Psychomyths and Thought Experiments

by John Holbo on February 22, 2018

I’m writing something about Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous tale, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (I’m sure you’ve read it.) I’m reading the author’s story notes, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters [amazon]. She calls it a ‘psychomyth’. In her introduction she elucidates the neologism thusly: “more or less sur-realistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside any history, outside of time, in that region of the living mind which — without invoking any consideration of immortality — seems to be without spatial or temporal limits at all.”

So reads my Kindle edition. I suspect ‘sur-realistic’ is not what it says in the paper edition. But maybe Le Guin is literalizing the ‘beyond real’ sense, for some reason, by hyphenating, playfully? Will someone kindly walk over to their shelf, check the paper, and confirm or disconfirm the hyphen. Thank you. (Amazon ‘Look Inside’ is not settling it for me.)

While we are on the subject, and awaiting our test results, a few thoughts.

Psychomyths are thought experiments, and vice versa. But it would be funny to define ‘thought experiment’ as Le Guin does. But surely Mary, in her grayscale room, theorizing color, is a surrealistic tale, sharing with fantasy, etc., etc.

“Omelas”, qua thought experiment, is a Utility Monster, in the Nozick sense. This might seem obviously wrong. In Nozick’s case, the many are sacrificed for the one. Here the one is sacrificed for the many. So this is just a plain vanilla case, such as consequentialists anticipate, and are prepared to deal with. (The Utility Monster case reverses the usual, so a reverse Utility Monster doesn’t get us something yet more exotic. It gets us back to the usual.) It makes sense that ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’- as Spock says before heroically sacrificing himself in the film. (Fortunately for Spock, and the audience’s admiration for Spock, this didn’t call for child torture.) The most famous SF short story about hard consequentialist calculus is “The Cold Equations”, by Tom Godwin. A shuttle pilot must sacrifice a stowaway – must push her out an airlock – because the ‘cold equations’ dictate that otherwise there won’t be fuel enough, and time, for the ship to reach the colony with the live-saving medicine. Either she dies or all the others die. The ‘equations’ are physical and moral. They dictate what is possible and, given that, what is permissible – assuming consequentialism. Isn’t “Omelas’ just a more elegiac, less clearly convicted “Cold Equations”?

My response is that, as readers, we are invited to imagine Omelas as one thing. ‘Omelas’ is the only proper name in the story. We hear descriptions of denizens, besides the suffering child, but only the city is named. The title includes “The Ones Who Walk Away”. But they aren’t named. They aren’t even described as walking away from fellow Omelians (Omelasians?) The child is about 10 years old (although it looks only 6-years old.) Omelas is obviously a lot older, and its towers can shine for a long time to come. So we imagine a line of pitiful children being fed to this happy Moloch, Omelas, through time. So it’s a Utility Monster. Many feeding one.

Maybe we will want to say this is an invalid frame, philosophically but I think it’s correct, in a literary sense. Omelas is horrible, like Utility Monsters are horrible.

The next stage in the literary argument: In The Brothers K, Ivan is making a Utility Monster argument. Le Guin says she wasn’t thinking of the Brothers K. She was reading William James. But it’s still true: Ivan is making a Utility Monster argument. He has his dossier of tortured kids. He rejects any calculus of redemption. You can aggregate goods. You can envision eternal salvation, which is very good. But this turns heaven into a Utility Monster, God into a Utility Monster-monger, which is morally disgusting.

It’s worth noting that neither Le Guin nor Dostoyevsky frames it as consequentialism vs. deontology. The problem isn’t that Omelas has violated the child’s civil rights, or coerced it into that closet, or treated it unjustly. (Yes, that’s true but it buries the lede: suffering.) The objection is to the experience of meaningless suffering, not to rights-violations or injustice. The proof is that children are the best cases. Children don’t have any more rights than other people do, so why should they be the best cases if it were a rights problem?

Also, Le Guin isn’t trying to prove something. Maybe that’s the difference between a psychomyth and a thought experiment. A thought experiment is an attempt at proof. A psychomyth is, as William James says in the passage Le Guin is responding to, the occasion for “a specifical and independent sort of emotion.” But that’s, admittedly, a bit indefinite. But food for thought.

Speaking of “The Cold Equations”: yes, I know another difference between Le Guin and Godwin is that the latter appears to have more issues, of a characteristically adolescent sort. I was just yesterday posting on FB that this cover seems to me weirdly perfect.

{ 95 comments }

1

Tim May 02.22.18 at 3:31 am

In the 1991 HarperPaperbacks edition, “surrealistic” is unhyphenated.

2

John Holbo 02.22.18 at 3:46 am

Thanks!

3

Glen Tomkins 02.22.18 at 4:44 am

My response to these scenarios that pose dilemmas involving throwing someone out an airlock to stop a plague, or switching tracks so that the train kills one person instead of twenty, is the same that the narrator expresses at the beginning of the Satyricon towards the education he is receiving from his professor of rhetoric. It’s all about pirates trooping up the beach in chains, tyrants scribbling edicts compelling sons to chop off their fathers’ heads, or oracles condemning three virgins to be slaughtered to stop some plague (Hey, that last bit is straight from Petronius. Godwin just lifted it cold, except he cut it from three to just one. The piker couldn’t fully commit, I guess.). These scenarios don’t feel like anything real.

Dostoevsky can be counted on to bring the real. Ivan brings out his scrapbook of child abuse as the coda to his Grand Inquisitor session because he senses that the story itself did not make the desired sweeping impression. He divides humanity between the few powerfully honest and uncompromising people such as himself and the Grand Inquisitor on one hand, and on the other the mass of childlike sheeple who consistently abuse any freedom they are granted by messing up their lives. The adults such as himself and the Inquisitor have to take on themselves the sad and lonely duty of directing the lives of the sheeple. Ivan himself has pretty much thrown in the towel, at least as far as trying to get his own dysfunctional family straightened out. He’s getting on the train out of town, and he’s a pure observer now, but he projects the Inquisitor as a version of himself who is still at the task of trying to govern the childlike masses. He doesn’t think Alyosha gets, just from the story, the seriousness of this role he sees himself and the Inquisitor in, without bringing in real world cases of the consequences of letting adult children’s stupidity loose on actual children.

Of course the dichotomy is an illusion. The most penetrating intellect is still a helpless child in the face of a human nature that is “too broad, I would have it narrower”. Ivan’s splitting of his own personality, the abandonment of the helpless child within him in order to act always as if he had the duty to master the impossible situations in his and his family’s life, has him treat his brothers, Katya, but mostly himself, with boundless cruelty. He reduces himself to a helpless invalid by the end, more terrified and tormented by his situation than the shit-smeared five year old left out in the cold of an outhouse in that scrapbook of his.

He can’t escape this split he has made in his nature. When Alyosha responds to the wrenching spectacle his brother has made of his emotional state, with this Grand Inquisitor and child abuse rant, by embracing him, Ivan can only see it as plagiarism of the Christ in his story embracing the Inquisitor.

In reality we’re all the characters in these scenarios, both victim and perpetrator, both helpless child and controlling adult. We never face life as just the agent who has to decide which track to send the train down, we’re that person, and the passengers, and the people tied to both tracks, and the train, and the tracks, and the switch. Reality never comes at us narrow and melodramatic.

4

Tim Walters 02.22.18 at 5:16 am

I propose a moratorium on using “The Cold Equations” to make any point that can’t be made equally well with The Yearling. It’s not SF, but it’s also not shitty (actually, it’s a lot better than “not shitty,” but “not shitty” is sufficient here).

5

John Holbo 02.22.18 at 5:55 am

But does The Yearling have cool alien cats, crossbows and torn leather bikinis?

6

Tim Walters 02.22.18 at 6:01 am

No, but “The Cold Equations” doesn’t have bear-hunting! (Or human beings.)

7

Raven Onthill 02.22.18 at 6:29 am

I think – but ask someone who knows – that Godwin originally intended for there to be some way out for the girl, but editor John Campbell insisted on the tragic ending.

In many respects, I think most of Le Guin’s fiction, starting with The Dispossessed can be regarded as anthropological or philosophical thought experiments. Le Guin, however, unlike a philosopher engaging abstracts, always allowed for the ambiguity that human character introduces into life.

8

John Holbo 02.22.18 at 7:45 am

“I think – but ask someone who knows – that Godwin originally intended for there to be some way out for the girl, but editor John Campbell insisted on the tragic ending.”

