The Ursula LeGuin short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a powerful story for discussing with high school students utilitarian ethics and the question of whether the suffering of one person is permissible if it brings about the greater good. The story is set in a joyful and seemingly perfect city, where there is no hunger, poverty, violence, or boredom. The citizens are content, engaged in creative ways in their community, and there is great peace and happiness.
Except that in the city, in a locked basement room the size of a broom closet, there is a child. The child is about ten years old, naked and alone, and is left in that locked room to which no one comes, except on occasion to kick the child to make him or her stand and quickly fill the water and food bowls.
LeGuin writes: "[T]he child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. "I will be good," it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often."
The children of Omelas learn about the existence of this child as they reach adolescence. They learn that the existence of their perfect society depends on the misery of this child. Some of them want to help the child, but they understand that to do so would instantly destroy the beauty and peace and joy of their city. Those are the terms, LeGuin tells us. They are absolute.
I usually read the story (which is not very long) aloud with students. We then break up into groups and the students are asked to discuss what they would do if they lived in Omelas and had just been told about the child in the basement.
Many of the students instantly say that they would leave the city because they could not live knowing that their happiness depended on such terrible misery. Others say that while it is a horrible situation for the child, to help the child would be worse because it would destroy the happiness of everyone, and that to leave would mean leaving everyone and everything they love. When we come back together, we talk about what the right thing is to do in this situation. Is it right to leave the child there? Is it right to set the child free? Is it worth the life of one innocent child to free a society of violence and poverty?
Is Omelas a utopia? Why or why not? What makes something a perfect society?
Invariably at some point in the discussion one or two students raise the question, don’t we base our happiness on the misery of others now? Isn’t our society like Omelas? We talk about whether we share the problem of the people of Omelas in our lives. These discussions are usually very spirited and interesting, and I’ve found that the power of this story really brings these issues home for teenagers.