A moral illusion. Recently I’ve been thinking about how undeservedly lucky I am and feeling a sense of guilt that accompanies that thought. However, after talking with a few people about it, I understood that for most, this is not a common feeling. I must ask why. With the hope of giving you some context let me tell you the story of Omelas.
Omelas is a utopian city where the people lead lives that are happy, in the best sense of the word.
Its habitants are complex human beings, they understand the struggle, the joy of creativity, human cooperation, and community.
However there’s a catch, the city has a guarantee of happiness; it has struck a dark bargain. In a room under the city is a frightened, half-starved child, and everyone over adolescence in Omelas knows that the child is there. The child is locked in a closet and shown off to those who wish to see it. It is fed half a bowl of cornmeal mush a day and is left to sit, naked, in dirt and its own excrement.
If the child were rescued from its cell-like closet, the whole of the city of Omelas would falter. The people know that if the child were released, then the possible happiness of the degraded child would be set against the sure failure of the happiness of the many. Thus, the people have been taught compassion and the terrible reality of justice, and on this they base their lives. They feel extremely lucky not to be that child and live their lives compassionately according to it.
Inexplicably, there are some young people, and sometimes even an adult, who, shortly after viewing the child, leave Omelas through its gates and head into the mountains. They do not return.
Now after reading this story you may feel repulsed by its horrible sense of morality, the happiness of the many by the suffering of this one child that only knows abandonment and pain.
But then I invite you to think about our world, aren’t we worst than the people of Omelas? Not only is our world filled with the suffering of millions on a daily basis but the worst thing is that we don't even recognize nor feel it as our responsibility.
For most of us, there’s no effort required to completely ignore it, we just do because we don't see it, we don't feel empathetical about it. Moral action guided by empathy is tricky for this reason, as we have more empathy for our pets than the dying children in Africa or Yemen’s civil war. Reason is a much better guide to doing good in the world, as it enables us to identify the most important sources of suffering and direct our attention and actions towards them.
Thus this imposes an important question upon us, do we want to do real good in the world or feel like we are doing good with what we see?. Are we willing to visit the child in the hidden room and face the consequences? Perhaps it's easier to live knowing about his existence but not feeling empathetical about it, after all, we cant feel for what we don't see.