When my friend James Stanescu told me about Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” I began reading about the titular utopia of Omelas with excitement for its Marcusean vision. Omelas is a society that does not merely know no war, no poverty, no toil, and no pain, but also no boredom; it is a society of genuine and positive delight and constant play. The buildings are beautiful and exist in harmony with nature; people practice free love and heighten their experiences with a special drug called drooz that opens the doors of perception without making them addicts. Their lives are so tranquil that this drug does not function as escapist tranquilization:

What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer; this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life. I really don’t think many of them need to take drooz.

As Le Guin notes, we so cynically deride utopias as insipid because we think happiness is uninteresting and dumb—we say that suffering builds character as a cheap way of coming to terms with a world of unnecessary suffering. We are so inured to pain and evil that even the most imaginative among us struggle to conceive of a truly happy society, though Le Guin does an admirable job of trying. The story’s powerful description of beauty, peace, and love as what makes life interesting and an end in itself compelled me to smile. And then I read onward.

It turns out that what makes the joy of Omelas possible is the secret imprisonment and neglect of one child in squalor and solitary confinement, which all the Omelans are shown in their adolescence and eventually come to accept. It is never clearly stated why, but to release or care for the child would render Omelas impossible—and the child itself, permanently traumatized by neglect, would never be able to feel joy outside the prison anyway. No one would become happier by freeing the child. And yet:

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. The 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.

Anyone familiar with Kant can readily see the affinity between this sobering story and his austere moral system. While teaching my students Kant this past spring, I asked them whether they would walk away from Omelas, and why. After some initial answers that the Omelans can’t really be happy—which misses the masterful way Le Guin has set up the provocation of her story—they came to the Kantian insight that the happiness of many or even all members of society cannot be predicated upon violating the dignity of even one person. As Kant writes in his Groundwork, “What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.”[1] Beyond the usual observation that each person is of priceless value simply by virtue of being a person, that each person has infinite worth, we need to notice that Kant is saying that each person is irreplaceable, admitting of no equivalent or substitute.

So the immorality of mistreating the child is not merely that this child is cut off from any possibility of a happy future, although this is certainly wrong; it is that the child has been nothing but a means for society’s happiness, and it does not matter if this happiness is infinite either extensively (by being shared among all people) or intensively (by being of the highest caliber and quality). Even if the child itself were made happy by this mistreatment, it would in and of itself be wrong. Heeding the dignity of each free being as free—that is, the actions of care and respect that constitute virtue—is not only an infinitely worthy project, but the immeasurable measure by which the worth of any project is clarified, even so desirable a project as universal happiness.

Kant actually wants a world like Omelas, but on the sole condition that the child is included as a legitimate and self-determining member within its circle of play. Such a world is what he calls the highest derived good, or usually just the highest good. The highest good is maximal happiness in proportion to maximal virtue, and not vice-versa (a virtue made to fit the condition of universal happiness). As Le Guin’s story exemplifies, the highest good is not “happiness + virtue” but “virtue + happiness.” For Kant virtue and happiness are not identical but compatible, and it must be virtue that sets the parameters for that compatibility.

It comforts us to treat virtue and happiness as roughly interchangeable terms, both because it implies that the existing order of things is just (since only the bad are unhappy), and also because it implies that justice will exist by ordering our lives according to happiness (since only the good feel happy). If virtue and happiness are the same, then we never have to choose between the two.

Such is the appeal of the “Epicurean” way of thinking, as Kant has it. I say “Epicurean” because whether his picture accurately captures what the Epicureans thought is besides the point; for Kant it operates as a term for a kind of hedonism, which he does the service of seeing as refined and virtuous hedonism. In other words, the Epicurean thinks that by pursuing what makes us actually happy in the long term, we will be virtuous. The obverse of this equivocation of virtue and happiness is represented by the “Stoic,” who thinks that whoever attains the steely resolve needed for noble integrity will ipso facto be happy.[2] The self-awareness of his own moral fiber is what gives the Stoic happiness, such that the Stoic sage won’t succumb to any temptation, for he is happy even while being tortured. According to Susan Neiman, “In a word, both seek to deny that duty is hard.”[3]

The Omelans appear to Epicureans, for they want their virtue to be easy. Does that make the ones who walk away Stoics? Not so, according to Kant, because no person really can be the way the Stoics say. The Stoic view trades on a profound and morally hazardous misunderstanding of human nature. The Stoic sage is essentially a god, having superhuman impassability and detachment from the attraction of pleasure and pain, and therefore imperviousness to perversity. The Stoic sage is no longer a moral agent in any recognizable sense because they are beyond all temptation, and therefore deign to follow the moral law, as though duty is merely a kind of capricious pastime and not a necessary struggle, lagniappe and not la lucha continua.[4] Kant is frequently suspicious of such flattering self-assessment, which lacks the humility that comes with the genuine self-knowledge made possible by comparing oneself with the moral law’s sublimity and not merely our mores of lawless self-satisfaction. If the Epicurean thinks virtue is easy, the Stoic thinks virtue is hard for others but easy for himself. Yet as Le Guin’s story quite nicely illustrates, walking away from Omelas would be extraordinarily hard.

