'Omelas' - Parts 1 & 2, by Aatu Koskensilta and Adam James Davis

Part 1 by Aatu Koskensilta

The ones who walk away from Omelas.

The short story by that title by LeGuin is (deservedly) a staple of negative utilitarian or suffering-focused rhetoric. It's got all the ingredients: a blissful utopia, in whatever form the reader wants to imagine such a thing, bought at the price of a single tortured child.

As I imagine it, the people of Omelas are probably indoctrinated -- in a superbly subtle and non-brainwashy manner, celebrating freedom of thought and consciousness in forms we can scarcely imagine -- from birth to accept this arrangement. There are philosophers and theologians who eloquently and with great existential depth go about how the totally unacceptable paradox at the heart of their way of life brings to fore the poignancy of life, denying the possibility of complacency, without which the bliss wouldn't be quite so blissful, horrible as it is. There are mystics who preach the doctrine of total acceptance -- we are all the tortured child, but we are also all the moments of transcendental joy, and neither could exist if it wasn't for the cosmic balance whose justification is beyond concepts. Small children write cute little trite essays on the topic, regurgitating standard clichés to the delight of the adults. Edgy comedians crack jokes at the absurdity of the predicament. And so on, and altogether pretty much everyone just has a jolly good time!

Something that's often missed about the story, especially when recruited for the purposes of suffering-focused ethics agit-prop, is that it's not just a morality fable. No, it's also a big fat middle finger at the idea that utopia can't exist without a dark underbelly, or that utopia is to be resisted because it would be *boring* and *uninteresting* and *unsophisticated*:

"The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain."


Part 2 by Adam James Davis


[Note: this is an original written piece by Adam that was inspired by the philosophical fiction book ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ by Ursula K. Le Guin.]

“He gave his life for the release of all other beings in the universe from suffering...except him of course. He is the one who walked towards Omelas, not away, and offered himself up in an act of self-sacrifice. He is the first and so far only person to ever volunteer to walk towards Omelas in self-sacrifice, and he was, is and shall be known as the only single being to ever do such a thing, and so this fact shall remain until the end of space and time, I am sure.

   I say he ‘gave his life’, which he most certainly did, but he is not dead...death would be preferable, but he did what he thought had to be done; his fate is one of those that is certainly worse than death - far, far worse. So he gave his life and then some - his life, plus a whole lot more. You and I, we, all of us, we’re freed from suffering because of him, so why does my heart still ache when I think of him, when I tell this story to anyone? Has it not worked as fully as we all thought at first? Is this a test? He is imprisoned in the core of this planet; are we supposed to go in and rescue him? But I could not bear the prospect of watching a carnivorous animal consume its prey, hearing the screams of a child sinking into quicksand, drunken revellers surrounding and beating a homeless person, witnessing a friend having a psychotic episode, or knowing what really happens in slaughterhouses when there are no cameras...and yet, I still cannot force myself to accept what is happening to this man.

   Only a very small percentage of this universe’s inhabitants know the truth about this situation and the man held prisoner in perpetual and never-ending torment - everyone else are content to just believe that we are living in an eternal Golden Age through our own mastery and innovation all by themselves; that could well have been the case, if not for this one secret.

   This ethical dilemma is causing me some pain, it’s causing me suffering. Something has gone wrong, I should not be suffering, I should not be wrestling with feelings of remorse, guilt and regret - and yet I am! Which means that it has not fully worked, we have been tricked, deceived, lied to...we must go in and rescue him then. Are you in?”

[Reminder: this was a miniature piece of philosophical fiction written as a thought-experiment response to the similarly philosophical original story about Omelas by Le Guin, but one about someone volunteering to be the sacrifice instead of someone imprisoned against their will as in the original story. The narrator realises that if they can still feel remorse, guilt and regret, then the project to be free from suffering turned out to be a failure, since they are examples of emotional suffering, of course.]