“There's a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
In “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Thank you, Ursula k. Le Guin, for encouraging me to celebrate my peculiarities. The short story about 'Omelas' is as insightful a demolition of utilitarianism I've ever read. Well, I didn't mean refutation, I meant demolish the underlying rationale. If we're all OK with someone perfectly innocent being lumped with all misery so we can be happy, then it's for the greater good, no? If we're not happy with that trade, and I doubt any society that isn't made of psychos would be, then for the utilitarianism is obviously undesirable as second order moral justification.
Utilitarianism is supposed to be a way to be good, by maximizing happiness. But if maximizing happiness above all else leads to evil, then it's a bit of a non-starter. If you bring in rules and regulations to stop leading to an Omelas type scenario, then these are meta rules that aren't justified by utilitarianism, and so you're leaning on something else, or shorter, you've stopped justifying your acts by utilitarianism and at best it's become are process within the framework. In real life, we can't know what maximizes happiness, and so it's all a bit philosopher’s armchair. The story cuts through that, and lets us know what it might mean to maximize happiness and what it might cost. I see a pretty obvious answer if you value treating people fairly, and that's eschewing maximizing happiness.
Anyway, enough of my half-remembered ideas on philosophy...
The Kantian will say it is never acceptable to treat anyone merely as a means to the ends of others -- which the society of Omelas does. But consider: Save for one wretched child, Omelas is the absolute best society one could imagine. (If you don't like my sketch of this utopia, says Le Guin in the story, tweak it to match your ideal of perfection.) In practice, every society has many individuals living wretched lives. Omelas has more real happiness and less misery than we will ever achieve this side of paradise. To free the child or to walk away would accomplish what -- give one a feeling of personal virtue perhaps, but at what cost to others?
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. They place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
Bottom-line: I think the last paragraph of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" one of the most perfectly judged, achingly evocative things ever. It speaks to so many of us.