Skip to main content

The ones who walk away

I have not read a lot of Ursula Le Guin: I read what was at the time the Earthsea Quartet, when I must have been too young to appreciate it, and yesterday I read 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas'. It's four pages, so you should just read it. (Spoilers follow, is what I'm saying.)

Some of my friends read this story in a high school class, so I already knew what it was about. From the way the story's structured you might think that'd mean I enjoyed it less, on actually reading it. But no! I've done too much philosophy to be very interested by a description of a case where utilitarianism seems to be horrible - even a well-written one - and knowing that's what was coming, I think, inured me to that first layer of moral from the story.

I had two other thoughts instead. One: the ones who walk away, who decide that Omelas isn't worth the cost, don't rescue the child. Nothing in the story suggests they couldn't, if they wanted to, drag them (it - and how good is that) out, before they sneak away. It's hard to think this is an oversight, in a story that precise. It reads a bit like some of the can't-quite-make-their-minds-up moral philosophers - which is on balance quite a respectable thing to be, if you have to be a moral philosopher - who don't quite think utilitarianism is wrong, that you should save a child at the cost of the whole society, but don't see how you could live with that knowledge.

Or there's the more political angle, that the ones who walk away are tricked by the ubiquity of this monstrous social system into thinking that there's nothing they can do except wash their hands of it, rather than fight. Maybe "they seem to know where they are going" is an unearned and defeatist certainty. At the very least it seems obvious that there is more going on here than a straightforward aha! against the idea of ends justifying means.

Two: the other message is hiding in plain sight. "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing." Then comes the sucker punch, and then: "Are they not more credible?" And they are, but why? That seems more like a story about storytelling - it reminds me, distantly, of the first few paragraphs of this - and about what we are prepared to believe.