Yes, it’s John W. Campbell’s fault that there was no solution.

http://locusmag.com/2014/03/cory-doctorow-cold-equations-and-moral-hazard/

9

Adam Roberts 02.22.18 at 8:01 am

It’s one of those cases where I for one see the appeal of mixing up one’s rigorous philosophical thinking with a bit of Freud. Compare the Underpants Gnomes. That’s a gag about the form of a logical syllogism, isn’t it: “1. steal underpants. 2 …… 3. Profit!” And the gag is both that the most important part of the get-rich scheme is missing, and that the gnomes are revealing more about themselves than they realise by advertising their plan. They think they’re presenting a scheme to make money; in fact they’re giving away that they have this weird fetish for stolen underpants. The search for profit is a fig-leaf; what they’re really interested in is the pants.

First as farce, then as tragedy. ‘The Cold Equations’ gussies-up a standard Philosophy 101 trolley problem with a little science-fictional stage setting. As is often the case in these problems, there is a tacit prioritising of rational thought over squishy knee-jerk emotions. But one of the things that makes the story so queasy and unpleasant is that its pseudo-rational superego excuses a terrible desire. Put the story on the analyst’s couch and it soon emerges that what matters to it is not that the planetful of people are saved, but that the girl dies. The whole elaborate schema is set-up, elaborately constructed in order to give the (male) reader a licensed opportunity to kill this girl. That’s the secret pay-off, the ground of the story’s appeal to a certain kind of reader. Its Id.

It’s not, in other words, coincidental that the spaceship pilot is an older man and the stowaway a young and beautiful girl. Devil’s Advocate might point out: but the ethical problem would be the same if the pilot were a woman and the stowaway a young boy. But the Analyst is going to note that this is not the way the story was actually written, and to suggest that that fact isn’t arbitrary. The Analyst is also going to take the garish Pulp cover, that nearly-naked sexualised woman, as more grist to their mill.

10

Phil 02.22.18 at 10:48 am

Hmm. I wrote somewhere – probably in a blog comment – that the popularity of “The Cold Equations” seemed to rest on an awful lot of people reading it backwards, rooting for the Logical Man who Understands The Very Laws of Physics Itself with a kind of grim cheerfulness, rather than sympathising with the girl and experiencing the resolution as tragic, or at least horrific. But maybe that is just how it’s set up, and I’m the thick one for taking the author at his self-deceived word.

Never liked “Omelas”, though. It’s the payoff that doesn’t work for me – those ‘ones’ (interesting word in the context of all that one/many stuff) who walk away. I mean, who are they? If they’re you and me, to the extent that we see through our so-called civilisation to the suffering it rests on and make some effort however meagre to say no to it in our own way whatever that may be… well, bully for us; so far, so self-congratulatory. If they’re people who actually withhold consent and get out, though, what would that mean? More to the point, who would that mean – communards? New Age travellers? The fable flips from being universally applicable but undemanding, to being demanding but inapplicable.

11

DaveL 02.22.18 at 1:09 pm

You can’t really blame either Godwin or Campbell for that garish cover. Godwin died in 1980, Campbell died in 1971, and the Eric Flint-edited collection didn’t come out until 2003. Blame Baen Books, most likely.

12

dominic 02.22.18 at 1:12 pm

I always imagined that the ones who walked away went to neighbouring towns and told them. And that led to a steady stream of people who heard about Omelas, thought it sounded great, and walked towards it

13

John Holbo 02.22.18 at 1:14 pm

“You can’t really blame either Godwin or Campbell for that garish cover.”

I’m not blaming! It’s perfect!

14

John Crowley 02.22.18 at 1:17 pm

Much of the discussion of Omelas treats it as a problem in ethics, but problems in ethics ought to have possible solutions in the world, or at least realisitc and insoluble impasses; they ouhgt to be able to be generalized. Omelas can’t be, and that’s the reason it ‘s so complelling. In discussions of the story the impossibiity of the premise is noticed far less often than the quandary of the ending (walk away or stay and fight, etc.). Le Guin carefully avoids discussing how it is that the suffering of the child generates the happiness of the city – there’s no possible way that it can. It’s less realistic or possible a scenario than even Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. It is not so much a philosophical puzzle story as a story paradox, i.e. something that can only happen, or be asserted to happen or to have happened, in story. Borges’s “Library of Babel” is a similar case: things described that can only have the consequences or the features that they have because they take place in story, i.e. in the possibiities of words. The ones who walk away form Omelas are not moral actors; they are (effectually) the readers, who having understood that there is nothing to do at the end but put down the story, must dwell in the undefeated paradox. It may have conseqquences in their thoughts and feelings and (less likely) their actions, but most likely will just remain a sort of unscratchable itch. There ought to be a name for such stories. Maybe there is.

15

Larry Hamelin 02.22.18 at 1:33 pm

Another entry in the genre is Theodore Sturgeon’s “If All Men Were Brothers, Would you Let One Marry your Sister?“, Dangerous Visions, 1967.

16

John Holbo 02.22.18 at 2:08 pm

First things first: John Crowley’s “Little, Big” is the greatest fantasy novel of the last 50 years. (Don’t know whether I’ve mentioned that before, with him present, but it’s true.) And the new stuff is good, too. I’m listening to the audiobook of “Ka” right now. But I’m only about an hour in.

I agree that it’s a paradox story. Like a tragedy is a paradox. Either you say ‘yes’ to Omelas or you say ‘no’ to life. Because life anywhere is as bad as Omelas, or worse. I don’t (quite) agree that those who walk away are not moral actors. They are like someone looking at a paradox and refusing to accept that it is one, but failing to find a solution. I do agree that they are like the reader.

I agree the fact that there is no reason for the child to generate happiness is important to the tone of the story. I call such plot devices Metaphysical MacGuffins: a conspicuously impossible stipulation, with no attempted explanation – scientific or supernatural. From Groundhog Day to Exterminating Angel to Metamorphosis. This is a thing that such stories often have in common with (ridiculous) thought experiments. But they work differently. Thought experiments clarify and concentrate, even when they baffle us with seeming paradoxes. A paradox wobbles back and forth. Omelas doesn’t really do that. It’s constructed as if it’s a thought-experiment, but it doesn’t function to clarify and concentrate our thinking. I glossed it as either you say ‘yes’ to Omelas or ‘no’ to life, but it’s experienced in a more emotionally complex way.

17

John Crowley 02.22.18 at 3:58 pm

Very well put. I like the Metaphysical MacGuffin and will use the term. I understand the distinction you make in placing Omelas in a different box of the category than Groundhog Day and Exterminating Angel (both great examples) and it makes me think there IS an essay to be written (and perhaps you’re writing it, or have written it.)

18

Alan Bostick 02.22.18 at 5:02 pm

For a long time I have thought about the story that Walking Away simply isn’t enough. An Omelasian walks away. What difference does it make? The child is still tortured in the cellar, and presumably is replaced by the next one, and another, and another.

What would really be interesting, it seems to me, would be the ones who return to Omelas — perhaps as part of a commando raid — to rescue the child and put an end to this vile system.

19

Joseph Brenner 02.22.18 at 5:19 pm

“Omelas” doesn’t work at all as a philosophical thought experiment (John Crowley just explained why), what it is an exploration of our own attitudes– the narrator lays out detail after detail and keeps harping on our own (the readers) responses to them. When the (completely absurd) detail of the suffering child is added in, the narrator challenges us with a question like “Does this make them seem more realistic, more plausible?”. And that’s the entire point: we have an instinctive, visceral rejection of the very possibility of utopia, we don’t think perfection is a possibility: adding in a flaw, any flaw, no matter how ridiculous, suddenly makes us believe more in the scenario. The ones who “walk away” then are the idealists who still haven’t given up hope.

20

Adam 02.22.18 at 5:19 pm

And the ones who walk away from “Omelas” join what, exactly? All societies accept the suffering and denied dreams of some for the benefit of the rest. We haven’t figured out a way to do it differently.

The reader payoff in “Omelas” is the moral superiority of feeling that they too would walk away. The reader payoff in the “cold equations” is killing the hot chick who thinks that rules don’t apply to her because she’s hot. And who is a stand-in for all the women who have rebuffed the reader. It’s neckbeard lit.

I would MUCH rather hang out with the reader of Omelas than the reader of the “Cold Equations.” But both parables are transparent and juvenile.

21

Katsue 02.22.18 at 5:47 pm

I’m not sure I’d agree about Groundhog Day. I think the implicit answer to the question of what caused Phil Connors to experience Groundhog Day over and over again is that God did it.

22

Joseph Brenner 02.22.18 at 5:48 pm

Adam Roberts @9:

“‘The Cold Equations’ gussies-up a standard Philosophy 101
trolley problem with a little science-fictional stage setting.”

The Godwin story is clunky and contrived, but it’s completely
brilliant compared to the ridiculous trolley problem, which is
practically a reducto ad absurdum of the utility of ethical
thought experiments. I am also pretty sure “The Cold Equations”
pre-dated the “trolley problem” by many years.

