Monday, March 05, 2007

Ethics in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Note: If you are a student looking at this to help with a paper/essay on the Omelas short story - that is great, we hope something here helps - but be sure to give a reference - and send me an e-mail to let me know if you find the material useful..

Dave W:

Last Semester (in RPE101, Philosophical and Ethical Arguing) we used the Ursula Le Guin short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas to discuss a number of ethical concerns that we were going over in class. Details of this post are at:

In EZ205 (Ethics and Language), we have covered a number of ethical theories, and I wanted to raise some of the related issues with the class. I would like you to look at the story and consider your response in a number of ways….

  • What is the nature of the ethical problem here? How is it linked to the theories we have been looking at in class?
  • What would you do – and why?
  • In what way do we share the dilemma of the people of Omelas in our current economic and political world?
  • Would it be worth the life of one innocent child to free the world from, say, AIDS?
  • Is the contrivance of the story useful - do such exmaples help our moral thinking?
  • In Le Guin’s description of the city of Omelas (which is striking), what do we learn of her view of what the Good life consists of?

Please use the ‘comments’ feature of the blog to respond to these questions (and make any other comments others that occur while reading or reflecting…)
Other RPE students (and indeed anyone else) are welcome to join in here!

See you in class…


  1. The comments here were begun in class by the EZ205 Ethics and Language groups at the University of Gloucestershire, but we welcome further comments / questions... [both from members of the class and others


  2. (large) EZ205 Group12:35 pm

    Question one: Compromise between Utilitarianism and Kantism. Predominantly Utilitarianism, as it hinges around the idea that one person suffers for the greater good. Relates to Rule Utilitarianism. Happiness relates to Kant, ie, happiness isn't always good.

  3. EZ205 group1:02 pm

    1) Utilitarian. Acts/omissions barrier

    2) Majority opinion to leave town

    - If we couldn't change the situation then we wouldnt be prepared to stay and accept it.
    - By leaving there would still be a feeling of guilt.

    - We live in life of luxury, while there are people starving around the world or living on the streets.
    - We sacrifice a small number of soldiers to serve in wars for the benefit of a whole country.
    - Animal testing.

    - To sacrifice one child to cure AIDS would be a small price to pay. (greatest good for the greatest number)
    - Moral dilema of which child to pick. Can't apply a set of moral guidelines for personal bennefit, i.e. wouldn't sacrifice a family member.

    5)Thought provoking story. Despite the fact that it is very hypothetical, we can apply it to contemporary ethical and moral issues.

    - The happiness that has been described is very material i.e. music rather than an inner happiness that idividuals can create for themselves.
    - There's no point to material happiness as shown by the people that leave. There needs to be a balance.

  4. (large group) EZ2051:02 pm

    Question two: We had many different opinions. These ranged from walking away, walking away and freeing the child, and being unable to walk away due to materialistic values. This final point would inevitably involve massive guilt.
    The evils attatched to walking away are that you are ignoring the situation and absolving yourself from moral responsibility.

    Question three: A lot of our happiness depends on the suffering of others, for example the use of sweatshops and the occupation of resources in the developing world. This scenario equates to the current issues regarding Iraq. We share the dilemma because we are part of the cause of the problem. Greed is responsible for a lot of the above. Throughout history, there has always been the view that it is necessary for someone to suffer in order for the greater population to benefit. This is a recurrent idea in war and religion.

    Question four: We had differing opinions about this topic. Some said that logic dictates yes, others that emotion and human nature says no. It is important to consider the rights of the child when asked whether it wants to die. That is providing that the child is capable of speech and independent thought.

    Question five: The contrivance of the story is useful as it can be applied to many different situations. If it raises question of morality and raises awareness of issues.

    Question six: The Good Life consists of whatever you want it to be. Freedom of choice, expression etc is left to the reader.

  5. Dave W1:10 pm

    Thanks for all the hard work on this EZ205 students (esp those who had technical problems!) - I hope you will continue to add comments (and I hope maybe Arran [module tutor for this course] will join in - as well as any other interested readers...


