A Literary Analysis of Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill and the One’s who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin

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Through the course of this paper the author will try to demonstrate, depicting both sides of the argument, the reasons in which a follower of John Stuart Mill's "Utilitarianism" would disagree with the events taking place in Ursula Le Guin's "The One's Who Walk Away from Omelas."

"The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (Mill 55). This is how Mill first presents the idea of Utilitarianism. If it promotes happiness it is right, if it promotes the reverse of happiness, then it is wrong. If one were to simply take this statement, without further reading, and then study Le Guin's "The One's Who Walk Away from Omelas", one would no doubt conclude that a follower of Mill would agree with the choice made by the people of Omelas. They chose to promote happiness for many, rather than choose happiness for one. This seems to be acceptable at first glance, but a further examination will show that this simply is not true.

It would be quite easy for one to read Mill's "Utilitarianism" and decide that Mill would agree with the people of Omelas' decision. For instance, Mill states on page 59 that "the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation." Mill is saying here that Utility means to try and give happiness to all people, as many as possible, around the world. He states that the ultimate end would be "an existence exempt as far as possible from pain" (59). It would be simple to assume that Mill would believe the people of Omelas' decision to be perfectly moral. For Mill says that morals are grounded in the fact that pleasure and freedom from pain "are the only things desirable as ends" (Mill 55). The only thing people should strive for is happiness and pleasure; which is all the people of Omelas were doing. Unfortunately, when a deeper analysis is taken of Mill's "Utilitarianism", one may discover many statements contradictory to this belief.

Every one who has this moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable; and unless such a person, through bad laws, or subjection to the will of others, is denied the liberty to use the sources of happiness within his reach, he will not fail to find this enviable existence (Mill 62).

This appears to describe the position that the young child who must suffer is in. The child is being subjected to the will of all others and therefore is being denied his/her own liberty to use the sources of happiness within his/her reach.

Mill now goes on to proclaim that "it is universally considered just that each person should obtain that (whether good or evil) which he deserves; and unjust that he should obtain a good, or be made to undergo an evil, which he does not deserve" (89). The child surely did nothing to deserve the torture that he/she is being put through. Consequently, it is unjust that the child should be made to "undergo an evil" which he/she did nothing to deserve. Emphasizing the above statement is the universal admission that it is "inconsistent with justice to be partial; to show favour or preference to one person over another" (Mill 90). This is once again affirming that no person can favor the rest of the population in Omelas over the young child merely because there are more people in the population than just one child.

Mill next makes the point, in relevance to the situation in Omelas, "do as one would be done by, and love one's neighbour as oneself" (64). Mill says that this alone constitutes the "ideal perfection of utilitarian morality" (64). If the people were doing to the child what they would want being done to themselves, then they would most definitely not be allowing the child to be tortured.

These past two points, however apparently sound, must be, in the end, negated. The basis for both the Golden Rule, and the "betraying a friend" points, is Utility. Both must be decided upon the greater good. While it would not be doing to the child as the people of Omelas would have done to themselves, it is doing for the people what the child would want to have done to himself.

The teachings of Mill on page 57 state that a highly endowed being would always find that any happiness he searched for would inevitably be imperfect. Yet this being has the ability to learn to bear its imperfections. If this were true, the people of Omelas would be able to bear the imperfections of the "normal" world they once lived in and, therefore, have no need to pursue the "perfect" happiness and pleasures. This thought is also backed by Mills statement that "the evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits" (62). If this is the case, then there would be no reason, apart from laziness, to make this child suffer in order to reach almost the same end as may be acquired through time and determination. They would simply be taking the "easy road" to the final situation. Also, the statement made above that Utility "is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain" (59) would not hold true what the people of Omelas are doing. They believe that they are living in an existence free from pain, yet a child suffers a horrible fate full of mental and physical torture.

The most prominent and defining statement Mill makes in regards to Omelas is that "Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character" (59, bold and italicization added). This shows that the only way Utilitarianism could be complete would be if the people's character were of a noble type. In the dictionary the word "noble" is defined as "Having or showing qualities of high moral character, such as courage, generosity, or honor." The people of Omelas do not seem to be of noble character according to this traditional definition. They are, on the other hand, being cruel to the child and not having any courage to step up and free this child, having the courage to face the pains and sufferings of the "normal" life. Accordingly, if being noble is the only true way of obtaining Utilitarianism, then the people of Omelas can not be considered to be living in a Utilitarian society.

Finally, due to the constant viewing and mass acceptance of the violence and torture being inflicted on the child, it is very plausible that the citizens of Omelas would eventually become so tolerant of violence that their version of the perfect world would allow violence, which would seemingly render the "perfect" city of Omelas in a flawed state.

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A Literary Analysis of Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill and The One's Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin. (2022, Dec 09). Retrieved July 15, 2024 , from

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