Those Who Walk Away from Omelas

In The Brothers Karamazov, after numerous examples of the torture of children and other horrors, Ivan Karamazov rejects theodicy with this argument:

“Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

Ivan’s argument is that a decent human being would not be willing to bring good out of evil in the particular way that happens in the universe, and therefore much less should a good God be willing to do that.

I will leave aside the theological argument for the moment, although it is certainly worthy of discussion.

Ursula Le Guin wrote a short story or thought experiment about this situation called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. There is supposedly a perfectly happy society, but it all depends on the torture of a single child. Everybody knows about this, and at a certain age they are brought to see the child. Two very different responses to this are described:

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Some would argue that the ones who walk away are simply confused. In the real world we are constantly permitting evils for the sake of other goods, and as a whole the evils included here are much greater than the torture of a single child. So Omelas should actually be much better and much more acceptable than the real world.

This response however is mistaken, because the real issue is one about the moral object. It is not enough to say that the good outweighs the evil, because a case of doing evil for the sake of good remains a case of doing evil. This is a little more confusing in the story, where one could interpret the actions of those who stay to be merely negative: they are not the ones who brought the situation about or maintain it. But in Ivan’s example, the question is whether you are willing to torture a child for the sake of the universal harmony, and Ivan’s implication is that if there is to be a universal harmony, God must be willing to torture people, and in general to cause all the evils of the world, to bring it about.

In any case, whether people are right or wrong about what they do, it is certainly true that we are much more willing to permit evils in a vague and general way to bring about good, than we are to produce evils in a very direct way to bring about good.

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