  6. The idea that we can create moral rules from ultra-simplified hypothetical examples and then apply them to the complexity of the real world is a reductionist approach which I think is dangerous if it's relied on too
    heavily. The LeGuin story encourages us to think, but fails to capture the intricacies and absurdities of our current situation. In the UK we consume
    three times the amount than can be replaced by natural systems, and are therefore eroding the systems which support life. We don't notice it yet because we push the devastating effects of over-consumption and waste on to
    developing countries and future generations. People slave in sweat shops to provide us with cheap goods, and the best food in developing countries is
    exported to UK supermarkets in exchange for guns and Mercedes for the rich, and hunger for the poor. Our whole consumerist culture is built on the misery of others, but the ironic thing is that it isn't making us any happier. The New Economics Forum have shown that when people have enough to
    provide basic material necessities, the drive to consume more and more items doesn't make them any more fulfilled; in fact it leads to an increase in wants, subsequent dissatisfaction, over-purchase, debt, stress, obesity,
    traffic congestion, pollution, alcoholism, anti-social behaviour etc.

    Luckily, the options are never as simple as 'leave' or 'don't leave' and there's so much else that we can do. But we need to combine reductionist armchair pondering of hypothetical situations with sophisticated, holistic analysis of the real world.

  7. Thanks for all the comments on this. Some quick responses from me:

    Arran says:” The idea that we can create moral rules from ultra-simplified hypothetical examples and then apply them to the complexity of the real world is a reductionist approach which I think is dangerous if it's relied on too heavily.”

    The question is – is this what Le Guin does here? I think she actually provides a rather nice way into the issues Aran goes on to raise. I think this is the case because of observing the thought process of many students who looked at the story. On their first inspection of it – it seems to just be a moral dilemma – a ‘what would you do?’ illustration of utilitarianism’s (many) difficulties – and those with this view tend to opt for an easy ‘of course I’d leave’ response. However some note initially, and others on further reflection, come to the view that the story can be used to interpret our current condition.

    If the city of Omelas functions as a symbol for our luxurious, pleasant, stable and, frankly, spoilt, life – we can see the state of the child as symbolic of the manner in which our comfort is made available to us only at the expense of the suffering and subjugation of the world’s poor and disadvantaged. We are already living in Omelas – and we have chosen to stay: we cannot pretend we do not know how little people are paid to produce luxury goods at discount prices – when we could pay more…

    For the people of Omelas who cannot take the deal, who (to refer to the Dostoevsky version of this) refuse the admission price, they can only leave – but, as Arran indicates, we are freer – we can do more – the question then is – how much is enough?

  8. I think the Omelas story is a valuable moral conundrum. But I would like to overlay another reductionist membrane. Instead of morality between ourselves, or oneself, with a society driven by mainstream status quo and all the rules and regulations attached to maintaining its engine, I would like to reduce morality to a singularity of only ourself, oneself. For example, what we maintain in ourselves and what is abused, neglected and ignored. In our Buddhism class we have talked about the possibility of change. We carry patterns not just built up over one lifetime, but patterns we carry from lifetime to lifetime from past good or bad deeds, an endless cycle of cause and effect. These patterns equal our individual, unique status quo. By mind-watching through various means, i.e. meditating, fasting, discipline, we may shoulder a little change, but it is very difficult. The change is a step away from the status quo quagmire, i.e. Omelas. And I know I've said this before on this blog, on this subject, but I'll repeat myself: the child is our power, our own individual Good. Our distracting lives of attachment and emotion prevent us from knowing this pure, singular form of ourselves and cause this child to be isolated, forgotten, unloved. I think Omelas is our state of mind patterned by cause and effect, which is in continual battle with the Good. When I think of Omelas with its seductive offering of the Good Life, I know that it is the eternal enemy relentlessly preventing me from the Good.