You could simply ask the general question “Can you justify the
death of innocents if you expect it will save even more lives?”
The entire point of something like the “fat man and the trolley”
business would be to bring the issue down to earth, to ground it
in specifics– instead the “trolley problem” leaves you
struggling to grasp implausible and aphysical prior assumptions
like the trolley is moving fast enough to kill some kids but you
know the fat man is big enough to stop it, and you know the kids
won’t see it coming and jump out of the way, and you know that
screaming “heads up!” won’t get them to look, and… And you end
up wondering if there’s some sort of anti-fat guy prejudice
lurking under all of it–

I tend to agree with Glen Tomkins@3 that the trouble with all of
this stuff is “These scenarios don’t feel like anything real.”

(When you get down to *real* cases, the uncertainties involved
dominate all the issues: how do you *know* that invading
country X will avert nasty occurence Y and the gains won’t be
swamped by possible consequence Z?)

By the way, all these allusions to Freud are several decades out
of date if you want to impress people with how rational and
intellectual you are (“put the story on the analyst’s couch”)–
maybe I’m missing a joke?

But anyway: “what matters to it is not that the planetful of
people are saved, but that the girl dies. The whole elaborate
schema is set-up, elaborately constructed in order to give the
(male) reader a licensed opportunity to kill this girl. That’s
the secret pay-off …”

Sure, but such is the case for much popular fiction. The good
guy is confronted by extreme circumstances in which it suddenly
makes sense for him to go rampaging around with a gun shooting
anything that moves. And you can find “female” versions of this
if you look: the woman must engage in slutty behavior against her
inclinations because it’s the only way to save her loved ones (or
because she’s coerced or hypnotized or what not). Quite a lot of
pulp is about not quite confronting your own demons.

23

steven t johnson 02.22.18 at 6:10 pm

Omelas is Salem, O. In the story though that means everywhere “we” live. The happiness in our homes is due to some sort of exploitation of innocents somewhere else, though somewhere else is disguised as the room where the tortures take place. When they walk away, they die, which is why none of them ever ask others to leave, suicide being a personal choice. The political moral is that if we were truly decent people, we would kill ourselves rather than exploit others. The story has such power because who with any aspirations for better things never felt this at moments? And the story is widely acceptable because it is entirely an indulgence, with no possibility of provoking useful action, or even deeper thought.

One of the things I’ve noticed about reactionaries in SF is that they like to insist on how the laws of nature require that life is a tragic struggle, that some must be sacrificed for the greater good. Some of these reactionaries will make an exception for friends. Others insist on some sort of infallible touchstone for identifying the evil ones whose passing is not only necessary but just. And a few will weep over the randomness of it all, at least in their fiction, as in real life, somehow the suffering is not so randomly distributed. And some will take all positions as needed, counterposing them to pure pacifism as a comfortably ideal/irrelevant alternative.

This kind of thinking really should be remembered when speaking of The Cold Equations. None of the to do over the vaccine is at all needed. The Cold Equations would say kill the one who can’t pilot the ship but uses up the fuel. If The Cold Equations were about killing the woman as such, the supposed justifications would not center on some social good like a vaccine, but on her secret sins and flaws. Wanting to hurt women is about feeling hurt by women. No matter how irrational the feelings, the satisfying “justifications” in that story are not about vaccines. Misreading the story as a sexual fantasy means by the way forgiving the blatant sexism in assuming that a woman not understanding basic physics (much less being able to pilot the ship herself,) is so much more plausible than a man being so foolish.

The purpose in making the stowaway a woman rather than a child is first, to soften the general implications by not killing a child. Second, it intensifies the agony of the pilot and the reader, who want (mostly) to save the girl, because she’s sexy. No doubt somebody reads the sacrifice as heroic renunciation, a deliciously exciting Triumph of the Will. But then, there are people who insist on reading Jim Kirk as Bond in Space too. The death of the author is a myth, but the defenseless of the author against misinterpretation is grim reality, no matter how much it is denied.

24

Glen Tomkins 02.22.18 at 7:23 pm

Well, I can accept Physical McGuffins — FTL for space opera, endless repetitions of Groundhog Day for that movie — if they are the necessary precondition for a particular story that is true to human nature. But I’m not going to grant an author a unmotivated counterfactual about human nature or the ground on which the story claims to operate. Hyperspace is fine with me, because I don’t read space opera to be instructed in physics. But if a story has to be premised on a humanly unreal premise, on an ethical dilemma that isn’t real, that is a basic problem.

25

J-D 02.22.18 at 7:33 pm

Devil’s Advocate might point out: but the ethical problem would be the same if the pilot were a woman and the stowaway a young boy.

‘The Cold Solution’, by Don Sakers, first published in Analog in 1991.

The pilot has read ‘The Cold Equations’ (although she doesn’t refer to it by name), and questioned why, if it’s so important in that story to conserve fuel and minimise load, they even use men as pilots when women are lighter.

26

J-D 02.22.18 at 7:42 pm

It’s the payoff that doesn’t work for me – those ‘ones’ (interesting word in the context of all that one/many stuff) who walk away. I mean, who are they?

For whatever it’s worth, according to the author herself, Laia Asieo Odo was one of them. I first read ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ in her anthology The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, where it was the penultimate story, and the ultimate story was ‘The Day Before The Revolution’, which had a prefatory headnote that ended by saying it was a story about one of those who walk away from Omelas.

27

Raven Onthill 02.22.18 at 8:07 pm

Correction:

In many respects, I think most of Le Guin’s fiction, starting with The Dispossessed The Left Hand of Darkness can be regarded as anthropological or philosophical thought experiments.

28

Anarcissie 02.22.18 at 8:45 pm

The connection between the suffering of the child and the happiness of the City in Omelas seems direct and logical to me, because I take Omelas to be a Gnostic story. The City is one of the prisons of the Demiurge who has created the world in such a way that the suffering of some, or even one, is the organic basis of the enjoyment of others (as we observe in the real world). LeGuin says everyone in the story understands this right away, and so did I, so we must be on the same Gnostic wavelength. The majority — the prisoners — of the City accept this. A few, those who have been graced with gnosis (the knowledge that there is a way out of the City) walk away — that is, embark on the journey towards the True God. Those who walk away are not copies of the reader. They vanish over the horizon. They ‘seem to know where they are going’, but the reader doesn’t, because the world outside the prison of the City is unimaginable for those still within it.

29

bianca steele 02.22.18 at 9:28 pm

Is there a name for a reverse Sorites Paradox? Omelas seems to function like one. You can say, “Our world isn’t that bad,” but the point is to ask where the point is where that doesn’t matter anymore, it’s quite bad enough, and which side of it we’re actually on. It’s a thought experiment in that way.

30

John Holbo 02.22.18 at 10:11 pm

Katsue: “I think the implicit answer to the question of what caused Phil Connors to experience Groundhog Day over and over again is that God did it.”

Ah, you’re one of THOSE!

I think it’s important that there is no reason. I don’t think there’s any call to go blaming God. Fun fact: in a draft script it was a gypsy curse. It’s worth reflecting how much worse the film would be if it was a lousy old gypsy curse that got poor Phil.

31

John Crowley 02.22.18 at 10:22 pm

I like the analysis of Anarcissie that it’s a Gnostic story. In Gnostic thought the universe itself is a a parable, and so any strong or true strory is a parable of a parable. It doesn’t mattter that such a story can yield up no useful moral; the point is to shake you out of the false (moral) universe you think you live in. I am sure Le Guin didn’t think of it that way (a Taoist not a Gnostic) but it’s ours now and she would not grudge us,

32

John Holbo 02.22.18 at 11:03 pm

Gnosticism and thought experiments is a good topic. But I read the ‘seem to know where they are going’ a bit differently. When we confront a paradox and emphatically reject its terms, that may look to those around us like we think we know how to solve it. But we don’t – or may not.

33

John Holbo 02.22.18 at 11:08 pm

Also, just to be clear: I don’t actually think there’s anything morally wrong with Katsue’s god-bothering reading of Groundhog Day. It’s perfectly natural.

One of the nice things about Metaphysical MacGuffin’s is the way they engage what Ernst Gombrich calls ‘the beholder’s share’. The secret of making a drawing ‘look right’ is the right minimalism. The eye supplies the rest and pronounces it to be right. This produces a satisfying Rashomon effect, in stories based on Metaphysical MacGuffins. Obviously the last thing you want with a proper thought experiment is a Rashomon effect, with everyone arguing about what they have literally seen in the tiny story. So this is another difference between a psychomyth and a thought experiment (if we want to employ those terms.)

34

Eric inKansas 02.23.18 at 12:16 am

Wow, saying no to Omelas is tantamount to saying no to life?! I will just lodge a big disagreement to that and leave it there.

