A short story by Ursula K. Le Guin from the collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters, subtitled: "Variations on a theme by William James". It is based on a hypothetical question posed by William James:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel. even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

In an introduction Le Guin comments, "The dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be better stated." The story takes this intellectual question, and paints it in vividly emotional terms.

"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin about a beautiful and bright city in which everyone is filled with happiness and joy constantly, at the price of a small boy, locked in a small closet, beaten, abused, living in his own excretia. Everyone in the city knows about this price, and most stay. But every once in a while, one of the inhabitants quietly packs up their belongings and leaves.

Being the angst-ridden cynic that I am, I at one point spewed forth a story that was an inversion of "Omelas".

"The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas", a short story I had to read in grade 10. It shows that Utopia or what may seem like Utopia isn't really what it seems. There may always be a darker side to things that we are not exposed to or cannot see. It can be related back to the quote "I am not what I am" spoken by Iago in Shakespeare's play Othello. Iago is not what he SEEMS to be and neither is Omelas. Omelas from the outside seems to be a perfect happy place but inside, it is filled with unspeakable brutality (I may be exaggerating a bit) Omelas the word comes from the word Omelis and Meli being honey in a mixture of black pigment. This reflects the "Utopia" that is displayed in the story. Honey, the Utopia in a mixture of black pigment, the brutalness inside this little society.

Omelas is SalemO backwards. Salem, Oregon was once the site of the Oregon State Penitentary and the Oregon State Mental Hospital. As Ursula LeGuin is from Oregon I had learned, and believed that the word omelas was a statement about one of those institutions. Ms LeGuin was making a statement about the preservation of utopia by hiding away and ignoring certain elements of society. If that isnt a perfect description of a state mental hospital, I dont know what is.

The Oregon State Mental Hospital is also where Ken Kesey was working when he got the idea for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Some of his notes from that time, and some drawings can be found in Ken Kesey's Garage Sale, a remarkably fun book.

"How we have made everything around us clear and free and easy and simple! how we have been able to give our senses a passport to everything superficial, our thoughts a divine desire for wanton leaps and wrong inferences! how from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance in order to enjoy an almost inconceivable freedom, lack of scruple and caution, heartiness, and gaiety of life - in order to enjoy life! "
Friederich Nietzsche
Beyond Good and Evil

While I understand the Omelas concept on an emotional level, I've never been able to find any justification for walking away. First of all, let us assume that the utopia of the story is not a sickly-sweet harps-and-halos utopia, but actually an ideal society complete with pain, loss, and risk in their proper measures to achieve the optimal growth of human knowledge, achievevment, and spirit. Let us also sssume that the people who leave Omelas will go somewhere where it is likely that they will live a poorer life, excluding any psychological effects that leaving might have on them. Thus, staying is an unquestionable good, though it may be balanced or overruled by other factors, such as the suffering child.

Now -- if you leave Omelas, what does that achieve? Does it reduce the child's suffering? Does it make any difference at all? If not, Then I submit that leaving Omelas is not only futile, it's an act of selfishness towards everyone in the city, including the child. It is a simple averting of the eyes, petulantly pretending that what is unseen is not.
In our world, people often boycott companies that do objectionable things (such as keeping children in sweatshops where just such conditions prevail). They will go so far as to avoid activities that don't even give the company any money, such as refusing to watch television programs they have sponsored. But all of this is directed towards showing disapproval, isloating the wrongdoer in hopes of provoking change. In Omelas, there is no one to shame and no hope of changing, ever. We're talking about magic, not economics.

If a walker really cared about the child, they would not hide from it -- they would do one of two things: 1) strive, against all odds, to learn how to ease its suffering, or 2) make sure that its suffering, the suffering that created Omelas, was not in vain. In the first case, where better to carry out observation and research than Omelas, where one need never worry about petty bureaucrats cutting funding or random sociopaths cutting one's throat? In the second, which may seem selfish, simply reverse the picture and ask which is worse: A child who suffers so millions might live great lives, or a child who suffers for no reason at all?

The ones who walk away from Omelas have morals, but morals that are hypertrophied and inappropriate, rigid rules of conduct that do not work towards any human good.

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