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Discussion of Utilitarianism in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

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LeGuin’s “Omelas” reads like a ‘message’ story. It seems to be telling us to ‘walk away’. But is that right? What is the message?

Suppose that there is a train heading towards a group of five workers on the tracks. You are in control of the switch that can switch the train onto another track where there is only one worker. If you flip the switch, one person will die. If you do nothing, five people will die. Should you flip the switch? Surely, everybody has heard of this before, more famously known as the Trolley problem. However, this problem is only an overly simplified version of utilitarianism, which is often defined as an ethical theory that determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes. Simply put, it supports anything for the greater good. In the short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from the Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin, she discusses utilitarianism via a fictional narration of a paradise.

In the story, LeGuin describes a festival celebration of the summer solstice in an idyllic and magical utopia. Everybody there is evidently living their best lives. In fact, LeGuin invites readers to imagine whatever details suit them, insisting that ‘it doesn’t matter. As you like it.’. It is a literal utopia, filled with whatever one needs and wants. However, she soon reveals a secret trait of Omelas. In the basement under one of the beautiful buildings in Omelas, there is a child, described as “feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.” That is the social contract in Omelas. The child has to suffer for the rest of the city to continue being happy. Upon realizing this, some feel horrible, but choose to stay. Some, unable to bear such ways of living, choose to leave.

The beauty of LeGuin’s story is that while it reads like a ‘message’ story, there is no intended stance that the author supports. The author ends off the story with certain citizens choosing to leave Omelas, which may make it seem like it is ending with the supposed moral of the story. However, in my opinion, the author does this to ensure a smoother flow of the story, and when overlooking the entire story, its tone is generally neutral. There is no sense of judgement as to which route you choose; to stay in Omelas, or to walk away. She aptly exaggerates utilitarianism into a made-up, yet relatable situation, while ensuring that an impression is made on the reader by largely using the word ‘you’, thus inciting the reader to join in and have an opinion as well. It is almost akin to a nonlinear video game, bringing you through the plot and context, before allowing you to make your own decision. The main message is more of: if you were a citizen, what would you do?

Based on each and every individual’s personal set of beliefs, one would perceive the effect of the story differently. Personally, I am more aligned with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which coincidentally can be considered a direct critique of utilitarianism. As Kant once said, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”, in the logic of duty, I prioritise morally-right actions over outcomes that benefit the majority. Therefore, within the boundaries of the narrative, I would choose to leave, for I cannot live with such guilt and injustice, that I am living in happiness at the expense of another person’s whole life. However, to somebody else who is in favour of utilitarianism, would disagree and would stay without a doubt, since it is, after all, the more pragmatic decision for oneself. There is no right or wrong decision, but the decision that you would make, is in a way an intended effect from LeGuin.

However, in reality, can you actually walk away from such a system so easily? Think about our society today. Many of us live in societies whose prosperity depends on some faraway child in the basement. For example, in the growth of consumerism, we now see the appearance of unethical working environments amongst fast fashion corporations. In exchange for lower costs, garment workers work in extremely dangerous and unconducive environments while being paid atrociously low minimum wages. Furthermore, retailers tend to dump their toxic wastes into nearby clean water supplies as cheaper means of disposal, contributing to the water pollution and killing of our planet. One can choose to avoid fast fashion via solutions such as buying from alternative sustainable brands. However, they are often not feasible in the long term, as they are usually more costly or inconvenient. We end up tolerating exploitation, persuading ourselves that their misery is necessary when it actually is not. This story is not so much of a call to action, but rather, serves as an extended reminder to those of us who leave. In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values, and yet we don’t actually live according to that moral imperative. Despite the simple main message of the story, we are invoked to ponder further and draw parallels with reality. In the end, life is filled with tragic trade-offs, that sadly, may not be easily within our control.

Meanwhile, to those who would stay, it is not selfish, but instead practical to do so. Anyways, such situations are beyond your control. Whether or not the citizens stay or leave, the miserable child would still remain in the basement, so why not take advantage of his sacrifice and make it worth? Or at least, I assume this would be how they would view the story, since this is not my stance as a reader after all. If so, utilitarianism makes sense as well, and in fact, at times, we have no choice but to deal with trade-offs this way.

So, if you were a citizen, what would you do?   

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