But an enthusiastic agreement about John Crowley, though Engine Summer was more to my taste than Little,Big.

But the reason I am here is because you spurred me to arrive at the answer to all these trolley problems.
And it is “Show me the trolley.”

Thought experiments are fun, but they have less to do with the real world than Gilligan’s Island. There are never going to be situations with only exactly 2 solutions. You switch the trolley to the less populated track, then throw some old couches and compact cars in front of it, and yell at people to get off the track. You enlist passersby.

If the stowaway was on a spaceship, the fuel to accelerate her mass was already spent, and jettisoning her was wasting her momentum. If it was an airplane, the fuel required to fly her mass is a trivial fraction of the total to power the plane, and no responsible pilot would take off with that thin a margin. They tossed the girl because they wanted to toss a girl. Creepy.

Yeesh, philosophers.

35

Gabriel 02.23.18 at 12:20 am

As an aside: I highly recommend James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Think Like a Dinosaur”, in many ways a direct response (and pointed fuck-you) to “The Cold Equations”.

36

John Holbo 02.23.18 at 12:52 am

“Wow, saying no to Omelas is tantamount to saying no to life?! I will just lodge a big disagreement to that and leave it there.”

Yep, I say it! Reason: everywhere else is as bad or worse. (This is Ivan’s point as well. Objecting to Utility Monsters means ‘returning your ticket’ regarding life itself, which is a big Utility Monster.)

And it isn’t just me:

“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.”

That place is the place that is neither Omelas nor somewhere just as bad or worse.

37

bad Jim 02.23.18 at 6:27 am

I will again advance the suggestion, though it might not have been LeGuin’s intention, that it is not a philosophical puzzle, but rather an allegory for the world as it is, and a thin one at that, given the prevalence of child slavery. I’d rather not dwell on the provenance of the cobalt used in the battery of my electric car.

38

RichardM 02.23.18 at 9:57 am

If it is an allegory, it can be resolved by an allegorical commando raid, like the one in the opening scenes of Black Panther.

Come to think of it, the trolley problem could also be solved by the presence of a tank, or pretty much any superhero.

39

Phil 02.23.18 at 10:29 am

J-D’s comment – or rather, Le Guin’s comment relayed by J-D – forecloses some readings* of ‘Omelas’; it suggests that ‘walking away’ isn’t just walking into aporia, or into some sort of sublime deontic limbo where we are forced to realise that the question exceeds any answer we could offer. It suggests that something hangs on ‘walking away’, i other words, in terms of how we live together. (A ‘one’ who walks ‘away’ is very precisely not ‘living together’, but I guess that’s part of the point.) But if Odo is a type of those who walk away, the inference has to be that it’s not simply a matter of walking out, cutting oneself off; perhaps it’s more like walking into the wilderness for forty days and coming back to turn the moneylenders out of the temple. Another inference has to be that not many people manage it – not nobody, or only one person ever (it’s ‘the ones who walk’, not ‘the one who walked’), but not many of us. And that’s fine; not everyone can be an Odo. Might be better if one or two more of us were, though.

*How many depends on how big a deal we think authorial intention is. I guess at the minimum it excludes “we should read ‘Omelas’ as not having any imaginable real-world political referents because Le Guin wanted it read that way”; she clearly didn’t. At least, not consciously, and not at the time she wrote that headnote.

40

MisterMr 02.23.18 at 11:31 am

I didn’t read Omelas, when I was a young teen I read the first three stories of the Earthsea saga and I loved it, then many years later I did read other novels from Le Guin (included later parts of the Earthsea saga) and liked those much less, the later parts of the Earthsea saga sounded much less inspired and much more commercial to me, either because my tastes changed or because they really were worse, difficult to say.

I think that “psychomyths” are not the same thing as “tought experiments”, it’s more like “emotive experiments”.
For example, think of the biblical Babel tower: it’s a symbol that is very powerful for nonbelievers too, because it strikes some psychological/cultural chord. I think that Le Guin was trying to write something like this, so more a question for a psychanalist or an antropologist (as le Guin’s father was, IIRC) than for a logician.

And certainly the Babel tower has nothing to do with tought experiments.

41

Raven Onthill 02.23.18 at 12:04 pm

One might think that the citizens of Omelas are in fact deluded and that they torture the brutalized child of the story because they cannot imagine a world without torture. Certainly the necessity of brutality is an argument I hear from many conservatives, and many of the brutalities they defend are unnecessary. Life itself is brutal: it hurts, and no-one gets out alive. But must we make it worse?

Nozick’s utility monster sounds remarkably like Donald Trump, or any exceptionally greedy person.

“Cover Art – the design of the book jacket, generally produced in-house by the publisher’s art department, all of whom are near-sighted psychotics who never actually read the book and routinely forget to take their meds.” – S. L. Viehl

“Cover Art; Book Jacket: A small poster advertising the book to potential readers. Authors who have failed to take into account the fact that it has been bound to the outside of the book, rather than printed on an interior page, will often come to the mistaken conclusion that it is meant to illustrate the story, and be distressed by its inaccuracy.” – Teresa Nielsen Hayden

The Godwin book cover is by illustrator Clyde Caldwell.

42

bianca steele 02.23.18 at 3:03 pm

For a long time I’ve supposed Le Guin’s sense of what fiction does is like what one of her characters in Always Coming Home learns, that after having the ineffable vision one learns to express it in culturally appropriate terms, to convey the appropriate sense.

I suppose it’s possible to take it instead as given that all fiction, even SF and fantasy, is really about our world, seen from some new perspective, but on the one hand it seems odd to me and not necessary, not really able to be made consistent. And on the other, does this mean it’s logically impossible to write about societies, to imagine a world that’s different from ours, that has multiple, different societies, etc.? I don’t think you need to be fully committed to absolute authorial intention to see that Le Guin did not believe societies were unchangeable or identical with one another.

43

John Holbo 02.23.18 at 3:10 pm

This is a good thread and it’s got more comments than my snarky posts about conservatives and guns. That’s amazing!

44

Glen Tomkins 02.24.18 at 1:44 am

Not much new left to say about conservatives and guns. I get complaints if I point out that Trump is still demented, because some people want a more interesting explanation. Sorry, Trump is still just demented.

Conservatives these days on guns make it look like they’re all demented, or have mad cow or something. Once you see that, not much more to say on the subject.

45

J-D 02.24.18 at 3:28 am

The last few sentences of the story are:

The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

To me this suggests that the people described do not appear to be proceeding without direction. The text doesn’t enter into their minds to disclose their thoughts or feelings; the text states only how they appear to others. So the possibility is left open for the reader to imagine that the walkers-away feel directionless, even though they do not appear so to observers. Still, we are told how they seem, which opens up the possibility of imagining that they are how they seem, that they are not merely walking away from something but do have a forward direction–even though the text explicitly canvasses the possibility that no destination exist for their journey. Can one have a forward direction without a final destination? Absolutely yes. The idea of travelling, for example, north-north-west does not require the existence of a North-North-West Pole to make it meaningful. Likewise, the idea of travelling (metaphorically speaking) in the direction, for example, of liberation does not require a final destination of maximal freedom to make it meaningful.

46

Fuzzy Dunlop 02.24.18 at 4:33 am

I always found Omelas frustratingly mysterious, but now I’m inclining to what seems to me a much more mundane, though not banal reading, which is that the social/psychological impossibility of the premise stands in for our inability to imagine eliminating certain types of suffering IRL (such as Raven Onthill @41 referred to re conservatives; e.g. ‘spare the rod spoil the child’–surely a world without corporal punishment of children would be a miserable hellscape!); we continue inflicting these kinds of suffering, because we’ve been deluded into believing they’re necessary. Then maybe at some point we realize they’re not, and that’s when we ‘walk away’. This happens all the time, IRL, in microscopic ways. What makes the story work (or what makes the premise not seem so ridiculous that we put down the story as soon as the child is revealed–clever of Le Guin to not reveal her until near the end!)–is our attraction to pain and general feelings of our own inherent guilt–something Le Guin plays up by pointing out that there are people who walk away–but these “ones” are not you. So, noting John Crowley’s mention of gnosticism above, Omelas is a gnostic story turned against asceticism–against the idea that you can transcend the prison of the world by giving up its pleasures. The ones who walk away are the ones who reject the metaphysical MacGuffin, who cut the Gordian knot…

47

Fuzzy Dunlop 02.24.18 at 5:08 am

One might even say that the child in the dark room is you, the reader, whom the story is torturing with guilt by asking you why you didn’t walk away (which you didn’t, if you’re still reading…) That’s why “the place they go towards is even less imaginable to most of us than…”

48

bad Jim 02.24.18 at 9:21 am

The problem with my reading of the story is that there’s nowhere to go for the ones who would walk away. One might vow to give up single-use plastic packaging for Lent, but that would render entire categories of consumer goods out of reach.

