The Honor Blog
Today is: Apr 10, 2020
Post From: Feb 6, 2018
Omelas In Real Life
I originally wrote this piece during the summer, but I decided to bring it back and re-post it, because I saw a notice about the passing of Ursula Le Guin.
I recently came across a short story by Ursula Le Guin called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". Ms. Le Guin is an excellent writer; her Earthsea Trilogy was one of my favorite stories when I was younger. The Omelas story actually can be found for free on the Internet - so while I encourage you to support Ms. Le Guin with royalties, you can have a look at this story using the link at the bottom of this article.
The story is unusual in that it does not really have a plot; it is, instead, an allegory designed to promote careful thought. It is directed, specifically, against the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which is a somewhat esoteric purpose. I think most of you readers would be surprised at how prevalent the philosophy is. The metaphor which is used to describe the philosohy is that of a beautiful city - Omelas - in which the inhabitants have everything they need. Resources are plentiful, the people are happy - Omelas truly is a paradise.
It is about halfway through the story that the reader discovers the secret of Omelas - as he or she is taken on a tour of the place along with the young people of the city who are reaching the proper age. The secret which provides the city with its bounty is that somewhere, in some basement, a child is locked up and made to suffer. The child is described as feeble-minded, but it is not certain whether he or she was born that way or grew so as a result of mistreatment. One thing is certain, though - the bounty and beauty of Omelas depend on the absolute suffering of that child; not even a kind word may be spoken to him or her.
Most of the young people, upon being confronted with this knowledge, rage against it; they brood over it for some time. Eventually, however, they come to understand that this simply is part of the injustice of life, that the child's suffering is the price which must be paid for the beauty enjoyed by the rest. They accept it and rationalize it, recognizing that the child, being feeble-minded, would not really gain much from being freed; the child is not capable of enjoying the comforts of life the way others do, would not recognize the subtleties of the wise, or see the beauty of architecture, or experience the joy of freedom. Eventually they reach an accommodation with the idea that it is reasonable for this one child to suffer in order for them to have so much.
At the end, though, the reader is told about something 'quite incredible' - every once in a while, one of those who knows the secret finds that he or she cannot countenance the suffering of that child. It might be a young person newly introduced to the secret or an old person who finds he or she can no longer accept it. Either way, young or old, the person falls silent for some time, then walks away from Omelas.
The destination of those people is not described - indeed, they do not seem to know it themselves. They embrace the unknown, accept the risk and uncertainty, because they know that they can no longer accept the city of Omelas.
During the summer of 2017, the American public learned the story of Charlie Gard. This young boy was born in the United Kingdom in August of 2016 with a debilitating and fatal illness (mitochondrial depletion syndrome), and in the estimation of his doctors there was little purpose in undertaking treatment. However, another group of doctors in the United States has been working on an experimental treatment for Charlie's illness, and his parents began fundraising for the purpose of taking him to the United States to try this experimental treatment. They raised more than 1.3 million British pounds for that purpose.
Unfortunately, the doctors and medical system in the United Kingdom went to court to prevent his parents from pursuing the experimental treatment. After more than ten months of legal battles, Charlie's parents realized that the disease had done so much harm to him that there no longer was any benefit to be gained from the treatment.
The legal argument set forth by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, and supported by the governmental health care system, was that Charlie should be allowed to die with dignity, because the experimental therapy would not help him. In short, the British court system stripped away the rights of Charlie's parents to make decisions on his behalf and determined that no more resources should be expended trying to help him live as normal a life as possible.
Worth noting is that the money had already been raised. The parents were not asking for the British health system to pay for the treatment - they were expending their own resources. Yet the government health system determined that they should not be allowed to do so.
We now have a name for that child in the basement of Omelas.
If only Charlie Gard were alone. He is not. The entire abortion industry is predicated on the idea that there are children whose lives are not worth living. The foundation of that argument is that those children are too much of a burden to their parents - either they are handicapped (I reject political correctness), or the mother is poor, or she is young, or she is uneducated . . . so the abortion industry insists that it is not good for society to expend resources for that child.
A child with Downs' Syndrome or Patau Syndrome (I know children with both of those conditions) will never be able to become a productive member of society, the abortion industry says. A child with mitochondrial depletion syndrome will suffer from brain damage, and therefore will never be able to fully enjoy life the way a normal child would.
How do they know? Can they measure the worth of a life? Can they measure what a child experiences and the value of what the child is and does?
The most chilling point of view I have ever heard on this subject is presented in an article written by Mary Elizabeth Williams: "So what if abortion ends life?" (referenced below) In her article she indicates that she agrees that life begins at conception, and therefore that an abortion kills a child. However, from her perspective, abortion also saves a life - the life of a poor mother, who might otherwise not have the chance to pursue her career, or her education, or a life without the burden of children.
In short, the argument made by Ms. Williams is that the lives of those children are not worth the resources which would be expended to support them.
Reflect on how you felt as you read the story of Omelas. As you read it, you immediately identified with the ones who walk away - there is no doubt about that in my mind. I don't have to ask about your background or your philosophy - I am quite certain you admired the ones who walk away.
And now you see that Omelas is real. Its name is "Obamacare" and "Planned Parenthood". Indeed, Omelas is any aspect of government-run healthcare. Omelas exists when faceless bureaucrats are given the power to decide whose life is sufficiently important for the expenditure of resources.
We also know the names of the adolescents who pound their pillows in rage, then eventually come to accept the system as it is: they are the members of the Republican establishment, who voted against Obamacare, voted to repeal Obamacare for as long as they did not have the power to make that happen . . . but who have now found that their own power, their own positions in government, are more important than actually acting on their principles.
Finally, we know the names of the ones who walk away. It is a frightening choice to make - we do not know what the future holds, with a radical change in the structure of insurance and government regulation.
But that is what we are called to do. We all are called to walk away from Omelas.
Foster, Alice. "Charlie Gard story: Who is Charlie Gard and what is mitochondrial depletion syndrome". Express.co.uk, 27 Jul 2017.
Le Guin, Ursula. "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". utilitarianism.com, accessed 7 Aug 2017.
Williams, Mary Elizabeth. "So what if abortion ends life?". Salon.com, 23 Jan 2013.