They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.
This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.
The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.
Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. 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 real 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. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.--Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
The narrator of this "fable" -- Le Guin hesitates calling it that -- at times situates her (his?) own description in the history of utopian thought: she contrasts the citizens of Omelas with the "bland utopians" (of More). Le Guin, who takes categorization of her fiction rather seriously (in the playful way in which the serious is properly addressed) may be right to insist it is not a utopia because the narrator also admits not knowing "the rules and laws of their society." But it is possible that we learn more than the narrator realizes (as is often the case in the best utopian writings). Rules and laws are intrinsic to utopian reflection, when considered as a species of (what I call) Socratic political theory [recall here and here]. One might easily be confused about this point because the narrator describes Omelas as "happy" (without being "stupid" or "naive and happy children") in a way that is often associated with utopian thought.
In order to show that they are genuinely happy, the narrator claims that the Omelasians (the Omelians?) are (i) capable of distinguishing and discriminating among "what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive." And (ii) they have chosen to live beyond necessity and allow technology that is "neither necessary nor destructive," but simultaneously to reject the (potentially) destructive kind. That is to say, Omelas is a society with metaphysics (or philosophy) and capable of taking, what we would call, inductive risk seriously. (In some respects -- especially the fact that there is a religion without priests -- it is like the true city of Plato's Republic.) Some other time I hope to reflect a bit more carefully on the logic of modality in which necessity and destructiveness are contraries.* (One would also like to know more about how they apply their knowledge.)
Above, I have quoted the central element of the story, or a necessary ingredient, that is supposed to make the 'joy' and the 'city' believable.** This reveals that a criterion for a happy city is some trade-off or some discordant element. This element is a sacrifice.+ The happiness of the city is founded in a contract (James calls it a "bargain") which has three clear terms: (a) a miserable child; (b) no talking to the child; (c) "the happiness" of the citizens of Omelas. Before one complains that this contract is obviously invalid say on the Hobbesian ground that the child is thrown back into the state of nature (really worse--she is deprived her use of reason), it is worth noting that from the perspective of the contracting parties the child is a mere externality. This is true of all contracts in which beyond the contracting parties and the arbiter/sovereign who enforces it, there are always parties who are effected by the contract, but not included (as contracting parties or in its language). The contract would be invalid if the sacrificed child were itself one of the contracting parties. But as Hobbes reminds us (recall), in the state of nature mothers have supreme dominion over their children and can dispose them at will (on my interpretation this justifies right to abortion in his view). This right need not be given up in the bargain. So this is a legitimate contract.
It is tempting to discuss here the question if it is a moral contract. If the child were spoken to -- and so readmitted to community, and so made part of the contract -- its objections and pleas would have to be taken into account. But today I am going to resist the casuistry (although I am quietly relying on your eagerness to do it yourself), and the familiar debates between consequentialists and deontological perspectives, we would have to enter into. For prior to the question of morality, there are two, all too easily ignored, issues that are explicitly raised in the fable. One is a question (with a nod to Hannah Arendt [recall my valedictorian pieces at NewAPPS, here and here]) connected to politics of aesthetics: "the treason of artists," which is a "refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain." One of the narrator's points on this issue is that modern artists self-limit in such a a way such that a skill has been lost (or at least 'almost lost')++ that is, the skill to represent joy and happiness without, simultaneously, thereby turning it in a moral tale or a political message. As such artists are incapable of conveying the full richness of human life. (This is something Coetzee also worries about.) The narrative situation of the fable is made complex because our narrator ends up performing what she decries. Part of the issue then is to what degree there is space for non-acceptable and non-believable art. That is to say, by bringing in the question of acceptance and belief, the narrator obliquely reminds us that her art is not isolated, but itself part of a larger political community; our expectations and standards are implicated in her representation.
I emphasize the obliqueness of this issue because, second, the representation of Omelas shows how an ideology that is grounded in the truth, in a society in which philosophy and knowledge exist, is possible. For, everybody in Omelas (above a certain age) knows of the child sacrifice performed there. (Perhaps, this is even a fourth publicity requirement in the contract!) There is no noble lie here. And it is this knowledge that grounds a lot of the best features of the activities that bring (let's stipulate) true glory to Omelas ("nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.") That is, this is a society in which its best activities do not require -- something familiar to us -- the effacement of the ugly foundations of flourishing. This is, indeed, a "responsible happiness." (How this connects to "barbarism" -- the narrator introduces the contrast -- is actually a tricky matter, but we can't do everything at once.)
Even so, I insist that their self-understanding is a form of ideology. By 'ideology' I mean (without pretending to have offered an analysis or to be at all precise) a discourse that (i) justifies a status quo -- in which some are subjugated (made miserable, exploited, etc.) -- and (ii) which prevents from conceiving alternatives to the status quo. Only (i) is necessary for something to be an ideology, but (ii) is an important function. This (i-ii) is precisely what happens when the children begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom." What they say is (let's stipulate) all true, but it ends up justifying continued misery for the child.
Now, the story shows that two alternatives in play are (i) continue to agree to terms of the social contract, or (ii) quietly leave town (that's the closing "incredible" paragraph of the story) and end one's complicity with known misery from which one benefits. One may grant that releasing a child after such degradation may cause as much wretchedness as staying in confinement because she would be released into a collapsing society. But it is notable that they do not seriously contemplate ending the practice when this child dies. That is, in virtue of accurately describing the world they inhabit, they do not prepare for an alternative, communal future path, beyond Omelas.***
*Yes, in such a logic there would be, perhaps, an equivocation between necessity as 'the thing needed for bare survival' and necessity as 'the thing that is always the case' (or law-governed, etc.)
**There is an interesting switching back and forth between believing and accepting something.
+I have seen the child described as a scapegoat, but that strikes me as a mistake (as I suggest in the post).
++This suggests there may be some rare artists left capable of conveying the fullness of life.
***Omelas is explicitly not on an isolated island.
 It is notable that William James (who uses 'casuistry' in slightly different way than I do here) thinks the matter is simple: "Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?" In James's scenario the sacrifice is out of sight, and so presumably out of mind most of the time. In such a case, it would be easier to develop an ideology that justifies continuation of the status quo. James has a strange faith in the un-corruptibility of human feeling when offered a bargain in which others are sacrificed for one's own gain. Le Guin strikes me as the better psychologist on this point. [James's own purposes for this scenario in "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" are also interesting, but that's for another day.]