There's a town somewhere. People are happy. Their happiness comes from the acceptable of a horrific truth: wasting away is a child, stripped of all its humanity, imprisoned and alone. Everyone must see the child once; no one can help the child. Life is simple. Stay and you'll be free from guilt, free to enjoy the pleasures of life. Or leave, just walk away.
Why Walking Away Does Not Solve the Problem
In their first exposure to philosophy, I ask my students what they would do. Yes, they would walk away. How could anyone live in that world? Of course, that leaves a very profound problem: the child. The act of leaving in the story does nothing to solve the child's dilemma. Save the child? Tell everyone about this moral repugnance! Built into the story is a booby trap. If you rescue the child you will destroy the happiness of all of the citizens in Omelas.
The happiness of these citizens is something to wrestle with. It alternates between idyllic, with festivals and parades, and downright hedonic, with ritualistic orgies. This type of happiness produces no guilt in the story presumably because no one but this out-of-sight, out-of-mind child suffers. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.
Those who walk away aren't heroes. They are defeated. And because they've left the child to its fate, they are very much still part of Omelas. To free this child is to destroy a society with its own balance. The people of Omelas have no deeper sense of transcendence. Priests and dogma have no place in this world. Objective truth does not and cannot exist.
Nor is it clear that Revelation would heel this world. No one in Omelas seems ready to have their eyes opened. And those whose eyes are opened simply cannot bear what they know. Much like our own world, they are stuck. This muck covers everyone.
A Haunting Emptiness
Having read this story now, several times over many years, I feel like I should "get it." But each wrestle with Omelas leaves me with fewer answers. Your first encounter with the story invites you to treat it like a morality tale. Oh yes, this is just like us who use our phones and gadgets, but really they're made in child-labor sweatshops. We can neither protest that nor stop it. That robs the story of its incarnated humanity: those who walk away have seen the child. Which of us has visited a sweetshop?
It's about the truth of Utopia, perhaps. My students pointed out how boring Omelas seems. There is no work; there is no struggle. It's a hallowing repetition of non-productive enjoyment day-in and day-out. Maybe a Protestant sense of work ethic should have us reject that vision. Yet, within its own self-contained details, Omelas doesn't need any of that. Its vision of human nature is absolutely limited but imminently livable: enjoyment and plenty, just enough of both. And so it can persist.
Christ! He is the solution. The child is a savior-figure meant to suffer to redeem us all. The child is innocent. Yes, but it's also an imbecile. It's not made this choice to suffer as the Savior did. The first experience of humanity, guilt, that is shame, has vanished from this world. Sin doesn't exist because there is no word for it, no feeling to awaken us to it. And even if we brought the truth of the Gospel to Omelas, who would listen to it? Those who might have already walked away.
My students will wrestle with this story throughout the semester. On it, we will overlay the suffering of Socrates, Aristotle's embrace of friendship, Augustine's rejection of lies, and I'll sprinkle in some more literary injustice with Billy Bud and The Facts Concerning a Recent Carnival Crime in Connecticut. None of these texts solve the problem of Omelas. I am not entirely sure I can find a solution for my students.
And while that reality does in fact haunt me, I remind myself that I am only teaching an introductory course in Philosophy. I'm hoping my students are awake enough to continue to think about this and other stories. I'm hoping they can see the complexity that is in life. We can't just walk away from it; we cannot solve it. In a time that throws easy, pre-fabricated solutions at us, much like the interpretations above, we are left with a emptiness at their futility. And strangely, there is comfort in that. Some problems are simply too big for any of us to solve.