Since we’ve already given up plastic grocery bags (haven’t we?) it’s time to give up straws. One thing at a time. Piet Hein explains:

The road to wisdom? — Well, it’s plain
and simple to express:
Err
and err
and err again
but less
and less
and less.

49

Z 02.24.18 at 4:20 pm

Come to think of it, the trolley problem could also be solved by the presence of a tank, or pretty much any superhero.

You know what? I think that’s going to be my official answer to any further trolley problem I’m confronted with from now on: I do nothing, because Black Panther is about to arrive and to save everyone. After all, I have a pretty strong moral intuition than a world with trolleys that can be swayed or not precisely under the circumstances described and none other also has a Black Panther, myself.

50

Alison 02.24.18 at 8:12 pm

I’ve always read ‘Omelas’ as an illustration of Orwell’s remark about coal-miners in The Road to Wigan Pier, that “it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior .. all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground”. In that sense I don’t really think of the story as a ‘thought experiment’ at all. It seems to me a truthful description of how the modern world works.

51

John Holbo 02.25.18 at 1:57 am

“I’ve always read ‘Omelas’ as an illustration of Orwell’s remark about coal-miners in The Road to Wigan Pier, that “it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior .. all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground”. In that sense I don’t really think of the story as a ‘thought experiment’ at all. It seems to me a truthful description of how the modern world works.”

This seems to make sense but I strongly disagree.

The child labor analogy is totally intuitive. But it falls apart when we focus on the details of the story. We could eliminate child labor – could improve conditions at least. It’s utterly central to the story that nothing can be done to eliminate or even marginally improve the situation. There aren’t people in the story working to improve the child’s lot, rather than walking away from Omelas. Omelas isn’t child labor. It’s the fact that some meaningless, severe suffering is inevitable in life.

I would also say that, if it were about child labor, then it would be a thought experiment about that. It would be a truthful thought experiment about how the modern world works. But I don’t think that’s how Le Guin wrote it.

52

Fuzzy Dunlop 02.25.18 at 3:29 am

“It’s the fact that some meaningless, severe suffering is inevitable in life. “
Or the fact that you think it is, and if you knew it wasn’t, you’d be one of those who walk away.

53

John Holbo 02.25.18 at 3:45 am

“if you knew it wasn’t, you’d be one of those who walk away.”

Well, you can write your own story your way, Fuzzy, but the one we’ve got reads like this, for the record:

“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

54

Etv13 02.25.18 at 7:53 am

I think the fact that walking away doesn’t do a damn thing for the kid in the closet supports John Holbo’s claim that the story is about meaningless, inevitable suffering. And that the story isn’t reducible to politics. It isn’t a call to action, but a call to reflection. I also note that Le Guin is the writer who told us that if you turn your back and walk away from Mishnory, you’re still on the Mishnory road.

55

infovore 02.25.18 at 10:58 am

It has been a while since I last read these stories, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas and The Day Before the Revolution. Like J-D @26 I’d say that the introduction to the latter suggests a way of read the former. It also helps to keep The Dispossessed in mind.

I read Omelas as a parable where the people of Omelas believe, sincerely, and possibly correctly, that their happiness requires imposing suffering on the child. I don’t think it is just about meaningless and inevitable suffering, in my view it makes a difference that the people of Omelas do this themselves, or at least condone having it done on their behalf.

So Omelas is nor a physical place, but a state of mind, and to walk away from Omelas is to reject the idea that society must be structured along such lines. Which is why the revolution inspired by the Odo of Day Before, who is “someone who walked away from Omelas”, is an anarchist revolution. The anarchist answer being that no-one should have that kind of power over others. Not a recipe for a world without suffering, but rather for a world where people are not made suffer on someone else’s behalf.

The Dispossessed suggests that the resulting society was not entirely successful in achieving that lofty goal.

56

ph 02.25.18 at 11:24 am

An hour of Galen Strawson just interviewed by Robert Wright on Panpsychism.

http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/39927?in=00:01

Enjoy! (Back in a few months, and thanks for the great OPs)

57

Z 02.25.18 at 11:56 am

Either you say ‘yes’ to Omelas or you say ‘no’ to life. Because life anywhere is as bad as Omelas, or worse.

It occurred to me that many ideologies in the strict etymological sense of the term – especially radically eschatological ones – are built on the premises that you should walk away from Omelas in the interpretation above: the world is fundamentally unjust, life is fundamentally wicked, reality is fundamentally unacceptable. You should renounce them. Early Christianity, Shi’a Islam, many strands of Protestantism and arguably many strands of radical Left ideologies, including Marxism.

Paradoxically, people and societies built on these ideologies often “seem to know where they are going” and often achieved remarkable things even though the world they aspire to is ” even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. [They] cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.”

So I’m going to record that a possible reading of Omelas, not completely implausible considering Le Guin’s profession, is that it is a fictionalization of the common anthropological observation that functioning societies have been built on the rejection of everything.

58

John Crowley 02.25.18 at 12:39 pm

They don’t function for long. And the paradoxes of rejection are what cause them to cease functioning. — either to begin to accept parts of what they rejected and over time turn into other forms of society, mixed, impure, slovenly, expansive or whatever; or simply to end abruptly in total degringolade, like Nazi Germany. Le Guin nowhere advocates for, or even imagines the possibility of, a society built on the rejection of everything. It would violate her Taoist understandng of balance and inclusion. Omelas is built on a paradox of exclusion, and is clearly impossible as stated; which is why we are all discussing it.

59

Fuzzy Dunlop 02.25.18 at 2:11 pm

Well, you can write your own story your way, Fuzzy, but the one we’ve got reads like this, for the record:

And that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.

“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

This is why I maintain Omelas actually is a thought experiment/trolley problem–more so than Le Guin can admit. Once you’ve accepted the premises of Omelas, suspended your disbelief, it’s impossible to imagine where else anyone would go (and, like, she literally told you you can’t). The point of the story is to put you in a place where you imagine yourself forced to accept that the child’s torture is necessary (just like a trolley problem makes you imagine yourself killing someone…). The only way to walk away is to reject the premises the author has set up–write your own story. The story is drawing attention to its own fictionality (as Sufi literature is wont to do), asking you to reject it/rewrite it.

60

Fuzzy Dunlop 02.25.18 at 2:12 pm

Ah crap formatting.

61

John Holbo 02.25.18 at 2:40 pm

I think I fixed it. Formatting, that is, not Omelas. I can’t imagine how to fix Omelas!

62

Fuzzy Dunlop 02.25.18 at 2:51 pm

Thank you! (re 2nd thing, I can’t either!)

63

Cranky Observer 02.25.18 at 3:24 pm

= = = Le Guin carefully avoids discussing how it is that the suffering of the child generates the happiness of the city – there’s no possible way that it can. It’s less realistic or possible a scenario than even Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. It is not so much a philosophical puzzle story as a story paradox, i.e. something that can only happen, or be asserted to happen or to have happened, in story. = = =

As I noted over on Prof. DeLong’s blog:

slavery => Southern cotton => British cash => German tools => new steel mill for the virtuous North

Did every member of US society 1820-1865 realize that? Did the average worker toiling away in a Massachusetts textile mill or New York foundry? No, but many did. Harder to be smug about having grown up north of the Mason-Dixon line and being on the “right” side of history after one figures out those links.

64

Joshua W. Burton 02.25.18 at 5:46 pm

dominic @12:

I always imagined that the ones who walked away went to neighbouring towns and told them. And that led to a steady stream of people who heard about Omelas, thought it sounded great, and walked towards it

… and every now and then a small child gets lost in passport control.

65

bianca steele 02.25.18 at 6:17 pm

I strongly disagree with many or these takes. I’m even bold enough to say I disagree with John Crowley. But I started thinking, why is the central figure of this story a child? I think because we expect so little of a child. If the story were about an adult suffering, the reader would be implicitly asked to wonder whether they deserved it, whether they should have been capable of resisting, and so on. We expect an adult, even an adolescent, to be capable of adapting to a situation or taking action against it. The story isn’t about children leaving Omelas because they’re best placed to know what’s happening and most likely to feel the one child’s suffering is unjust. It’s about adults who, equally with all other adults and almost all children, are very happy, are not going to have anything unreasonable asked of them, and yet find what they see being asked of the child so awful that they won’t participate anymore. Yet if the character were not a child, the narrative would not work.

