Review: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin

After philosopher David Pearce's recommendation of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, of course a review is in order. If you'd prefer to read this quick tale before my review, you may do so here.


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Synopsis: Omelas is a magical city full of festivity and frolic. Omelasians are prone to party, and some may also be prone to orgies, and some partake in recreational drugs. At first glance, a beautiful place full of happy people. However, for confoundingly unknown reasons, a child is tortured so that the fun continues. And then the title comes in. Some Omelasians are so disturbed by the existence of the tortured child that they walk away.


Reaction: A tale of disturbing contrasts. In my opinion the description of the child pleading for help and promising to be good was the most gut-wrenching part of the story. The description of the would-be Omelas orgies was odd. Not sure where Le Guin was going with that. And I have so many other questions. Yes, I know the point of the story is philosophical reflection, not picking apart the plot details. But I am OCD about storylines. Does walking away from Omelas -- whether in droves or as a single person -- have any incremental alleviation of the suffering of the tortured child? Presumably not, or that would've been written into the story. Some residents are simply not psychologically able to live in relatively close proximity to a tortured child. But where do they think they are going (towards the mountains and into the darkness)? And why are people allowed to view this child? (Yes, I'm always asking why.)


Furthermore, would rescuing this perpetual child (either by transporting to a hospital or by a mercy killing) really doom Omelas... and doom Omelas to what? A city of baseline hedonia... or a city of torture as the child experiences? Or is this a myth Omelasians believe? Back in the real world, my mind equates the continually tortured child with the animals who are continually tortured on factory farms. I get the sense that we are "living in Omelas," and that "walking away" does nothing for the tortured.


But it would be so easy just to stop torturing factory farmed animals. And that is the overall message I get. Mostly likely not what Le Guin intended, but it's a (broadly) similar message.


Overall, a confusing tale, but a tale with a message so much more important than my confusion.


Recommendation: In terms of storyline, plot, and characterization, this story falls flat. But it's understood that this story wasn't written for entertainment, but rather, for moral and ethical consideration. And this is the only philosophical (or otherwise) fiction recommended by the most revolutionary philosopher pretty much ever. And so I also recommend it, for (I think) the same reasons. While pleasure is good, pain is bad; and the abscence of pain is more valuable than the presence of pleasure. As long as pain -- both physical and psychological -- exists, moral agents must work to eradicate it while preserving or replacing its signaling system.

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The story is super-short, so it's not like you don't have time. So give it a go if you haven't already!

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