Re-published from a 2019 Medium post:

Would you guarantee the happiness of a whole city in exchange for the misery of one poor soul? In Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” we reach this moral dilemma: is the intense suffering of one boy worth the happiness of a city? I would like to encourage any reader of this article to read Le Guin’s story first — it’s a relatively short read, and in my opinion, very thought-provoking. Here, I would like to explore the ethical dilemma at the core of “Omelas,” and in doing so, perform a brief analysis of Le Guin’s intent in posing it.

Utilitarianism is one of the most persuasive attempts at creating a normative ethical theory. Championed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, the theory argues that actions are right insofar as they maximize social utility. While a bit vague, this is a powerful concept. Given two choices (and given that we can calculate their prospective social utility), there will always be a right answer according to Utilitarianism. The people who stay in Omelas, knowing they are engaged in the exchange of a boy’s misery for their own happiness, justify their actions with a similar idea.

Duty-based ethics is a contrasting theory to Utilitarianism, arguing that some rules that should be upheld at any cost. The freedom of autonomy could be considered one of these. Thus, the torturing of a boy in a basement would be seen as impermissible through the lens of duty-based ethics. This theory often goes by the name of deontology, and Immanuel Kant was its most notable proponent. I talk more about duty-based ethics here. As you might have guessed, there are more flavors of deontology than Kantianism, and there are even more ethical frameworks (such as virtue ethics). Nonetheless, a brief survey on Utilitarianism and Kantianism will do just fine for our conversation on “Omelas.”

To return to Le Guin’s short story, if the boy trapped in the Omelas basement was freed, the city’s prosperity would crumble, and its beauty would be lost. We are forced to ask ourselves if this is right. When one performs the moral calculus, it seems imperative that we prioritize the happiness of the entire city over that of the boy. Nonetheless, when numbers come to life, represented by people with whom we empathize, the decision becomes difficult. Utilitarianism posits that torturing the boy is the only morally permissible action, whereas adherents to duty-based ethics feel that this is wrong. Some citizens leave Omelas. Others stay.

Does the happiness of many justify the misery of one? Ursula K. Le Guin wrote speculative fiction, taking the real and re-molding it into what could be. Here, she asks us to consider a world in which our happiness depends on the misery of another. In doing this, she suggests a more incisive point: maybe it already does. Western society depends on quasi-slave labor for the supply of luxuries, such as cheap electronics or two-day shipping. Le Guin isn’t just writing about a fictional society. She’s talking about all of us.

Furthermore, much of Le Guin’s intent can be inferred from the structure of the story. Firstly, consider the title of the story: “Those Who Walk Away,” rather than “Those Who Stay.” Le Guin states that the most incredible part of this story is that some would elect to remove themselves from this utopia. Most of the story is spent on making the reader empathize with the citizens of Omelas, but in the end, it is revealed that all this happiness necessitates unfathomable pain. The citizens are aware of this, and most of them stay in Omelas, yet others opt out of the situation entirely. Le Guin elects to abstain from taking a side, instead arguing that this dilemma deserves our attention.

By doing this, Le Guin forces the reader to examine his or her own convictions and form an opinion. Life is riddled with tragic trade-offs like the one faced by the citizens of Omelas, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s concept is readily applicable to our society outside the fictional world. In my opinion, this is what makes the story so compelling.

So, brave citizen of Omelas, will you stay or will you go?