Sunday, May 5, 2019

Is it right to walk away from Omelas?

This post is about this story by Ursula LeGuin. You should go and read it, and come back. It's not long.

Okay, so you get the gist: a city where everyone is happy, but by some mysterious mechanism, this is all caused by a little child being locked in a dirty closet and mistreated. Everyone in the city knows it, but if they show the child any comfort, the city's happiness will be destroyed.

Some people, the "ones who walk away from Omelas," leave the city when they find out. They don't want the happiness that comes from torturing a child. And of course that's the course we are expected to agree is moral.

But when I read the story, I wondered why they just left. Why didn't they save the child? Is it really enough to refuse to participate, when there is a child you know is in utter misery?

I guess the question that raises is, do you have the right to take away the happiness of everyone in the city? And how much happiness would you be taking away? If the child is rescued, does the whole city devolve to that level of misery, or simply become a more average city?

Or would the people just grab another child and put it in the closet?

Would you still rescue the child even if you knew they would? Just because you had to do what you could?

There was a Doctor Who episode to this effect. The city was powered by torturing a starwhale, and each citizen had the choice to vote against it, or forget it was happening. Most people chose to forget, and at first it seemed that that was that. Not enough people wanted to release the starwhale. And it was pretty fair, because it seemed the city might not survive at all if they let the starwhale go.

But the Doctor, of course, does not accept moral dichotomies. If presented with a trolley problem, he'd find a way that everyone lives. So naturally it occurs to him that he doesn't have to abide by the people's vote, he can singlehandedly free the starwhale. But is that right? What if the starwhale destroys a city full of children?

I'm curious what you guys would do.  Walk away? Free the child? What facts would affect your choice? What would you do if you were ignorant of what might happen?


Enbrethiliel said...


I'd free the child. I've felt like my family's version of that child for quite a while, and I don't see why others should be so comfortable while I feel like s--- doing the heavy lifting.

But the premise reminds me of something else that you may remember influences my thinking quite a bit. As I mentioned in another comment, I've started teaching an A1 German class. All my students are nurses who hope to emigrate to Germany. Are they walking away from Omelas . . . or are they creating Omelas by walking away? One huge reason for leaving is that it's just too exhausting being surrounded by so many suffering people. But by distancing oneself from the obligation to share their burden, does one only make it heavier?

Seemingly unrelated but actually not: Now that you've seen all (?) of Joss Whedon's TV stuff, how about one of his movies? I mean, of course, Cabin in the Woods! Okay, it's Horror -- and Slasher Horror at that -- but I think the question it asks at the end is worth it. John might like it, too.

Sheila said...

I just don't think I could watch it. Read a transcript, maybe. I hate being scared.

I think you're right. Free the child.

I can see walking away if you've tried to change things and found that the rest of the citizens won't let you help. A lot of social workers quit for this reason: they're perfectly willing to work their fingers to the bone to make an actual difference, but not when there's so much red tape and interference and resistance to change that they aren't actually able to help. So that's what I'd ask the nurses: if you stayed, could you change things, just a little? Or is it hopeless? (Or is this not even about morality at all, just salary?)

Enbrethiliel said...


While I think Cabin the Woods relies so heavily on the visuals that merely reading about them won't give you the full experience of the story . . . there is an official movie novelization that has received good reviews from fans of the film:

For the nurses, it's definitely about salary! For at least the last decade, the great majority of Nursing graduates have gone into the profession precisely so that they could find work abroad. It's not really a question of morality (though I occasionally frame it that way because even the most neutral actions can have sweeping negative consequences). Since all of them will be remitting money back home anyway, we can also argue that the relatives who stay behind (and who often quit their own jobs once the remittances start coming in) can do double duty helping the truly poor. That this doesn't always happen isn't the fault of the ones who leave.

But your question for the nurses is interesting to me because of the implication that if you are able to help in a way that does make a difference, you absolutely should help, even if you'd rather not. I'm not talking about extreme examples, like seeing a schoolbus about to fall off a bridge and walking away whistling because it's not really your problem. I mean more ordinary choices that aren't even binary, like not volunteering at a homeless shelter while you use your free time for "Netflix and chill." Is there some helping quota we need to fulfill before people stop guilting us for having hobbies or adventures abroad?

But it also seems like some kinds of helping are better than others. I'm reminded of the people who were rubbed the wrong way by what we might call the "Christian European" reaction to the Notre Dame fire. Someone on Twitter was really angry that burned refugee shelters, which usually house non-Europeans, can't get half as much outrage (or half as many monetary pledges) as "an ugly building." And now and then on Tumblr I see posts that begin: "If you were upset by the Notre Dame fire, then you should be really angry about _____." (The last one I saw mentioned Israel's bombing of Palestine's national library.) The implication being that helping only when and where we want to help isn't good enough helping.

Enbrethiliel said...


Another relevant connection: There's a German series (with a cancelled US version) about six children in a hospital who become friends. In one episode, one of them is given the chance to see what his life would have been like if he had never had cancer and never had to have his leg amputated. And boy, was it a nice life. Nothing super amazing -- but if you're an active, athletic boy who has had to live in a hospital and receive chemo for a year, and you lost a leg, good enough is truly good enough. But then the twist came . . . He wondered how his five friends were doing. And in It's a Wonderful Life style, ALL of them were doing worse for not having known him. In the end, he was able to make peace with his life, because he loved his friends.

When I was telling a colleague about this episode, she misunderstood the part about it just being a vision and thought the boy had been given a choice. And she was appalled that he "chose" to have cancer anyway, for the sake of his friends. In his place, she would have chosen good health (and four limbs) and just found other ways to do good in the world. (And then it was my turn to be appalled. LOL!) But I had to admit that we don't know how she might end up tipping the scales. Maybe she'd end up helping far more people, in more life-changing ways, as a healthy person and it's just unfortunate that it came at the expense of five others. But what's five people in the Omelas closet compared to the bigger numbers?

Anyway, my stance on this is: Help when, where and how you want to help -- and don't let anyone tell you you're not helping "right."

Sheila said...

Yeah, I have really struggled with a sense of obligation to care about all the things, help in all the ways, when I'm only one person. And I do also like to watch some Netflix or have an ice cream cone. I finally decided that, while I feel like everyone has an obligation to help in some way or other, there isn't actually a minimum obligation we have to do before we're allowed to sit down. Just that you're doing something matters. Maybe it's not the most efficient way or the most important cause, but at least you're helping.

The vision the boy had reminds me of a similar dream I had when Jackie was a baby. I dreamed a time traveler offered to change the timeline so that I'd never had her. And I turned him down, not because my life was better as it was, but just because I felt like her existence was worth something.

Enbrethiliel said...


In your place, I'd also turn down the time traveler . . . because I'd spend the rest of my life feeling guilty about every good thing that happens to me, wondering if I only got to enjoy it because I sacrificed a child. So totally emotional, subjective reasons first.

Then I'd rationalize later (as I'm rationalizing now, having made that knee-jerk decision) that perhaps the time traveler was actually a Terminator trying to get rid of another key figure from the Human Resistance!

Sheila said...

Oh, part of the deal was that I would forget she'd ever existed.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm actually more triggered by the idea that my memory will be wiped than by the idea that I'd trade a child for an easier life! The time traveler seems a bit Rumpelstiltskinish to me now -- offering the deal because he secretly wants the child for himself! But that's fodder for another dream, I guess . . .

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