But real humans in that situation wouldn’t know the truth for a fact, and would have to accept that their judgment could be clouded by the benefits they receive. For them, walking away would be right. (I still probably wouldn’t, though, for the same reasons I allow suffering to occur in this world without protest.)
I’m saying that while I reject the idea that “hundreds of others will suffer or die” is a foregone conclusion, I’m comfortable with introducing the possibility that hundreds of others will suffer or die. The individuals who may or may not become subject to suffering or dying can be left to their own resources to avoid that outcome through their own efforts. It’s a better chance than the one they were content to provide the child with. I don’t think I’d lose much sleep over it.
Further, if “the terms” have been excluding that possibility for all these years, they can be legitimately described as being enslaved by those terms no less than the child was.
Well put. I agree with you, in fact, but I think our conception of “greater good” is not the most widely-held understanding of the term. (See most discussions of things like the Civil War or the atomic bombing of Japan for evidence of this.)