Price of Utopia


Ethical Dilemma: What Would it Take?

Would you sacrifice the innocence of a child for a perfect society?

(15min read)

The short story asked a simple question, what is the price of a perfect society?

Upon reading the short story, we're presented with a choice, albeit a false dichotomy, but playing along with the story, we must harm an innocent child or abandon the city forever. The first half of the story sets up the author's idea of Utopia, then springs the horrid existence of the child on us in the latter half of the story. The story concludes by asking if you will walk away from the city or stay. If you stay, you must partake in the evils towards the child. If you leave, standing by your moral convictions, you abandon the child to evil. Thus, the story suggests it's in everyone's best interest, sans the child, to continue life as you know it. Next, you will sift the story through Deontological and Utilitarian ideas.

You can read the entire story by Ursula K LeGuin here; I have provided an excerpt below.

A few discussion questions pop up.

After which form an analysis of the ethical minefield one must do to answer the question:

  • Do you replace the child or keep the child there?
  • What questions went through your mind that led you to your choice?
  • What ethical system are the Omelas using? Why do you think so?
  • Why do the citizens of Omelas have to consciously decide the fate of the child in the basement?
  • What does walking away from Omelas represent?
  • What does replacing the child represent?
  • What specific issues in our contemporary culture do you see implicitly depicted in Omelas?

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

By Ursula K. Le Guin

With a clamor of bells that set the birds soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas. The ringing of the boats in the harbor sparkled with flags. Processions moved in the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings. Far off to the north and west, the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. A faint cheerful sweetness of the air from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great, joyous clanging of the bells. The people of Omela never desired more. They had an endless supply of energy, food, and pleasure. They lived in a magical land of no pain, no hurt, or disease. Every Omela citizen was joyous, proposed, and wanted nothing.

But, this joy came at a price. The price of happiness came from no money, labor, or sweat, simply a conscious choice.

At the age of 16 and every four years to follow, each Omela citizen must visit a basement far below a castle floor. Once there, they will make their choice about where they stand.

In a basement, there sits a locked door with no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window across the cellar. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch. The room is three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet.

In the room, a child sits. Where this child originates, no one knows. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six but actually is nearly ten. The child will never age past the point of ten. Some people believe the child to be an old soul, but nobody knows. Perhaps it was born defective or has become impaired through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. The child is always afraid and shuts its eyes from what it fears. The child is in constant pain and torment. The child does not understand the time and feels every minute as an hour.

Sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. Then, finally, the food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, and the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything.

The child's keeper walks the peering eyes back to the balcony overlooking the town cradled by the mountains. They ask each person of Omela a simple question,

Do you turn your back on the child and continue your life as before, or replace the child with your own life, reverting to a ten-year-old in torment until you are released by another person?

Kelly Perez, Adjunct Professor