  9. Many thanks to Martha Allen for permission to reproduce the below

    Dear All, I sent a copy of our correspondence to Ursula LeGuin, who kindly wrote back the following:

    Dear Martha Sherwood - I tried E-mail, but the address you gave me just exasperates the mailer daemon - anyhow, Rich Ehrlich of Miami University says the secondary sources you need are in Utopian Studies 2.1/2

    Your interpretation is fine, except that Omelas is NOT Salem - though you almost persuaded me it was! The name is a meaningless reversal, a mere word game.
    With best wishes, Ursula LeGuin.

    This brings up a question which surfaces from time to time in literary criticism when someone reads something into the works of a living author which the author did not consciously intend - a classic example is Frost's Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, which strikes many people as a death wish. Assuming you'd accept the interpretation as valid if the author were no longer alive, do you reject it on the author's say so, or accept the unintended effect on readers as part of the work? Certainly, in the case of works many centuries old, emanating from very different cultures from our own, most modern reader's interpretations are going to be quite distant from what the author consciously intended, which would seem to invalidate all but the most mechanical analysis of Shakespeare and Cervantes. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. Omelas may not literally be SalemO, but the connections of the author to that place and the time in which it was written are helpful in understanding the story.

    Martha S.

    From: Martha Allen Sherwood

    > > > > Additional Comments on Omelas > > > > The copyright date on Those Who Walk Away from Omelas is 1973. This > would have been a time of intense environmental awareness in the States. It > was also during the Vietnam War. As I recall - and I was a student activist > in this period - social consciousness was often smug and focused on what was > happening in other people's back yards. One of the elements in the story is > that the ugly injustice is close to home, and people are unable to ignore > it. The story affected me profoundly when I first read it. > > > > > There may be an oblique reference specifically to medical injustice, > which is more explicitly addressed in two of LeGuin's stories written in the > same era: The Diary of the Rose (1976) and the novel The Lathe of Heaven > (1971). Both of these deal with psychiatry in the service of > totalitarianism, and are set in a futuristic Portland, Oregon. In the Diary > of the Rose, a psychiatric intern assigned to treat a supposed violent > schizophrenic using futuristic technology gradually discovers that she is > actually breaking down the psychological defenses of a political prisoner. > In The Lathe of Heaven, a megalomaniac psychiatrist discovers that a > patient's dreams actually come true, and uses this knowledge, and the fact > that the man is an involuntary patient referred by the courts, to amass > political power- with disastrous consequences. > > > > Salem, Oregon is home not only to our legislative capital but also to the > state prison and the state mental hospital. In common Oregon parlance being > sent to Salem equates with being involuntarily committed to the mental > institution, which is a pretty grim place, a place where, among other > things, children too severely disturbed or retarded to be cared for at home > are warehoused (less so now than in 1973). The care of miserable people in > state custody does create wealth that helps maintain a paradise for those > who can afford it. Actually I think LeGuin is more concerned with the > social power we have handed to mental health professionals than with the > monetary aspects; those are a personal peeve of mine, though obviously > related to power issues. > >

    Messages to the list are archived at > > > > Prolonged discussions should be moved to chora: enrol via > > > > > > Other philosophical resources on the Web can be found at > > > > > > > > > >

  10. Correction of name: it should have been Martha Allen Sherwood

  11. Would like to hear more about the writer's thoughts surrounding "guilt" within the story - the importance of keeping guilt at bay -entirely from within the walls of the city - or the recognition and acknowledgement of the "scapegoat" to go on living in the utopia despite the guilt.......
    Do 'those that walk away' conclude that the only tolerable way to deal with the situation is to walk away from the utopian world and all of its pleasures, at the very least, walking into an otherwise tortured memory of its existence?

  12. Would like to hear more about the writer's thoughts surrounding "guilt" within the story - the importance of keeping guilt at bay -entirely from within the walls of the city - or the recognition and acknowledgement of the "scapegoat" to go on living in the utopia despite the guilt.......
    Do 'those that walk away' conclude that the only tolerable way to deal with the situation is to walk away from the utopian world and all of its pleasures, at the very least, walking into an otherwise tortured memory of its existence?