SPOILER ALERT: In this post I describe the plot of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin. If you’d like to read this short story before proceeding, you can do so here: [LINK]

This is one of those random conversations I had in my head while out and about, running errands. I thought it deserved a post of its own, because it involves some interesting ethical problems. It also ties a well-known philosophy problem to a popular piece of speculative fiction, allowing us to explore the story from different perspectives.

There are many variants of the trolley problem, which all have an ethical dilemma to be resolved. The catch is that whichever option you choose will result in someone’s death. You need to choose between inaction and action, deciding which is the least bad option. The most commonly-known version involves a trolley travelling at speed on a railway line towards a group of people on the tracks. You are able to see the disaster unfolding, and you have the ability to divert the trolley on to a secondary track, that only has one person trespassing on it. What do you do? You must make a split-second decision: do you do nothing and allow the deaths of many, or intervene and kill one person to save the others?

One choice allows you to do nothing, and allow the impending tragedy to unfold. But the decision in which you divert the wagon is an active choice to end one person’s life to save those of others. Would you be guilty of a crime in either case? I’m sure a decent prosecution lawyer could argue that. But what is the right thing to do?

Another variant is that of the fat man and the runaway truck. You and a grossly overweight person are stood on a bridge over a road. There is a group of people in the road, with no time to get them out of the way before a runaway truck collides with them. But if you were to shove the fat person off the bridge at the right moment, you could stop the truck and save the group of jaywalkers. The fat man dies in the collision, though. Which is the right choice there? You’re more involved in the process this time – it’s not as simple as pressing a lever to change the points; you would have to either allow events to take their course, or actively attack someone to take their life. There’d be little chance to wriggle out of that murder conviction in this scenario.

It has been noted that people might be biased in the way they handle the fat man problem, because of ingrained societal prejudices about fat people. That’s a fair point, and you can reformulate the problem by assuming that a person of typical weight would be sufficient to stop the truck. What will you do now?

Both of these philosophical exercises made me think of the short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin. FINAL SPOILER WARNING: If you don’t want to know the ending, look away now!

The city of Omelas sits in a bay, surrounded on all other sides by mountains. Occasionally, people are seen climbing the mountains, finding a route out of Omelas. No one knows what is on the other side of the hills, but these people are resolute in their need to get away. Omelas is a utopian city, everyone is happy, healthy and provided for. Their society is fair, just, and welcoming. Those who live there have everything they could ever desire.

But there is a place that dwellers can go to, a spectacle, where the essence of the city is kept. Without it, the city would collapse and the people could not have the perfect existence. In a cell, at the bottom of a castle, is a young child. The child has no interactions with other people, except when their keeper shoves a piece of bread and a water bowl under the door to the cell. The child has never been socialised, so it acts like a wild animal, lives in its own shit and sleeps in a corner. The child must live in this wretched state for Omelas to function (the reasons why are not explored, but this does not matter).

Those who walk away from Omelas are the ones that decide they cannot be a part of a society like that. Would you walk, or stay? And how do you feel about that society? Is one person’s suffering a price worth paying for the unfettered bliss of hundreds? What do we make of those who leave to seek an unknown fate – they have decided that anything is better than Omelas’s hidden truth.

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