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The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Le Guin’s reference at the outset of her story to “a theme by William James” sends the reader to find the allusion. In his essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” James argues that some of his fellow philosophers have tried to show how so many human ideals have “arisen from the association with acts of simple bodily pleasures and relief from pain.” Yet he finds society cannot be content with such mere “association or utility.” He notes among some individuals a persistent “sense of abstract justice…. Purely inward forces are certainly at work here. All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary.”The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Omelas at first seems to be a place indulgent in bodily pleasure and relieved of pain, a city of “boundless and generous contentment.” The narrator evokes it in sensual prose, “the city, the festival, the joy.” Omelas apparently has little law or regulation, no judicial apparatus, no instruments of coercion, no soldiers charged to kill, no clergy to induce guilt.

The narrator would like us to believe that the people of Omelas are like us, even if peering into this mirror does not especially flatter us. At the same time, she seems to expect our incredulity (“Do you believe?” “Now do you believe?”) and must overcome our skepticism about whether Omelas is “like a city in a fairy tale.” Eliciting our confidence, she invites us to co-invent Omelas with her. “If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate,” since there is no guilt in Omelas.

Still laboring to win our confidence, at the point of her most glorified description of Omelas—the trumpet that announces the beginning of the Festival of Summer—the narrator gives us one final, horrid reason to accept the existence of this city of joy.

The theme of sacrifice. The child is imprisoned in the basement of a public building or a cellar of a spacious private home. The locale is deliberately vague as to who visits the child’s torture chamber (“a person or several people,” but most being young). The narrator seems to know a good deal about the child (and yet not its gender), but other than a graphic description of its torment she tells us little, except that the child had once known “sunshine and its mother’s voice.”

Nor does the teller of the tale make clear who is immediately responsible for the horrible conditions under which the child struggles to live. The child’s imprisonment seems to have been dictated, although we do not learn who instituted such a cruelty or why. This narrative strategy, offering a partially veiled view of Omelas, runs throughout the story. Of some matters the narrator knows much; of others, she is ignorant.

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