I see that people are saying that the child suffering is so awful it awakens an emotion in the reader, who then being rational, examines the sources of the emotion and the extent to which the reader’s conclusions can be generalized. I’m not certain that’s how the rhetoric is intended to function. Le Guin, I think, has left us pretty irrefutable statements of what her politics were on at least some subjects, and “nothing can be done to eliminate or even marginally improve the situation” is not it.

66

John Crowley 02.25.18 at 8:02 pm

I agree with much of this on the face of it — i.e. as drawn from your premises. I don’t quite know what you disagree with me about; my take is that the story is not a representation of a situation that can be studied as though it actually could be the case; obviously it can’t be, and Le Guin makes sure we see this by the terms she sets. What i wanted to make clear — to myself above all — is what it is, if it is not a fictional representation of a possibility. Parable, paradox, Gnostic fairy tale? Its cheif moral power is, to me, that omce having read it you can never forget it, and continually try to make it come out right, which Le Guin makes impossible.

67

bianca steele 02.26.18 at 1:32 am

Mr. Crowley, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to start an argument.

I only intended to acknowledge that my comments (particularly the earlier ones) were in essence incompatible with many of the others in the thread, and with what seems to be the sense of the commentariat on this point. I don’t think I agree with you that the story doesn’t present a problem in ethics or that the ones who walk away (if I’ve understood you) the readers, but those are fairly minor points. It felt presumptious even to disagree with you so far, but my disagreement was with other commenters, and I shouldn’t have included that sentence.

68

John Holbo 02.26.18 at 2:08 am

“Parable, paradox, Gnostic fairy tale?”

One thing I would add is that, whether it’s a thought experiment or not, it is undeniably, at the very least, a mock-thought experiment.

“Omelas” has the literary form of a thought experiment whether it has the function of one or not.

The proof is the long bit where Le Guin does, as a rigorous consequentialist thought experimenter must, address the reader and tell her to imagine in Omelas whatever the reader thinks is the highest good. Orgies, no orgies, drugs, no drugs, helicopters, no helicopters. The point is to investigate, conceptually, whether a city that maximizes the good is tolerable – even ethically mandatory, if we can get it. So, for argument purposes, we let specific conceptions of the good float. Omelas is a variable, for thought experiment purposes: it’s whatever the good turns out to be.

Framing it that way means that formally, the story is a thought experiment. Because nobody tells fairy tales the way John Rawls writes about politics, i.e. treating conceptions of the good as an x, to accommodate reasonable disagreement. But that’s how Le Guin writes about Omelas.

Functionally, it’s another matter, of course. I don’t think “Omelas” really functions as a thought experiment. Not in the usual way.

Mock-thought experiment as literary form. Pretty common in modern literature? A lot of Kafka works this way. There is a precision to the what-if that bespeaks: thought experiment. But then it doesn’t clarify, as a proper one should. The form is deceptive as to proof function. It provokes ‘specifical emotionals’, as Williams James says. It’s surreal. It does a lot of things.

One last way to put it. Le Guin jokes that she doesn’t really know where her idea came from.

“Of course I didn’t read James and sit down and say, Now I’ll write a story about that “lost soul.” It seldom works that simply. I sat down and started a story, just because I felt like it, with nothing but the word “Omelas” in mind. It came from a road sign: Salem (Oregon) backwards. Don’t you read road signs backwards? POTS. WOLS nerdlihc. Ocsicnarf Nas . . . Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace. Melas. O melas. Omelas. Homme hélas. “Where do you get your ideas from, Ms Le Guin?” From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?”

No philosopher, inventing a thought experiment, DOESN’T know whether the idea comes from. Where did your Chinese Room come from, Mr. Searle? He knows exactly where it’s from. There were two concepts – conditions – which some A.I. proponents thought couldn’t come apart. Searle thought he had figured out how to pry them apart, and then he made it as literal as he could, for emphasis, ease of conceptualization, general convincingness. Every proper thought experiment is deliberately engineered down to the last rivet. They aren’t built by obscure inspiration.

A mock-thought experiment, on the other hand …

Possibly all mock-thought experiments are gnostic fairy tales, and vice versa. I’m not sure.

69

John Holbo 02.26.18 at 2:11 am

“Metaphysical MacGuffins and Mock Thought-Experiments”. That should be my chapter title.

70

Fuzzy Dunlop 02.26.18 at 5:30 am

bianca steele & John Crowley (or the commentariat in general), it did seem like there was a disagreement about how Omelas is related to the real world–whether it’s about unjust suffering, like child labor or slavery, or about unavoidable meaningless suffering (and thus not something that could ever exist). The point of the story actually is to bridge the gap between those two contradictory alternatives.

We’re all saying here that the situation in the story is unbelievable, but the narrator tells us that the child’s pain is actually what makes Omelas believable to you the reader:

“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”
then after describing the child: “Now do you believe them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.” (and that’s when she gets to the ones walking away)

So I’d again suggest that the thought experiment here is not about whether some suffering can be pointless and inevitable, or whether you should actually walk away, it’s more, ‘what are you capable of imagining?’ The trolley problem-like thought experiment here is a thought experiment about thought experiments. As she says early on:

“Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it.”

She says repeatedly that there’s no guilt in Omelas, which is wonderfully mischievous BS–the whole thing is set up to make you feel kind of guilty. (That THEY don’t feel guilty doesn’t help.)

This reminded me of the movie, Pay it Forward. [SPOILER haha like anyone cares but no really I’m fastidious about spoilers] the kid who starts “pay it forward” is killed at the end as he tries to break up a fight. It struck me at the time I saw it that by killing him off, Jesus-like, the movie was really pulling its punch, comforting the viewer. Because what if his good deed went unpunished? That would challenge viewers to do good deeds of their own. Everyone would agree, a happily-ever-after ending in that movie would have been corny as all hell, but I submit it would have been jarring & bold in a way the tragic ending wasn’t. Happiness without pain isn’t believable because we don’t want to get off our ass.

Omelas *IS* about real solvable problems like child labor and slavery, and it’s more specifically about how we convince ourselves that they’re unsolvable (maybe that’s the ‘thing’ the psycho-myth is trying to show us). So re John Crowley’s points that we only really walk away by leaving the story, and that once having read it, you keep going back to try and make it right: ok, but “If it hurts, repeat it.” is not really what the story is endorsing, is it? You do walk away by leaving the story, but (ideally) in a more self-conscious sense of recognizing the story’s tricks, as opposed to just having reached the end.

71

John Holbo 02.26.18 at 6:19 am

So, for starters, you are asserting the narrator is unreliable, Fuzzy? You say incidental inconsistencies in the narration show we are supposed to infer that?

72

Jim Buck 02.26.18 at 8:35 am

Aborted embryos, where do they go?

73

Etv13 02.26.18 at 10:17 am

Fuzzy Dunlop @ 70: if the story is about solvable problems, then why does no one in the story even attempt to help the child? Why does the narrator seem to think merely walking away is amazing and, apparently, admirable? (And the author, too, given her comments in the intro to “The Day Before the Revolution”?).

While the description of the city is very vague, maybe-its-this, maybe-it’s-that, you pick, the description of the child and her suffering is very specific. That means something, too.

74

John Crowley 02.26.18 at 1:12 pm

Very perspicuous. The danger in my analysis (or whatever it is) is that it can make the story trivial, which I don’t at all think it is. Like the Grecian urn, it can “tease us out of thought”.

75

Fuzzy Dunlop 02.26.18 at 5:37 pm

@74 Thanks, if that was directed at me!

@71 Unreliable by her own admission, I think, and not because of incidental inconsistencies. The question of Omelas’ believability is hanging over our heads all the way through the story until we meet the child. (And does the child actually make it believable, as she claims? What are we supposed to do with these instructions about not just what she wants us to believe for the sake of her story, but about what kind of thing we tend to find, or should find believable? I feel like these instructions/observations are not just scaffolding for the thought experiment, they’re the heart of it.)

Etv13 @73 I like that point about the specificity of suffering vs the vagueness of pleasure. That seems to go along with Le Guin’s point that “we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid.”

“why does no one in the story even attempt to help the child? “Why does the narrator seem to think merely walking away is amazing and, apparently, admirable?”

You got into Omelas by making all those choices she kind of asks you to make as you enter (helicopters, orgies, drugs…) about what paradise contains, which means that you got into Omelas by building it. So you walk out the way you came in, which is also taking it apart–un-building it. Her claim that we (artists, pedants) don’t take happiness seriously is the central challenge. A part of the moral/emotional economy of Art, which she’s trying to draw our attention to, is that taking happiness seriously feels like walking away and abandoning the suffering child.

76

infovore 02.26.18 at 6:00 pm

Etv13 @ 73: My tentative answer is that Omelas is an allegory describing a state of mind, a way of thinking about how the world has to be organized. As I recall, the story suggests that the child may have been abused for too long, and is beyond rescue. If Omelas were a real place, just stopping the abuse and making sure there will be no next victim would be worthwhile all by itself.

