Sunday, August 18, 2019

Weighing the greater good

Occasionally, I give over the space of my column to draw your attention to a book or story that seems relevant and particularly timely to any thoughts about doing the right thing.

In the past, readers have asked me what some of the influences have been on how I think about answering ethical questions posed or thorny challenges featured in the news or our daily lives. For some time, Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" has struck me as particularly astute at pointing to the limitations of how to structure an idyllic society built on the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

The notion of the greatest good is the underpinning of utilitarian theory. Proponents see it as a method of making decisions and taking actions which maximize the prospects of a good life for most of a group of people. On the surface, it's a noble endeavor.

But Le Guin, who spent a lifetime exploring alternative societies in her rich body of work, poignantly addresses the tradeoffs involved in utilitarian theory. If we are part of the majority that benefits from actions taken, that could be result in a good, rich life. But if we are among those who are not part of the greater number of people receiving the greatest good, the outcome might be far more dismal.

If you haven't read "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," I must warn you that what follows will give away a key plot twist which appears close to the end of the story. Consider this a spoiler alert.

The premise for Le Guin's story is that there is an idyllic society called Omelas. Bells ring, birds chirp, food is plentiful, and people live full lives of happiness and joy. We are treated to Le Guin's masterful scene setting and description of Omelas. Her description paints such a beautiful picture, full of detail, followed by: "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing."

Le Guin goes on to let us know that in the village of Omelas, there sits a young child in a room on the dirt-floor basement of one of the "beautiful public buildings." The door is always locked. No one visits the child, except to fill his or her food bowl and water jug. The child will occasionally say, "Please let me out. I will be good!"

But the people of Omelas know that for the society to continue as it has been depends "wholly on this child's abominable misery."

There's no indication in Le Guin's story that anyone tries to free the young child. The vast majority of Omelians go along with their lives. But every so often someone grows silent for a few days, decides he or she cannot bear to accept a society premised on such cruelty, leaves the beautiful gates of the village, and walks away from Omelas.

I offer Le Guin's story as recommended reading not to make any poignant observation about any specific topical issue. But it's a thoughtful meditation examining whether we would choose to do the right thing when faced with the knowledge that the goodness of our own life is premised on harsh realities for someone else. 

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1 comment:

Phil Clutts said...

It would be easier to accept Le Guin’s story and critique of utilitarian theory if the reader knew that there was a connection between some sort of bad behavior or evil power on the part of the child and the imperfect world Omelas citizens would live in if the child weren’t being punished. In the absence of such a connection, walking away is the right thing for the citizens to do.
Inequities will exist in any society, no matter how moral it is, and societies that strive to improve things openly should be appreciated, even while being reminded that they can always do better. Participating in that effort is better than walking away.