By David Augustiniak
This article was originally published on Mr. Augustiniak’s blog, The Informed Optimist.
How much responsibility, if any, do those in first world nations have to people in need around the world?
A Parable for the Ages
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a compelling parable (at 29 pages in length) that illustrates what life is like in a fictional, utopian town. In the town of Omelas, Le Guin explains how each citizen is joyous — but not in the naive way that you may imagine as part of a utopian story. On the contrary, these citizens are educated and live without war or disagreement. Le Guin writes, “As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland Utopians.”
In Omelas, the children are happy, the old people wise, and the mountain backdrop hangs perfectly in the distance. Le Guin goes on to explain that if the utopian town could be made better by additional relevancies — say, drugs that are non-habit forming — those too could be added. In fact, she notes, whatever makes this city more perfect in your mind could be added.
But Le Guin’s utopia of Omelas comes with one simple condition. In the dank cellar of one of the buildings within the city there is a broom closet. It has a small window that has been cobwebbed over and a moist dirt floor. In the corner of this closet is a child, covered in his own excrement, who is forced to suffer for all of his days locked in the cellar. Not a single kind word can be spoken to the child, and any additional nourishment given to the child outside of his scheduled cornmeal would void the utopian society. Should this single condition — one suffering child — be tampered with, all of the citizens of Omelas would then be made to suffer as well, as guilt will have penetrated its walls.
Would you remain in the city of Omelas, or choose to walk away?
Are We Already in Omelas?
When presenting this thought experiment to acquaintances, almost everyone responded the same:
I would not live in the city.
This frequent response seems odd, though, given our reality. We do not live in a utopian society, and millions of people are suffering. In The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the requirement is for one single person to suffer in exchange for the rest of humanity living in bliss. It seems impossible to say, but wouldn’t reducing the suffering of millions to the suffering of just one child be enough moral justification to stay in the city? When contrasted with our present reality, the tradeoff seems fair — so, why is it so hard to stay?
Le Guin’s parable of Omelas seems designed to reveal a moral blindspot in the way people of first world nations think about suffering. Most people profess the highest moral standards in the abstract (ex. “I would not live in Omelas in order to prevent the suffering of one child”), but many also do little to research or relieve real suffering in our world. The truth is that, relatively speaking, we do live in a present-day utopia compared to our ancestors. Moreover, we have the means to relieve the suffering of not just one person but millions.
Le Guin’s parable recalls another famous thought experiment that centers on just one child, Peter Singer’s The Drowning Child:
Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes – in fact, most people think that would be monstrous. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!
Here, we see Singer argue that well-off people have a moral duty to relinquish wealth to save the lives of the world’s poorest. Furthermore, Singer argues that something as simple as physical proximity should not be the deciding factor. If we would easily sacrifice our possessions to save a drowning girl in front of us, then shouldn’t we be just as willing to sacrifice our comforts to save others around the world?
What the Omelas parable and Singer’s thought experiment have in common is that they shed light on our moral blindspots. It is increasingly possible to help relieve suffering around the globe (or locally), yet we choose not to — and, all the while, we express our moral virtues to everyone around us through social media. For example, malaria kills roughly 400,000 people each year and infects over 200 million. It is the number one killer of pregnant women, and it is entirely preventable. To prevent these deaths, organizations rely on donations to provide insecticide-treated bed nets to at-risk locations. This is but one example of a concerted, smart donation being able to relieve suffering.
My point is this: If you knew you had the ability to save real lives, would you do it? Because in the 21st century, that is our reality.
Distance, Responsibility, and Psychic Numbing
“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” – Mother Teresa
So why are these thought experiments that feature just one person somehow more compelling than statistics about millions of people? The psychological phenomenon known as psychic numbing posits that, as the number of people impacted by any given event goes up, altruism diminishes. A modern example is the death toll from COVID-19. At present, over 4 million people have lost their lives to the disease. On an individual level, each one of these is a tragedy. But, as the number of deaths increase, individuals are seen more and more as just another statistic. Humans do not handle numbers in magnitude very well.
This phenomenon negatively impacts our response to large-scale problems (think: genocide, natural disasters, passing legislation on global warming) by disincentivizing the kind of action needed to combat them. Our decrease in emotional attachment ultimately leads to increased suffering.
As with so many things, it’s clear that individuals can make a difference. Our stresses in first world nations pale in comparison to the developing world. As we continue to progress, we will need to shatter the illusion that something as superficial as geographical distance relinquishes us of moral responsibility and begin to help more. There is a new concept known as effective altruism which is the act of spending resources in a concerted, effective (through analysis and evidence based research) manner to bring about real change.
To learn more, check out:
It may just be our best strategy to reduce the moral blindspot of the first world and provide targeted, meaningful change to those who need it most.
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