But if Omelas is a description of the reader’s state of mind then it becomes a lot murkier what rescuing the child would amount to. “Don’t Be Evil” as a corporate slogan?

If the story is read as an allegorical question along these lines, then I think LeGuin’s suggested answer is that the child should not have been there at all to begin with. To walk away from Omelas is to have realized this and to abandon it as a harmful illusion.

77

John Holbo 02.27.18 at 12:21 am

Fuzzy’s point is definitely worth thinking about. But, for now, I’m thinking of a “New Yorker” style cartoon I could write. The teacher is giving the students a story problem. “Tommy has 5 dollars and Susie has 8 dollars. If Tommy gives Susie 3 dollars, how much does Susie have.” Student: “I think the narrator is unreliable.”

78

John Holbo 02.27.18 at 12:32 am

““why does no one in the story even attempt to help the child? “Why does the narrator seem to think merely walking away is amazing and, apparently, admirable?”

Since by helping the child you are dooming everyone else in the city to fall from glorious happiness, it’s kind of a big step. The option of just personally opting out could easily be more attractive.

I’ll say what I think is the right response to Fuzzy: since I think Omelas is kind of a mock-thought experiment I think it’s ok to read it different ways. A thought-experiment is supposed to be taken ONE way. Le Guin is certainly deliberately writing something a bit more open-ended. I don’t have high confidence that she meant there to be one way to take it (although I am sure there are some off-base ways to take it.) But it’s important that all the textual evidence Fuzzy cites fits equally with the alternative interpretation. Namely, it’s a a paradox story. If you are narrating a paradox, it’s normal – inevitable – to include apparent inconsistencies and some caveats about how, maybe, we have to rethink some of this, though it’s not clear how. But a paradox story isn’t the same as an unreliable narrator story.

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etv13 02.27.18 at 1:03 am

Infovore @ 76: I agree with you that Le Guin is saying the child should not have been there at all, but given that the child is there, it raises the question, what should a citizen of Omelas do when confronted with the child? And the story seems to rule out any possibility that the answer is “help the child.” It’s been a long time since I read it, but my vague recollection is that the citizens believe that helping the child would bring the whole structure of Omelas crashing down, and that’s why John Holbo is writing about it as a quasi thought-experiment of the trolleyish type in the first place. (If he is; 76 comments down, and I’m losing track of what he said in the original post.) In other words, they walk away rather than help the child because while they don’t want to live by exploiting the child’s suffering, they also don’t want to cause additional suffering. This is, in my view, where Omelas diverges from the real world, because I believe that we can, in fact, help hungry or exploited children and by doing so, make the world a better place, rather than a worse one. Also, within the story, I don’t believe the child is beyond help. Maybe permanently cognitively damaged, yes, but that doesn’t mean the child wouldn’t benefit from decent food and warmth and not being locked in a place with cleaning equipment it’s afraid of. But you already sort of said that in your first paragraph.

Fuzzy Dunlop at 75: You are starting to sound like a Chaucer professor I once had who believed that every one of Chaucer’s poems was about poetry as poetry, rather than, say, a bunch of pilgrims telling stories on the way to Canterbury, or death and mourning. (Seriously, when the narrator in The Book of the Duchess says at the beginning that he can’t sleep, this professor thought that was a metaphor for writer’s block. The thought that maybe the narrator was having trouble reconciling himself to the idea of death was not entertained.) You have more justification here, because the narrator does address the reader and say, “Imagine this as you like,” but I think Le Guin is getting at something bigger and more fundamental than “the moral economy of Art” or what is happening to us as we read the story.

John Holbo: Thanks so much for starting this thread. It’s been really interesting and engaging.

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etv13 02.27.18 at 1:12 am

John Holbo @ 78: I was still writing my comment at 79 when you posted yours. I am happy to see that I did not misremember the point of your original post. I don’t seem to be communicating very clearly, though, since you and infovore seem to have missed that my question “why don’t they help the child” was a rhetorical one.

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John Holbo 02.27.18 at 1:53 am

Thanks, etv13. Glad to be of literary service. Re: “Also, within the story, I don’t believe the child is beyond help. Maybe permanently cognitively damaged, yes, but that doesn’t mean the child wouldn’t benefit from decent food and warmth and not being locked in a place with cleaning equipment it’s afraid of.”

Within the frame of the story the narrator reports a certain amount of defensive apologetics about this – and the narrator partakes of it to a somewhat unclear degree:

“They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.”

Le Guin, Ursula K.. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters: A Story (Kindle Locations 4643-4649). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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Fuzzy Dunlop 02.27.18 at 2:11 am

@78 Or maybe confusing us about whether it’s a paradox or unreliable narrator story.

etv13 @79, I didn’t mean it’s only about that, it’s about how whatever is happening to us as we read the story is also like what happens to us in other situations (which is how a psychomyth should work I guess?) Our unwillingness to believe happiness in fiction (or artists’ “treason” of not showing it to us–however you want to put it, and Le Guin names both of these) corresponds to limits on the kind of political solutions we can imagine, and that correspondance probably isn’t a coincidence.

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etv13 02.27.18 at 2:16 am

John Holbo @ 81: So, another sense in which the splendor of Omelas is built on the suffering of the child. Who can’t stay a child forever — unless by magic. But then, I always had the vague sense that Omelas was the result of some kind of bargain with the gods.

Or maybe the child is an illusion, or a hologram or something? Okay, the story truly doesn’t support that, what with the child being afraid of the mop and all, but everyone always sees a child, and it’s always about the same age, no matter what year it is. It’s another aspect of “the impossibility of the premise” that John Crowley referred to in his first comment. Although I note that the passage you just quoted, while perhaps not adequate to explain how the suffering of the child contributes to the happiness of the city, does at least gesture in that direction.

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F. Foundling 02.27.18 at 9:11 pm

@OP
>The problem isn’t that Omelas has violated the child’s civil rights, or coerced it into that closet, or treated it unjustly. … The objection is to the experience of meaningless suffering

‘Meaningless’? One can argue in different ways that the end does not justify the means (off the top of my head, I would go for egalitarianism in the distribution of pleasure/suffering), but the actual *meaning* or rationale of the suffering within the story is surely clear.

@OP
>I glossed it as either you say ‘yes’ to Omelas or ‘no’ to life
@ John Holbo 02.22.18 at 2:08 pm 16
>Because life anywhere is as bad as Omelas, or worse.
@John Holbo 02.25.18 at 1:57 am 51
>It’s utterly central to the story that nothing can be done to eliminate or even marginally improve the situation.

I’d say that this reading takes a lot of determination to identify with the stayers and not with the goers and to simply accept their framing of the situation at face value. Le Guin doesn’t say that there can be no better place than Omelas – you are the one who chooses to say it. She only says that this is the way this particular, known society functions, so eliminating just the suffering of the specific child *within* said society, i.e. without completely transforming the entire system, is impossible and would only make it crumble. Abandoning (leaving) Omelas primarily means abandoning (rejecting) the type/system, not just the physical token/specimen, so talk of saving the specific child is pointless; within the current system, you can’t save it, the point is that you have to make a completely new system. What J-D cites at 02.22.18 at 7:42 pm is quite conclusive and makes it as clear as can be; Le Guin thought of people renouncing the benefits of an unjust and unequal society to build a fundamentally different, more morally decent, and, specifically, anarchist society. Le Guin admits that such a society may be impossible, and that their attempt (a truly utopian attempt, unlike the fundamentally ‘realistic’ Omelas that resembles our world) may be doomed to failure, hence ‘I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist’. Vague hippie stuff, really, but this is quite obviously a story written from an idealistic leftist utopian standpoint and not from a cynical/resigned/’nothing-can-be-done’ liberal centrist standpoint. I understand that one may disagree with an emotional~philosophical outlook~attitude that is fundamentally different from one’s own, but I’m surprised that one should also find that outlook~attitude so fundamentally alien and incomprehensible that one should even fail to recognise it and instead project one’s own onto it.

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John Holbo 02.27.18 at 10:55 pm

“‘Meaningless’? One can argue in different ways that the end does not justify the means (off the top of my head, I would go for egalitarianism in the distribution of pleasure/suffering), but the actual *meaning* or rationale of the suffering within the story is surely clear.”

Meaningless to the sufferer. The point being: if the story is one of heroic, conscious self-sacrifice it’s very different.

“I understand that one may disagree with an emotional~philosophical outlook~attitude that is fundamentally different from one’s own, but I’m surprised that one should also find that outlook~attitude so fundamentally alien and incomprehensible that one should even fail to recognise it and instead project one’s own onto it.”

