Maybe you’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s about a sweet and peaceful city with lovely parks and delightful music.
The people in the city are genuinely happy. They enjoy their handsome buildings and a “magnificent” farmers’ market.
Le Guin describes a festival day with delicious beer and horse races: “An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.”
It is an idyllic, magical place.
But then Le Guin describes one more feature of Omelas. In the basement of one of the buildings, there is a small broom-closet-sized room with a locked door and no windows. A small child is locked inside the room. It looks about 6, but, actually, the child is nearly 10. “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.”
Occasionally, the door opens and people look in. The child used to cry out, “Please let me out. I will be good!” But the people never answered and now the child just whimpers. It is terribly thin, lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal a day and must sit in its own excrement.
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” Le Guin writes. “Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children ... depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
That is the social contract in Omelas. One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed. Most people feel horrible for the child, and some parents hold their kids tighter, and then they return to their happiness.
But some go to see the child in the room and then keep walking. They don’t want to be part of that social contract. “They leave Omelas; they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.”
In one reading this is a parable about exploitation. According to this reading, many of us live in societies whose prosperity depends on some faraway child in the basement. When we buy a cellphone or a piece of cheap clothing, there is some exploited worker — a child in the basement. We tolerate exploitation, telling each other that their misery is necessary for overall affluence, though maybe it’s not.
In another reading, the story is a challenge to the utilitarian mindset so prevalent today.
In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values based on the idea that a human being is an end not a means. You can’t justifiably use a human being as an object. It is wrong to enslave a person, even if that slavery might produce a large good. It is wrong to kill a person for his organs, even if many lives might be saved.
And yet we don’t actually live according to that moral imperative. Life is filled with tragic trade-offs. In many different venues, the suffering of the few is justified by those trying to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number.
Companies succeed because they fire people, even if a whole family depends on them. Schools become prestigious because they reject people — even if they put a lifetime of work into their application. Leaders fighting a war on terror accidentally kill innocents. These are children in the basement of our survival and happiness.
The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity.
The rest of us live with the trade-offs. The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates. The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon. I’ve found that this story rivets people because it confronts them with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements — and, at the same time, it elicits some desire to struggle against bland acceptance of it all.
In another reading, the whole city of Omelas is just different pieces of one person’s psychology, a person living in the busy modern world, and that person’s idealism and moral sensitivity is the shriveling child locked in the basement.
David Brooks became a New York Times Op-Ed columnist in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and is currently a commentator on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.”