by Brian Tomasik
First written: 26 June 2013; last update: 16 Mar. 2016

Summary

Those who feel that Ursula K. Le Guin's city of Omelas should not exist ought also to reconsider their support of post-human space colonization. Omelas is actually a much better scenario than almost any actual outcome we can expect to see, so even those who welcome Omelas should exercise caution regarding what kinds of futures they're working to bring about.

Introduction

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973), is a classic philosophical parable in defense of egalitarian intuitions. It features a paradise full of happiness, love, knowledge, art, beauty, and community, sustained on the condition that a single child must suffer alone, locked up in a dark room.

From the text:

[The child] is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. [...] 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.

Interpretations

Many readers find this arrangement abhorrent upon first hearing about it. Upon reflection, they may decide that the state of affairs isn't as bad as it seems, because caring excessively about the suffering child is scope insensitive with respect to all the joy that's experienced elsewhere in the city. This was my own reaction upon reading the story in 2006.

Those who do maintain that the Omelas scenario is wrong may feel that way on egalitarian grounds: It's not fair for one child to suffer for the rest, but it would be fair if everyone had to suffer a little bit for his or her own greater joy.

A final interpretation is to take a negative-utilitarian stance, that no amount of paradise can outweigh someone's abject misery, although Toby Ord correctly points out that it's unwise to muddle negative-utilitarian intuitions with others like egalitarianism. I personally lean toward negative utilitarianism without regarding egalitarianism as important.

Space colonization

Regardless of why someone may find Omelas repugnant, if she does, then this has important implications for her stance toward space colonization. The dream of many in the movement to reduce extinction risk is to fill humanity's future light cone with a post-human paradise. As Nick Bostrom puts it in Letter from Utopia:

We love life here every instant. Every second is so good that it would blow our minds had their amperage not been previously increased. My contemporaries and I bear witness, and we request your aid. Please, help us come into existence! Please, join us! Whether this tremendous possibility becomes reality depends on your actions. If your empathy can perceive at least the outlines of the vision I am describing, then your ingenuity will find a way to make it real.

The harsh truth of the matter is that space colonization entails risk. More computational power implies more ability to generate astronomical amounts of suffering. While we should endeavor to reduce the risk of suffering-filled futures, we can never lower the probability of dystopic outcomes far enough. It's more likely that space colonization will increase expected suffering than decrease it.

In this way, space colonization is a type of Omelas, and efforts to ensure humanity's advance into the cosmos are efforts to secure Omelas's future. Indeed, this comparison is too charitable for space colonization, because in practice, the expected ratio of suffering to happiness in the post-human future is far higher than what is depicted in Le Guin's short story. There's a nontrivial chance that a colonization future will contain more suffering than happiness.

In other words, even Omelas supporters should at least have doubts about the quality of the future they aim to bring about. Omelas opponents, if they're currently working to secure humanity's expansion, may wish to reconsider.

One might object that in the colonization case, the suffering that we anticipate is probabilistic. It's theoretically possible that a post-human civilization could eliminate all suffering in its reach. If we fail to do so, that would be an accident. This is true, but remember that the citizens of Omelas don't wish for the child to suffer either; like probabilities of massive suffering that won't go away, they merely are unable to avoid the child's misery if they want to bring about paradise.

Suffering is not nullified by utopia

The instances of extreme suffering in the world are so numerous that they sometimes blur together in a blob of abstraction. It can help to pick out a single instance of cruelty to avoid mind-numbing statistics, even though we should realize that the situation of our world is far worse than the suffering of a single individual.

Take this one: Turkish girl, 16, buried alive 'for talking to boys'.

Turkish police have recovered the body of a 16-year-old girl they say was buried alive by relatives in an honour killing carried out as punishment for talking to boys.

The girl, who has been identified only by the initials MM, was found in a sitting position with her hands tied, in a two-metre hole dug under a chicken pen outside her home in Kahta, in the south-eastern province of Adiyaman. [...]

Media reports said the father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter - one of nine children - had male friends. The grandfather is said to have beaten her for having relations with the opposite sex.

A postmortem examination revealed large amounts of soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that she had been alive and conscious while being buried.

Imagine yourself as this girl, trying to claw your way out from the dirt. As you breathe, dirt fills your nose and mouth. You cough and choke. It becomes hard to get enough air. You claw more, but the dirt is too much to budge. Another deep breath; it's not enough. After some time, you feel the sting of carbon dioxide in your blood. Your heart races, and your mind screams. You try to breathe once more. Choke, cough. The sting of carbon dioxide is like a knife throughout your body. It cuts stronger, stronger; it seems it can't get any worse, yet it does. And ... the remainder is too painful to imagine.

This experience is unremittingly awful; it is not compensated by other person-moments enjoying themselves (see Appendix).

You might say, Okay, but how does this relate to space colonization? Colonizers are not burying people alive. No, but by astronomically expanding the number of conscious minds in the future, colonizers are opening the doors for enormous numbers of more beings to have experiences at least this awful (and possibly far worse). The risk of an ugly post-human future is nontrivial, and even in many humane future scenarios, it's not unreasonable to expect astronomically more live burials and the equivalent than we have on Earth today. If you would not cause severe suffering to someone to bring new happy people into existence, why would you set the stage for natural and social forces to do that on your behalf?

