In 1973, the science-fiction legend Ursula K. Le Guin published one of her most enduring and most haunting short stories, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In it, she describes the city of Omelas, a utopia filled with laughter, music, love, and, above all, happiness. Everyone in Omelas is joyous. They are content, absolutely, completely, and undeniably fulfilled. Well, almost everyone….
Le Guin describes a setting far away from the joy and happiness of the rest of the city, far away from the light, the happiness, and the love:
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.
In this room lives a child. “It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” The child lives in squalor, scared to death, nearly starving, and with no human contact or support. Le Guin writes, “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”
Why is the child there?
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. 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 . . .
There is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.
If you’ve seen the news of late, you might know that the tortured child of Omelas has a name: Charlie Gard.
Little Charlie is suffering. In fact, he is dying. His parents want nothing more than to keep him from dying, if that’s possible, and if not, to allow him to die at home, with them.
But the British government – in the form of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children and the Family Courts of England and Wales – thinks that Charlie should simply die and that he should do so as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. At present, Charlie has received a brief reprieve. Later this week, Charlie’s parents will return to court to beg the powers that be to “allow” them to decide the fate of their own child. But those powers will not be easy to persuade. Charlie, you see, is their charge, their responsibility, no one else’s. And they believe that keeping him on life-support, or allowing him to be taken to the United States to be administered an experimental treatment would cause him “significant harm.” To date, no one has explained what harm is more “significant” than slow and certain death, but in the interests of maintaining a façade of compassion, this remains the state’s public position.
The story of Omelas and its suffering child is, of course, a philosophical critique of the morality of utilitarianism, the brain-child of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued that “rights” are mere human constructs, the creation of governments, certainly not endowed by our creator, and designed to favor one group over another. “For every right which the law confers on one party,” Bentham wrote, “whether that party be an individual, a subordinate class of individuals, or the public, it thereby imposes on some other party a duty or obligation.” Bentham saw the very idea of “natural rights” or “natural law” as “perversions of language.”
The measure of utilitarian morality, therefore, is not an action’s consistency with natural law or the command of a higher authority; it is not an action’s adherence to an eternal truth; it is rather the greatest happiness principle. Acts that produce greater happiness and greater pleasure and decrease aggregate suffering are moral.
The statists of the West – those who advocate greater state intervention in, and greater state control over, society – have always had a utilitarian streak. This is especially clear with respect to state control of health care. The state cannot be, or provide, everything to everyone. With respect to health care, the state cannot provide everyone the best care possible at all times. It cannot ensure that everyone will be treated immediately or indefinitely. Compromises have to be made. Budgets have to be met. And sometimes, people have to suffer as a result. Sometimes, Charlie Gard has to be removed from life support. In the end, though, the state provides the greatest amount of care possible to the greatest number. Or that’s the idea.
In America, observers long warned that turning health care over to the government would be a tragic mistake. Giving government the responsibility for health care would forever change the relationship between the citizen and the state, making the state all-powerful, at the citizens’ expense. Government that is allowed to exercise its coercive power to promote the well-being of the many at the expense of the few is one that governs by a different moral calculus. It is not a government “instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and dedicated to securing the rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It is, instead, a government rooted in what was traditionally considered a moral outrage.
The story of Charlie Gard exemplifies this outrage.
Last weekend, Pope Francis released a statement reminding us that the defense of the most vulnerable is everyone’s duty. He is right, of course, and in so saying he reaffirmed more than two millennia of Western, Judeo-Christian moral reasoning.
The modern state doesn’t see it that way, though. It sees Charlie Gard as an inevitable casualty, the sacrifice necessary to ensure the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. And those like Charlie’s parents and Pope Francis are encouraged to walk away – not from Omelas, but from its contemporary manifestation, Little Charlie.