Again, Ursula Le Guin strikes directly to the core, in just several pages. I get a reference to this short story after reading utilitarianism section in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. It is one of the harshest critics against utilitarianism. It really shows the power of literature in the world of ideas. Le Guin manages to do more than many other philosophers.
Reading this short story really makes me uneasy. I myself am a proponent of utilitarianism (the Mill variant, not the Bentham). Even though this story is not enough to make me to ditch Mill, it really makes me think about the limit of utilitarianism. We know that there is usually a price that we must pay for the cost of progress. It might be easy if we are not the ones who are paying the price. But what if we are?
But the core of this story I think is ignorance. Many of us, who are living a better life (we still have access to computer and have Goodreads account!), simply do not realized the cost of this good life. In economics, it is summarized using an unemotional word: externalities. It is simply the cost that some others have to bear, even without their consent. Are we paying a just price for our cup of coffee? Or we actually keep the coffee farmer in a closet just like the child is this short story. It is also possible that the one who are paying the price is not a human being after all, it can be the animals, the plants, the Earth! Of all the pollution the we make to keep our convenient living! But again, just like teens in Omelas, what do we do after we find out about the true cost of our privilege? Do we leave, do we stay, or do we rebel?
The story also rings the same bell as the Faustian bargain, in Faust. What are we willing to give up for prosperity, for welfare. Or shouldn’t we? Because no matter what is the price, the price is probably too dear to bear.
If you like this topics, you would probably the following books, which I read simultaneously right now:
1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
2. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
3. How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life