Ursula K. Le Guin’s Those Who Walk Away from Omelas encourages students to face the dark side of modern civilization and utilitarianism. It tells of a nearly perfect city, where most everyone is happy. They lead cultured, complex, fulfilling lives. The reader is told to imagine it as they wish; let it have whatever amount of technology they want, to add in things they think would make the city better, and generally make the city as good as is believable to the reader. The one flaw of the city is that its well-being depends on a single child be kept in torturous solitude.
The child is innocent, desperate, and remembers life in the city, but cannot be allowed any kindness whatsoever. This puts forth the question of whether such a city is morally sound, whether it’s okay for a benefit to come at a cost to innocent souls. This is a question of whether utilitarianism is the best moral system. Le Guin believes it’s not, subtly condemning free market capitalism and the way the developed world allows the poorer nations to suffer. The connection between the story and global inequality is difficult to see at first.
In truth, the abundance of the Western world is reliant on poor conditions in the rest. Our goods are produced in factories that pollute the air. Bleaching paper so this essay could be printed released highly toxic dioxins into the air for instance. This is one of a myriad of other compounds that poison the earth to produce the goods we need. The harmful effect of this pollution is concentrated in poorer areas where labor is cheap and there exist more factories. Furthermore, there’s less funding to treat exhaust and waste.
More so, pollution in the environment isn’t cleaned up as well and people are less likely to move away from polluted areas when they have less money for housing and food. Worse, the water treatment in these nations isn’t as thorough. Diseases or toxic chemicals are often able to get through. One of the biggest polluters, mining, also more seriously harms people of developing nations. Gathering conflict resources often involves illegal taxing by armed forces or extortion of resources.
Armed forces sometimes even force people to work using murder, threats of death, rape, or amputation. Being an amputee is much harder in Africa because more of the work available is physical. Also, people in Africa tend to blame amputees rather than sympathetically donating more. There are fair trade and conflict free resources and many companies offer products made with said resources. Even without conflict resources many people live on less than 2 USD equivalent a day. There are many charities people could donate to provide assistance to the less fortunate.
Some provide direct relief in the form of food or water. Others try to give a more long term solution such as building wells, water treatment facilities, or giving small loans to help kickstart income generation. Governments and organizations in developed nations also try to help poorer nations. All of these come at a cost of to the wealthy, however. The lost time, extra effort expended or usually money spent and the lost luxuries are represented by the happiness Omelas would give up if the child were freed.
The child’s suffering symbolizes the suffering of the less fortunate, even mirroring their low nutrition, poor hygiene, and vulnerability to bacteria. These people know life is much better for some people and surely yearn for better living. Their place in life is not their fault. Much like the child they are innocent and desire a better life, but their misery is timeless and indefinite. Generally, people of our world don’t dwell on the poor most of the time. They live their lives and think mostly of their own nation.
Occasionally, an ad for a charity will remind them or they’ll consume a piece of educational content and feel sad for a time, but for most their life pushes it out of conscious thought. Similarly, the people of Omelas reason that the child couldn’t truly enjoy freedom if released. This isn’t exactly the same as our world, as they believe the child can’t be helped because it’s mentally handicapped. In our world, it’s mostly lack of attention that blocks a desire to aid. There is, however, a belief that spreading money to the 3rd world would not significantly make lives better simply because of how many people are in need.
In any case, while there’s certainly something that can be done about the suffering of the child and the poor, the story can’t explain whether something should be done. The author feels it should, suggesting it’s morally reprehensible to profit from another’s misery by having some characters walk away from Omelas. One may think the real world is different since a poor person would likely enjoy a set amount of additional resources more than a wealthier person. However, a form utilitarianism still supports allowing suffering. The Western world has resources to donate because of technological advances.
This required money and time being put into research and development. Taking money out of our economy to be spent on the poor would reduce spending on engineering. Even if money that’s not spent on rapidly advancing technologies still promote R&D by incentivising refinement of existing methods of production. It also gives producers more money to spend on things that do lead to more spending on science and engineering. This development will eventually lead to a stronger society that is able to take care more people than we could today.
The city of Omelas is depicted as either very advanced technologically so it wouldn’t need any more research or fairly one with nature, better without engineering, depending on the preference of the reader. An even greater problem facing charitable people is population growth. Nations have a certain amount of people they can feed. This typically limits population in developing nations. In the poorest nations, there is typically a very high birth rate. These create a constant number of people in extreme poverty assuming no economic growth.
If the average pair of children saved have two children who will take resources of the nation, then some two children will eventually be in the situation of the children that were saved previously. The rest of the nation will go on as it did without aid, producing the same number of needy children it always did. If the amount donated in the next generation falls the baseline number of impoverished people combined with the children of saved people will be higher than if no one had donated and the positive effects of donating in the past will be canceled out while the negative effects remain.
If the same amount is donated each generation is equal, then the children of the saved will cancel out the newly saved children and no net positive effect will be had per generation, just the initial generation of saved people. This finite benefit comes at an unlimited cost as generations go by. If the people have more than two children per couple, and they generally have much more, than the math makes an even worse case for the donating. Clearly, average utilitarianism supports allowing unfair suffering in both cases.
Average utilitarianism attempts to raise the average net happiness of all people as high as possible. This leads to what is known in philosophy as a repugnant conclusion. Average utilitarianism would sacrifice population size to raise the average happiness of the remaining people. Taking this to the logical extreme suggest that having one extremely happy person to preferable to any situation where the people are less happy. Obviously, the average happiness of Omelas would fall if the child were freed.
Less clearly, the world’s average happiness would fall if there were massive amounts of aid to developing nations and the poor. A different form of utilitarianism, total utilitarianism, may give different conclusions depending on which world is being looked at. Total utilitarianism’s goal is to maximize the total happiness of the population. As such a larger population would most likely have greater happiness. In our world, aid to the less fortunate would likely result in a larger population and most likely a larger amount of happiness on the planet.
Yet in Omelas, there’s no indication that helping the child would increase the population. In fact, it’s indicated that the “health of their children”, “the abundance of their harvest”, and the violent crime rate would suffer if the child were freed. This would surely reduce the population, causing a large reduction in total happiness. Total utilitarianism is not a perfect theory either. It leads to the conclusion that a very large population of barely happy people is preferable to a small population of fairly happy people.
How extreme this can become is limited by what one considers a life worth living. If this value is set high, then no form of utilitarianism supports a very large population of relatively unhappy people. Some also assert that there are higher and lower utilities. Higher utilities being ones that require intellect, mental effort, or some form of delayed gratification. There is no consensus on which form of utilitarianism is best, on what is considered a life worth living and no universal idea of what is higher utility.
Even the best course of action for the fictional setting of Omelas constantly rouse l setting of Omelas constantly rouses debate about what the best course of action is. Allowing the child to suffer is clearly for the greater good. Still, allowing the child to suffer feels repugnant. Discussion of the story tends to cause arguments more than forming a consensus. That is not to say the idea is useless. It may cause people to change their thinking, but rarely brings people together. Thusly, along with the differences between Omelas and Earth, and uncertainty on what is most moral, Omelas doesn’t answer the question of how to deal with the suffering of the less fortunate.