Omelas and Justice

“Tell me the story of Omelas” my advisor said to me and my classmates on a warm summers day last year. When it came time discuss utilitarianism in the Morality and Justice class I am a TA for, I decided to take a page from advisor’s book and introduced my students to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin.

My students, even though they are new to philosophy, did what most philosophy students do–they tried to analyze, critique, rationalize, and otherwise approach the piece as academics rather than as readers of a narrative, as visitors to another world. They tried to identify the conclusion, name the premises, and spell out an argument implicit in Le Guin’s story. Given that these were the skills which, as a class, we had been emphasizing from day one it was not surprising to see them take this approach. It was also not surprising to see many folks hesitant to put aside the philosophical toolboxes that had become their comfort items for discussing difficult topics and having difficult conversations.

Eventually, in small groups and with much prodding, they set aside their need to analyze and told one another the story of Omelas. Several students, more excited to read the story than the assigned reading for that week, tried to jump to the end and had to rein in their exuberance. This led to a few more moments of tumolt but things quieted down and we got to work discussing Omelas.

Slowly, we worked our way through the narrative, noticing the pace and space of the narrative, talking about things both said and left unnamed, filling in the gaps of one another’s memories, returning to things already said to expand and take things off in a new direction. Finally, we talked about the child.

For those who are reading this, but who have not yet read Le Guin’s short story, go read it first. Read the narrative, imagine the world, and ponder what it would be like to live in Omelas. Le Guin says that the city is barely imaginable to us, but go imagine it first and then come back to this blog (It will still be here when you get done!) for there are many things that I will, and must, leave unsaid.

For those who have read it, who have wrestled with the meanings of the narrative, an underlying question is whether or not you, the reader, would walk away. For my students, the question of walking away was a difficult one. Many tried to change the terms of the narrative, other objected and said that the story was absurd, some decided to focus on and analyze their colleagues answers rather than answering the question at hand. With even more grumbles, I went around the room and had each student say whether or not they would walk away. The majority of the room said no but a handful of students in each of my four sections that week said they would walk away.

The next few minutes were spent debating the rational of staying or leaving. Those who choose to stay often said that they didn’t even know what they would be walking away to (and that I couldn’t expect them to walk haphazardly into a possible desert!). Those who said they would leave often said they couldn’t stand the idea of the child–that it made them feel bad. As the debate continued to advance in tone and in content I paused the room and asked them to bring it back to the topic of utilitarianism. The class quickly named that Omelas represents a type of utilitarian city where pleasure (and hedons) are of utmost importance. Those in the class who said they would stay oft said that they valued their own happiness and that their leaving wouldn’t do anything to change the foundation of the city so “why bother”.

After (finally) analyzing parts of the narrative “in a philosophical manner,” I asked the class to imagine what those who walked away in the story must value instead of pleasure. Slowly, the conversation shifted from utilitarian calculus to a question of justice, equity, and fairness. The students slowly named that those who walked away may not care about personal pleasure as much as they cared about refusing to partake in a system whose benefits, and existence, depended on the subjugation, degradation, and maimed dignity of another.

With class almost over, I asked my students to once against reflect on the question of walking away. I asked them to think about Omelas and what it would take for them to be willing to walk away. Before ending class, I also left them with a question to ponder over their weekend: Why don’t we walk away?

Our world, our institutions, our possessions, and even Virginia Tech exist much like Omelas exists–they are contingent upon the suffering, maimed dignity, and exploitation of the dispossessed and destitute. Up until this point my students, with a handful of exceptions, had been imagining Omelas as a world apart, as a fantasy city, a utopia, a world without the possibility of tangible existence. To think, to know, that we lived in our own Omelas and refuse daily to walk away was something many were not prepared to think about.

But I asked them the question. Given that Le Guin says Omelas is barely imaginable and that the place those who walk away go to is even less imaginable, I asked them to imagine the currently imaginable. I asked them what they, what we, might create if we were only willing to actualize a world grounded in the tenants that led folks to walk away in the first place. I asked them to think about where they first learned that such a world was impossible, and to think about who benefits from our continued belief in its unattainability.

I don’t know what the world created by those who walk away would look like. But, in many ways I think knowing today’s world is enough reason to consider it a better alternative and I have faith that someday someone, maybe students in one of my classes though probably not, will walk into the unknown. Someday, someone will refuse to benefit from a system which relies on the suffering of so many and they will create a different world. And maybe, just maybe, we can all learn to walk away either to that new world or towards the creation of other ones.

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