If that sounds wrong—after all, we all like to think we would be ones who would walk away from Omelas—then think about the extent to which our civilization is predicated on the exploitation of not just one individual like in Omelas, but billions. Think about how many of the goods of advanced industrial society are assembled in sweatshops, how much unnecessary animal suffering goes into putting steak on your plate, how much environmental degradation goes into keeping our cars on the road. You can become a vegetarian or make your own clothes or ride a bicycle—lifestyles easier to afford in plenteous cities with the right infrastructure—but that only scratches the surface of the vice upon which we predicate our way of life. As Adorno said, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”[5]

But so too, anybody with even a little self-knowledge should recognize themselves in Augustine’s statement, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”[6] We stay in Omelas every day—and for what? For drooz, for peace, for great rapture and beauty? We stay for happiness that is nothing even close to the happiness of Omelas. Those who stay in Omelas also sell their souls, but they do not sell them on the cheap. With that in mind, we can appreciate how hard it would be to leave Omelas, how hard it is to make sacrifices for virtue.

This leads to the question of why anyone—which is not to say everyone—would forsake total happiness in order to do something virtuous. When I asked my students what they would get out of walking away from Omelas, they all said nothing. And where are the ones who walk away from Omelas walking away to? The story doesn’t say, and it says it can’t say: “The 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.” From a Kantian perspective, it is no place empirical, and therefore beyond concrete description: it is the kingdom of ends, the idea of an ideal world.

But Le Guin goes further: “It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” Why should an idea of something that might not exist—specifically, an ideal—matter so much to us that we would ever risk anything (and sometimes everything) to instantiate it? The idea of the kingdom of ends compels us just by being the idea that it is, without having to already exist in fact, although the possibility is open that it does—what matters is that one can act as if it is real. It has an eminence that goes beyond evidence—that is, evidence in the sense of empirical facts, the kind necessary for knowledge but not necessary for responsible action. It is possible that the kingdom of ends does not exist, and that all one’s attempts to live up to the lofty standards of that kingdom’s moral law are actually futile, and virtue’s quixotic failure is the punch line to a cosmic joke that is the way of the world.

Perhaps because of his fussy and baroque authorial style, it is not adequately appreciated just how existential Kant is. Kant stares the possibility of an immutably amoral universe in the face, and makes a deliberate choice to say no to that possibility, not on the grounds of a logical refutation—because (unlike Leibniz) Kant thinks no proof of the world’s amenability to virtue can be given—but instead on the grounds that even just one person deserves ongoing benevolence and respect, and thus we must persevere in upholding the moral law to safeguard and respect the pricelessness of all persons.

What makes morality worth the adversity? Nothing tangible, nothing conditional. It is the conviction that any person, no matter who they are, or how inconvenient they are—or even how evil they are[7]—must have their freedom respected and fostered that drives the self-consistent moral agent onward through hardship. Yet the content of this idea, as infinite as it is, does not explain why its infinity should matter to us. Along with the Epicureans, it is easy to see why it matters to us if a difficult sacrifice promises us superior happiness later on down the road. And with the Stoics, we need only a little more imagination to understand why sacrifices are appealing when they allow you to rejoice in your strength of will, in your ability to make tough choices, self-affirmation through self-denial. Yet the ease through which we can understand these motivations comes at the cost of the possibility of genuine altruism.

For the Epicurean, sacrificing for others brings about a world where there this care is reciprocated. For the Stoic, sacrificing for others is a pretext for self-righteousness, a chance to bask in your own abstemious glory. If the Epicureans are right, self-interest would keep us from ever leaving Omelas. If the Stoics are right, even leaving Omelas would be self-interested. Yet the moral law has authority for us through neither—in fact through any—kind of self-interest. Through what, then? How is that moral agency can be disinterested without being uninterested?


[1] Immanuel Kant 4:434; Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals 84. In Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1996.

[2] Kant, 5:111; Critique of Practical Reason 229 in Practical Philosophy, op. cit.

[3] Susan Neiman, The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. P. 172

[4] Kant, 5:126-127; Critique of Practical Reason 242

[5] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia §18

[6] Augustine, Confessions VIII.vii

[7] It is important to remember that Kant distinguishes moral standing (the degree to which one is virtuous) from moral worth (the fact that one has dignity, inalienable rights).