Utilitarian Morality and Omelas in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

The city of Omelas seems to be organized upon morality that is closely aligned to Utilitarian philosophy. The main proponents of this philosophy were Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and J.S. Mill (1806-1773). This philosophy has been very influential in the fields of economics, politics, governance, and also morality. According to this philosophy, pleasure or happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value (value in itself); nothing else has intrinsic value. The morality of an action is based purely on its consequences. Any action that produces happiness is right and any action that produces unhappiness is wrong. Any action that works towards the “greatest good for the greatest number of people” is a right action. If in this process a few have to suffer, that suffering however unjust is necessary and of no serious consequence. If all actions have only instrumental value (means to an end), it follows that most times one has to perform unjust actions in certain situations, without considering the moral and ethical aspects of such actions.

For the citizens of Omelas the suffering of the child is of little consequence, because that action of keeping the child in misery ensures the happiness of the entire city. The morality here is clearly Utilitarian, as the citizens are looking at the instrumental value of keeping one child in misery. This kind of morality does not take into consideration principles of justice and compassion. But there are certain actions however, that can never be done, regardless of how positive and far reaching the consequences are. The life and dignity of each individual has intrinsic value and this cannot be compromised or sacrificed for the larger good. This is the reason why some choose to walk away from Omelas, because they cannot accept a happiness which is in exchange for a child’s misery. The ones who walk away “know where they are going”, perhaps a place where there is no “scapegoat” to be bartered for their happiness. This walking away in one sense can be seen as an affirmation of morality based on justice and rejection of the dubious morality of Omelas. The story ends here; but there is a fundamental question that needs to be asked. Does the walking away indeed resolve anything? The individual conscience is most certainly assuaged but it does not in any way alter the condition of the child or that of the many other children who will suffer the same fate to keep the city happy. The ones that stay have made their choice – to ignore the question of justice and morality and to live by killing their conscience; The ones that walk away, have before them two choices – 1. to walk away and like Pontius Pilate of yore, wash their hands of any complicity in the child’s torture and 2. to stay and fight to eliminate this unjust, immoral practice. By choosing the former, the status quo remains in Omelas and therefore their “walking away” is a symbolic act at best; and at worst meaningless and futile.Walking away also reinforces the idea that somehow the myth of the suffering child is unalterable, permanent and pre-ordained.

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