Wild-animal suffering

Christopher Belshaw argues that it's bad for wild animals that they exist, because pleasure can't outweigh pain across different moments of an animal's life. Assuming that most animals lack the psychological unity of identity that persons have, Belshaw argues that an animal suffering at one time constitutes a different organism-moment from an animal suffering at another time, and the pleasure of one can't justify the suffering of another.

I disagree with many of Belshaw's premises, and his views on the mental abilities of animals are at least not obviously correct. But I agree with the particular sentiment expressed in the following quote:

No amount of present or future pleasure can justify the inflicting, or permitting, of future pain.

Very many animals have pain, and in not inconsiderable amounts, ahead. They will suffer from disease, or predation, or they’ll be caught in traps, or killed, but less than outright, on roads, or age will make them less able to look after, feed, house themselves. And no one else, neither us nor other animals, will help. [...] it would be better for them were they not to exist. Best is if they never come into existence. Second best is if they die painless deaths, not as soon as possible, but before they next suffer pain.

Process theodicy

Process theology envisions a finitely powerful God who tries to push the future in better directions but doesn't have complete control of the universe. In some sense, humanity is this kind of God with respect to the far future.

Based on the evil in the current world, it seems that the God of process theology does not walk away from Omelas but believes that the good things in life experienced by some justify the evil experienced by others:

The evolution of the universe as a whole, and of life on this planet, is due to the continual divine impetus to maximize harmony and intensity in each present occasion, at the same time creating new possibilities for yet greater harmony and intensity in the future; and this divine impetus is justified on the ground that the good that has been produced, and is yet to be produced, outweighs and renders worthwhile the evil that has been produced and that will yet be produced. For God could have left the primal chaos undisturbed instead of forming it into an ordered universe evolving ever higher forms of actuality. God is therefore responsible for having initiated and continued the development of the finite realm from disordered chaos toward ever greater possibilities of both good and evil.

David Ray Griffin in God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (p. 300) suggests that "God is responsible in the sense of having urged the creation forward to those states in which discordant feelings could be felt with great intensity". The same is true for those who push humanity toward developing artificial general intelligence and colonizing space -- developments that will allow for amplifying the intensities of both good and bad experiences.

John H. Hick expresses doubts about the morality of this kind of tradeoff:

God may indeed, as Griffin suggests, find the total spectacle of human life through the ages to be good on balance; for in the total divine experience the sufferings of those who suffer, and the inadequacies of those whose human potential remains undeveloped, are overbalanced by the happiness and achievements of the fortunate. However, the starving and the oppressed, the victims of Auschwitz, the human wrecks who are irreparably brain-damaged or mind-damaged, and those others who have loved and agonized over them, can hardly be expected to share the process God's point of view or to regard such a God as worthy of their worship and praise.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Adriano Mannino for inspiring the final section of this piece.

Related reading

Appendix: Why focus on suffering?

A friend recently asked me why I focus my efforts on reducing suffering rather than creating joy. The reason is that I think severe suffering is awful in a way with which happiness can't compare. Nonexistence is not bad. It's completely fine for everyone, because it's a state of non-suffering. In contrast, torture is horrifying and should be prevented as much as possible. Of course, lack of joy within a person's life is bad, but that's because it's a form of suffering, not because it's an absence of joy per se. There's no moral urgency in creating new individuals who experience joy, especially not when it comes at the cost of also creating further suffering.

As an intuition pump, consider the 1.4 million pigs buried alive in South Korea during 2011; you can listen to their screams in this video. Now ask whether we should use our resources to (a) prevent suffering like this in the future or (b) create new individuals living happy lives to "compensate" for the suffering. Even more starkly, what if you yourself had to bury the pigs alive in order to create the new happy individuals? Would you do it? In terms of the outcomes, this is the same decision as choosing to invest in (b) rather than (a).

Happiness is good because it's a form of non-suffering. Meditative tranquility is good for the same reason. And, so is nonexistence. The Buddhists believed in reincarnation and so didn't realize you could reduce suffering simply by not creating more organisms, but in fact, the easiest way to end the cycle of birth and death is not to give birth. Applied to post-human colonization scenarios, this means not creating astronomical numbers of additional minds that have some ineliminable risk of suffering terribly.

As of 2013, I shifted to a view according to which happiness and life are not valuable at all. This is not a depressed view -- I would guess I'm happier than most people and tend to wake up looking forward to the new day -- but it's just a feeling that happiness, while nice, has no moral importance. Only suffering does. As Buddhists would say, the goal is to let go of Earthly existence and escape samsara. That said, I do somewhat value what other people care about, so indirectly I may value life and happiness a little bit. It's not because I can understand intuitively why someone would prefer them over nonexistence, but just because I want to be nice to others who have their own preferences. In any case, the overwhelming importance of reducing suffering does not depend significantly on one's views about how valuable happiness or life are. Just being a decent person leads us to see that we should help those in misery before creating new pleasures or life forms.