Philosophy and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Omelas

In the short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” a city of great and vibrant happiness is explored. At the height of the realization of such a happy place, the author cuts us short the illusion and begins to describe a very real and ugly reality. The author, Ursula K. Le Guin, explains that there exists a child, alone and in constant agony, that every person in the city knows exists. The child’s agony itself, is described as the very reason for the happiness of others. Le Guin goes over in detail the reasoning behind the decision that all people there made, to trade one person’s unhappiness for the happiness of all. Then as abruptly as the tale began, the story ends with a description of people who leave Omelas for a mysterious place in the distance, assumed to be a place of even greater happiness.

As I read this short tale, I began to question why I was reading it. The scene of delight and happiness did not appeal to me, perhaps because I did not believe it, and when I read about the boy playing his flute I exclaimed aloud to myself, “Who cares about the boy!?” How ironic it was, that I no sooner exclaimed that, then I began to read of the despair of another boy, and my desire to jump up and go do some other activity was replaced with an amazing sense of intrigue. Before me in text form, was a description of the better part of my own life perhaps. Then I thought, how silly of me to presume that I myself might have suffered so fully and completely, when in fact I have had a mix of suffering and joy in my life. Still, I found myself identifying with the boy who was trapped, remembering the many times I had been wronged and found no justice, whereas should the crime had been committed against any of my peers, it seems at least, that they would have been swiftly carried by the multitude to safety, and the one responsible would have been hung out to dry for all the world to see, that no such crime may be committed in this society to any of our children. Because I have experienced a world more real than the perverse delusion the people of Omeras would call happiness, I would most certainly be someone who walks away from that place.

I cannot begin to describe the many details of the reasons why I make the above statements, but in my life there have been several real times when the system should have protected me and failed. As a child my family suffered at the hands of the very people that were supposed to be caretakers, and though the truth was revealed not a single person lifted a finger to help my family, and in fact they ensured our suffering endured. Whenever there were a reason to protect an adult, to ensure they didn’t lose their career or their good name in society, the plight of we children was forgotten and discarded. Worse still, whenever it was necessary to protect a policeman or policeman’s friends or family from the wrong they committed, I and those in my family were criminalized and treated as the very wrong of the world and blamed with every one of society’s ills, paraded around as the ‘real problem’ to the rest of the citizens as a way of glossing over what transpired and bringing them all to submission by abusing anyone who dares to challenge the whim of the system’s controllers. My own life is quite similar to that of the child in the room, in this story, in spite of the many times I have also, perceivably enjoyed the supposed benefits of my place in society. Overall, it seems clear to me, that in the real world as well as the world of this short story, the joys brought by society are not as absolute as people claim. In fact there is a great sadness in society, seen everywhere by those with eyes to see it, and only briefly by all else, in the observance of those who leave it behind and the moments between vanity which only confuse most, leaving them to question why they might ever be unhappy to begin with due to their abject disconnection from reality. They wrongly presume that people who leave merely found an even greater happiness, and in assuming this they cement their own false reasons for keeping the status quo.

John S. Mill might agree with the concept that overall, Omeras is a place of utility and ethical rightness, because Mill advocated for the happiness of society as a whole, but this is only true of Omeras on the surface. On the surface, if one were to consider the unhappy state of those who leave, by all the reasons given of the author, the remaining society would be happier without them. Therefor, the society itself remains happy due to one person’s unhappiness and the rest of peoples’ willingness to leave the moment they are dissatisfied. Hobbes seems content to agree that such a society is the best place to live, since Hobbes seems to believe that people will remain under less-than-satisfactory conditions, so long as they are compensated with what satiates their thirst of happiness, and only so long as they continue to be thirsty. Those content in such happiness might at times become full of it, and spend many hours, days, weeks or years, sitting to digest what they’ve consumed. They might call this period of time contentedness, and though it might witness unhappiness, the happiness within would be enough to keep such people content. So all of the happiness is then vanity, because it recognizes the existence of unhappiness and yet at the same time argues it does not in fact exist in any way that should be considered. I propose this occurs, because people who consume are content to be fed, and never really cared for the manner in which they have consumed or the consequences of that act. People who look to the world as a source of food, will claim to be happy and will claim the consequences are good, because the consequences they intend to measure are personal and limited. Such consumers care nothing, truly, for the overall state of happiness in the world that Mill really wrote about. In the end Mill would have condemned the society of Omelas, because of the many lies and self-deceits which fuel the inception of its memory. The happiness felt by the majority is skin deep and does not actually exist in more than the vain illusions clung to by those still on their way up the escalator to nowhere called progress.

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