37 pages 1 hour read

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1973

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The Needs of the Many versus the Needs of the Few

As terrible as Omelas’s treatment of the abandoned child is, the narrator is adamant that there is a good reason for it: through an unknown bargaining process, Omelas has traded the happiness of this one individual for the happiness of all the rest of society. This happiness, moreover, is not just a matter of sensual pleasure, but of scientific, cultural, and social progress that greatly surpasses anything that exists on Earth. The narrator says, for instance, that Omelas may have everything from fuel-less power to a cure for the common cold. War definitely does not exist, and society is so peaceful that there is virtually no need for laws. Even humanity's relationship with animals seems different; the horses are so happily tame that riders use no equipment but a "halter without bit."

In terms of sheer quantity, then, the well-being that results from the child's imprisonment more than cancels out the child's own suffering; its "abominable misery" secures everything from "the health of their children" to "the abundance of their harvest." "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" therefore poses a challenge to the philosophical position of utilitarianism, which typically holds that morality is a matter of doing the greatest possible amount of good for the greatest possible number of people.