Hypothetical Utopian Society in The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
People make choices based on what they believe will ultimately lead to their own personal happiness. This ‘good life’ so to speak is the driving force of our daily routines, whether or not we are consciously aware it. This conception of the good life, though subjective by nature, requires permission from society for a person to explore his or her own peace. It promotes safety, well-being, growth, and the pursuit of pleasure while encouraging community and discouraging malice between individuals and groups. In practical applications, not all societies agree on what exactly constitutes human rights. In this way, the good life is inconsistent across cultures and relies on geographical chance. There exists today an infrastructure of bigotry and classes that hinder many peoples’ ability to achieve a good life. When considering the cost of the good life, it is imperative to acknowledge that sacrifice is always involved, but also that there is not one general cost for all people, but rather that the cost vastly differs between the privileged and the underprivileged members of any society.
In The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Ursula Le Guin describes a hypothetical utopian society in the city of Omelas. The citizens are not simpletons; they are mature, intelligent, and passionate. The dilemma to this city is that their happiness depends on the suffering and misery of a single child locked in a dark cellar room the size of a broom closet. This child is devoid of sensory stimuli, nourishment, and human contact to the point where it has become fearful, mentally deficient, and incapable of feeling real joy. All of the citizens of Omelas see the child when they come of age and feel disgust, anger, outrage, and impotence, but eventually come to accept their helplessness. She writes, “To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed” (Le Guin). The act of accepting the terrible justice of reality inspires the citizens of Omelas to be good, gentle, have compassion, and thrive. Finally, there are some who see the child and leave the city of Omelas to places unknown.
The citizens of Omelas clearly represent a more privileged society. Despite reacting negatively to the child, those who stay in the city have come to peace with the existence of this social injustice towards the child for the benefit of thousands. Thus the cost of the good life for the privileged is guilt. This is comparable to the mass social injustices that occur in the world today. Typical middle-class Americans are a perfect example of those who disagree with child labor, slavery, and exploitation of third-world populations but feel useless to actively speak against it because of how intertwined it is with the luxuries that we’ve grown accustomed to in our culture. We live in a society where morality comes second to financial needs; the literal cost of the good life makes it near impossible to alter the systematic oppression inflicted by corporations and other larger powers. Obstacles to the good life are numerous and often out of a person’s control because a lack of basic resources and inaccessibility to higher pleasures arise from economic discrimination; the cycle of poverty cannot be easily broken without outside assistance. Thus another cost of the good life for those with privilege is the effort made to help others in need.
For some in the city of Omelas, their feelings of helplessness and compassion toward the child are what lead to them being gentle to the other children of the city and consistently raising a functional society that promotes the best interests of all but one citizen. For others, the cost of the child’s life is too much to bear and they leave the city. I interpreted those who left to be going on a personal philosophical journey and that they would rather live in a faulty world that allows them to attempt to help others directly rather than a utopian world that restricts them standing up for what they believe is right for the benefit of the majority. It is significant that those who choose to leave do so by themselves. Had they left as a group, this could be interpreted as making a political statement. Leaving separately shows personal moral dilemma and highlights that the quest for the good life is ultimately an individual process. Thus, the cost for the good life differs based on what an individual is willing to pay as well as what they are actually capable of paying.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have strongly disagreed with the system by which the city of Omelas operated. He was a firm believer that any injustice towards even one person is a threat to justice everywhere, saying “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (MLK). Underprivileged members of society must pay the price that accompanies fighting for their good lives; the measure of their efforts are often greater than that of privileged members, and the potential gains made by fighting are more significant. The cost of the good life for underprivileged persons is more complex because they must also take basic needs into consideration for every choice made whereas the privileged can take these for granted. Accepting one’s sense of helplessness is a cost shared between the privileged and underprivileged; the latter must come to terms with injustices against them and find creative solutions to survive and attempt to overcome injustices so they may still live a quality, good life. Learning how to utilize limited resources is a skill that promotes the acquisition of a good life. King points out that groups are more immoral than individuals and freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; there comes a time when “men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair” and the underprivileged must actively fight back (MLK). This will cost the oppressed their dignity, physical comfort, and in some cases their life.
The cost of the good life requires accepting that we are not always capable of doing what we feel is right. Life involves interactions with people and the environment. These interactions can both help us grow as individuals and hold us back. The privileged members of society can achieve a good life by helping others to the best of their abilities without reducing themselves to the same level of impoverishment. For the underprivileged, achieving the good life involves a tight sense of community that enables them to subsist with limited basic resources but also grow as individuals. Regardless of the methods we employ to attain the good life, the decision has to be conscious and with good intent in order to be ultimately successful.
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