illustration of a young boy in a cage in the center with lines connecting the boys cage to images of happy people and flowers

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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In "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", is the boy's suffering morally permissible for societal good?

Quick answer:

The moral and ethical question of whether one boy's suffering can be seen as permissible for the good of society is the exact type of question that Ursula K Le Guin wants readers to ask after reading her story. This question is important because it shows the logical versus moral conflict that results from these decisions.

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This is, in a sense, the question Ursula K. Le 2Guin is asking in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." The residents of Omelas respond to learning about the suffering child in one of two ways: they either eventually come to accept that their happiness is possible only because the child has been sacrificed, or they leave to confront an unknown life outside the gates instead of participating in a society that works this way.

There are those who believe that the best possible outcome of any situation is the one that provides the most good for the largest number of people. For people who follow this school of thought, the arrangement in Omelas might be favorable—one person suffers, but countless others benefit. By the numbers, that's more people happy in total.

There are also those who believe that the only moral approach to life is one where you take extreme care to inflict the least amount of pain and suffering on others as possible. For these people, the arrangement in Omelas is unthinkable—any happiness obtained through someone else's pain is inherently immoral.

There's a famous ethical thought experiment called "The Trolley Problem" that examines this idea. You're asked to imagine what it might be like if you were walking one day and saw a runaway train hurtling down the tracks. If the train continues on the current track, it will kill five workers. You're next to the switch, and can divert the train, but the other track has one person on it. Do you flip the switch, killing one person to save five, or would it be wrong to put the person working alone in harm's way if they weren't already? Bear in mind, the reason this thought experiment is so effective is that there isn't a right answer—only differing interpretations of the right thing to do.

Because morality itself is a concept that different people interpret in so many different ways, you'll have to consider your own feelings to answer the question you posed. Do you think you'd stay in Omelas, or would you walk away? Why would you make that choice?

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