I would be surprised if that happened, too.

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John Holbo 02.28.18 at 12:13 am

Just to be clear: you read me as reading Le Guin as a straight-up Omelas-booster, Foundling?

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F. Foundling 02.28.18 at 9:30 pm

Wel, saying that There Is No Alternative to Omelas other than suicide and that Omelas is the best of all possible worlds, does come across as a modest boost of sorts, at least from my perspective. I read you as reading Le Guin as saying TINA. She is writing about pervasive exploitation in our societies and some people’s refusal to accept it (a refusal that she clearly views in a positive light). You are reading her as saying that exploitation (or, generally deriving our pleasure from the suffering of others) is inevitable in this universe and the only alternative to exploiting other people is suicide, no less.

On second thoughts, if we accept that animals are rational conscious beings, plants have souls and even inanimate objects might have some preferences of their own, I suppose it makes sense to say that we really can’t physically survive without torturing and murdering cabbage and stones, and we might as well stop worrying and learn to love capitalism.

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F. Foundling 02.28.18 at 11:37 pm

OK, on second thoughts again, I should amend the above a bit. It is *not* the case that you explicitly read Le Guin as saying that the existence of (some) abuse and exploitation is inevitable in society – that is not a question that you see her as addressing – you simply read her as saying that the existence of (some) suffering in a physical universe itself is inevitable (which, BTW, wouldn’t be a very useful or valuable message, since empasising the self-evident unattainabilty of perfection is pointless and mostly results in discouraging continuing improvement). However, such a reading requires looking at a rather obvious image of abuse and exploitation and perceiving it as a case of suffering inevitably following from the nature of the physical universe itself. Or, more generally, it requires looking as a rather transparent image of social evil and perceiving it as a case of natural or inevitable evil. (As in: Ah, c’est la vie, guns or no guns, mad people are going to kill people). And a transparent image of social evil it is; a city represents a society, not the universe, the child is quite directly, physically restrained and abused by the citizens of Omelas, and the story is clearly about guilt and responsibility; humans don’t feel that their enjoyment is causing or based on the suffering of other humans somewhere just because both are conditional on the existence of a universe.

On the other hand, I can’t help observing that evopsych literature, Nietzsche and (other) books about serial killers can probably provide some forceful arguments in favour of the notion that deriving one’s enjoyment from the suffering of others is indeed an inevitable consequence of the nature of the universe itself, and that the only alternative to that is suicide.

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bob mcmanus 03.01.18 at 12:01 am

Le Guin was an anthropologist, with strong inclinations toward anarchism and Taoism.

I have always read the story as about human sacrifice under a setup that makes it an actual inescapable human ethical dilemma. “The Ones Who Walked Away From Tenochtitlan .” I presumed the release of the girl would mean the collapse of (this) civilization and the suffering of many people. Yet, it remains a dilemma? If it meant the death of thousands, should we still help the girl escape? Maybe…

Is human sacrifice the basis of civilization? Well, sacrifice, accepting your lot with complaint or resistance, looking away from the losers and casualties, looks pretty strong. Wilfred Owen used the metaphor for the young and innocent sent to Verdun so the rest might be free. Our economic and social systems declares that there must be losers so that there be winners, so that the winners can more enjoy the fruit of the efforts.

We are all Omelans. We read the tragedy and the plea in the morning newspaper, and go shopping. The cost ain’t worth the benefit. Ain’t that bad. Only one child. Let’s not get radical about it.

The only moral thing to do is to walk away, to cast aside all ties to society and become something like a hermit. Human society is that corrupt, that we all are doing the equivalent of torturing a child in our basement. Or looking between our fingers at school shootings.

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John Holbo 03.01.18 at 12:28 am

“Wel, saying that There Is No Alternative to Omelas other than suicide and that Omelas is the best of all possible worlds, does come across as a modest boost of sorts, at least from my perspective.”

Apart from it being totally unacceptable. Yes. Other than that, it’s got it’s good points.

But I want to put some pressure on the ‘modest boost’ bit.

Your points about how the narrator might be unreliable are well taken. We should question the limits of our imagination – even the narrator’s. But, be it noted, the narrator of everything else but the bits about the child is YOU: F. Foundling, designer of Omelas.

“we might as well stop worrying and learn to love capitalism.”

If YOU want to outsource the design of Omelas to The New Republic, circa 1993, that’s your right. But … just watch the video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImPTH8yvUKE

I’m kind of annoyed that they shortened the original track for the video. It’s better on the album version, when the Ving Rhames-sounding guy comes on and says (and I quote)

At first there should be unicorns
The ones with the purple eyes, not the ones with green eyes
Whatever they give them, they shit everywhere
And it would be great if the moon was almost down
Like in a very red/orange state
Let’s leave it like that for at least three hours,
Hovering just above the horizon
And if the police show up,
We will give them so much money that they can retire from their shitty,
Violent jobs and live the greatest life they’ve ever lived
And we will be high and the love generator will be turned up to its maximum
And we’ll get higher, when at last,
The sun comes up in the morning and we will collapse under the weight of the ancient earth
And it will be inside me and it will be inside you
And it will be the end of the world and the beginning of a new love

Now, consider your options. You can wish for a unicorn – one with purple eyes. You can give the cops so much money they give up their violent lives. You can make the moon stay up as long as you like. And the best thing you can think to wish for is, like, Tony Blair’s Third Way? And then you aren’t sure a suffering child isn’t too much to pay for THAT?

C’mon, at least ask for Tony Blair AND A PONY!

(Don’t lay your bum neoliberal trip on me, man!)

In all seriousness: you mention the (surely very significant!) point that Le Guin identifies Odo as one of the ones who walks away from Omelas. That nails down that she is sympathetic to the ones who walk away (if we had any doubts.) But I don’t think this can be taken too literally, sequel-wise. “Day Before” is the prequel to Dispossessed, which is part of the whole Hainish Cycle. I don’t think we are really supposed to suppose that, in the fictional universe of all that, there’s Omelas – that is, some kind of a magic torture child or whatever. In short, it’s weird to write a sequel to a thought experiment that is in a different genre. “Omelas” is a different kind of story than “The Dispossessed”. It’s more of a Metaphysical MacGuffin, in my terms. I think Le Guin does not mean it’s literally the prequel to a prequel to “The Dispossessed”. But I could be wrong!

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John Holbo 03.01.18 at 1:10 am

Oh, sorry. I missed Foundling’s second comment (#88), before I wrote mine. It was in moderation and I missed it. My bad.

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John Holbo 03.01.18 at 1:18 am

My comment (#90) now looks rather ungracious (though witty!) because Foundling backtracked a bit. Right. Moving on.

“and the story is clearly about guilt and responsibility”.

Yes, but no. Is there another place – Neo Omelas, maybe – where there is less guilt and responsibility for suffering? Doubtful. (Here I do grant that the limits of imagination become potentially relevant. I can’t imagine Neo Omelas. But I can’t really imagine Omelas either. So who knows?)

Imagine you are on a Trolley to Omelas. There is one child tied to the tracks. Or you could switch on to the other track. You are fucking sure there are at least five people on the other track. Probably thousands. You can’t imagine there aren’t, life being what it is. But, admittedly, you can’t see them. Do you throw the switch? Is that the noble thing to do? Make the leap of faith.

Those who walk away are like reverse-Abrahams, in Kierkegaard terms. They don’t sacrifice the child, even though it’s unimaginable that this won’t make things worse, even guilt and responsibility-wise, nevermind suffering-wise.

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Collin Street 03.01.18 at 9:16 am

They don’t sacrifice the child, even though it’s unimaginable that this won’t make things worse, even guilt and responsibility-wise, nevermind suffering-wise.

It’s not like not-omelas is even that bad! It’s not stated, which means it doesn’t matter, which means it’s like our world. And that’s, you know, actually OK; the absence of impaired-child-torture-based social-welfare guarantees in the world doesn’t actually make it suck all that much.

[I always read it as the marginal welfare improvements child-suffering generated for everybody else not being worth the cost of the child-suffering; which is to say, “y’know, maybe your life wouldn’t suck all that much if you didn’t [eat meat/pay so little for your clothes that the people who make them cannot but suffer / treat half of humanity as existing for your comfort / whatever]; maybe you could live with not doing some of that shit?”]

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Adam Roberts 03.01.18 at 5:49 pm

I don’t know if you saw this recent “Puzzle for Libertarians” story at Current Affairs (I’m thinking of the first one, the little anti-Le Guin, The-One-Who-Cannot-Walk-Away-From-Omelas short that begins ‘Deep in the forest, thousands of miles from civilization…’). It’s only a paragraph long.

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John Holbo 03.02.18 at 4:40 am

Thanks for that, Adam!

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