Welcome to Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin

Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin

For many years refugees attempting to reach Australia have been confined by the Australian government in camps on Manus Island and Nauru. This policy has its origin in sudden changes in Australian voter attitudes, emerging in the early 1970s, toward refugees from Vietnam. These attitudes and prejudices about refugee movement appear to be a complex mixture of apprehension about its economic consequences, bigotry, racism, and fears of terrorism. Since 9/11 Australian opinions about refugees have hardened on all sides of the debate.

A majority of Australians now appear to support a policy that claims to prevent refugee deaths at sea by discouraging refugee movement with off-shore confinement of people detained en route to Australia by boat—people commonly referred to as “illegal refugees” even though there is no such legal category of refugees.

In 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin published the story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, describing a happy, well-organised, successful and wholly imaginary society. The story has no plot or characters. It is not really a ‘story’ at all. It is the literary version of a ‘thought experiment’.  1973 is also the year Australia adopted the 1967 Protocol on the status of refugees, which removed geographic and temporal restrictions from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This is the brief period in Australian history, 1972–1975, when Australian families sought to accept several hundred young children orphaned by the war in Vietnam; and only a couple of years before the arrival of the first Vietnamese ‘boat-people’ in Darwin Harbor. Le Guin’s story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is approximately the same age as Australia’s recent refugee history.

It is now supposed that Le Guin’s story is based upon an 1891 address by American philosopher and psychologist William James to the Yale Philosophical Club:

William James
William James

“Experience” of consequences may truly teach us what things are wicked, but what have consequences to do with what is mean and vulgar? … [I]f the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which […] utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain? 

— William James, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Le Guin’s story imagines exactly such a ‘utopia’. Hidden away somewhere, in the basement of a public building or in the cellar of spacious private home, a child has been imprisoned in dreadful conditions. When the young citizens of Omelas reach about eight to twelve years of age they are told about the circumstances of the imprisoned child. The citizens of Omelas generally feel the same way about the child:

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

They would like to do something for the child. But 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. 

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Le Guin goes on to explain how the people of Omelas cope with this knowledge and come to terms with the arrangement that has been made on their behalf. “Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.”

In the final paragraph of the story Le Guin tells us that some of the children and some of the adults of Omelas decide not to stay in the city. They respond to the conflict they feel about the imprisoned child by walking away. “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.”

The meaning of the story is not so straight-forward as it first appears. Le Guin’s story sometimes appears on the reading lists for students of public administration and business courses. Why? It demands to know not only why people might decide to leave but, perhaps more importantly, how the majority of people manage to stay in Omelas, and what they do when they stay. The ones who walk away from Omelas may be the people who have decided the cost of happiness in the city is too high, or they may have given up trying to find ways to change it. Some of the ones who stay in Omelas may still be trying to think of a way to free the child from its prison. On the one hand ‘Omelas’ is a story about a kind of utopia, on the other it is a parable about a corrupt society whose citizens accept as necessary or reject as immoral the reasons for their contentment. What is the more moral thing to do: to go or to stay?

Noticing the similarity between Australia’s situation and the moral problems outlined by Le Guin and James adds new ideas to the national discussion about what is happening on Manus Island and Nauru, where men, women and children have been detained in order to dissuade others from attempting the sea voyage to Australia on the boats of people-smugglers. Finding both fictional and philosophical versions of Australia’s predicament, of our moral choices, opens up the possibility of examining the ethical statements made about this issue and trying to think about them in non-‘party-political’ ways.

Does Australians’ happiness depend on keeping people detained in offshore facilities? No-one would have to look very far to find evidence that many Australians believe there are good reasons to pursue policies that aggressively discourage refugees. Some of these reasons are racist or irrational, and some appear utilitarian:

These are the kinds of reasons that many people believe relate directly to the general well-being of Australian citizens and to the general happiness of Australian society. Your reactions to these reasons could be a litmus tests of the degree of your alignment to popular opinion in Australia. About 70 per cent of Australians accept some combination of these reasons, either alone or in addition to the argument that detaining asylum-seekers in offshore facilities discourages others from making the life-threatening journey to Australia by boat.

The question of how to prevent deaths at sea has become the principal reason justifying the detention of asylum-seekers. The other reasons I have mentioned play a role—as anyone can see simply by looking through the reader comments underneath any article about asylum-seekers on a public website—but preventing deaths at sea has been placed at the front and centre of all these reasons. Why?

We started to think about it like a ‘trolley problem’

Ben Doherty’s article in The Guardian at the end of 2014 explains that the claim to have ‘stopped the boats’ (and therefore the deaths at sea) is a kind of fiction. The fictiveness of the claim does not make it any less compelling. Yes, refugees are still dying at sea but they are doing it somewhere else; and since it is happening somewhere else, clearly outside of Australia’s purview, it is substantially and practically someone else’s problem. As Mr Doherty points out, Australian governments have signed agreements with other countries to ensure border controls are tightened and the flow of refugees reduced. There should, I think, be more discussion about whether such arrangements are morally acceptable. We should all accept that deciding between one solution and another was always going to be difficult. It’s a terrible thing to have to detain people indefinitely or ‘release’ them into communities where they are despised and threatened. But this is better than allowing those who would follow to drown at sea, is it not?

This is what happened to Australian politics about ‘boat-people’ between August and October 2001—between the ‘Tampa affair’ and the ‘children overboard’ incident. In the middle of it all, and perhaps clouding Australians’ view of what was happening in the world and the chaos that had come to reign in our and the world’s politics, there was the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attack on the USA. And then there was an Australian federal election on 10 November 2001.

The panic about boat arrivals had begun before Tampa, but the children overboard incident clinched how the issue was to be perceived by Australians. Polls at the time said about nine out of every ten Australians agreed with the government’s new hard-line treatment of asylum-seekers. The matter was decided, and confirmed at the election, and henceforth, possibly for a very long time, the major political parties were in agreement that “Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia”. Fulfilling this promise, imagined by John Howard, and articulated by Kevin Rudd (on 19 July 2013), was the principal success of the Tony Abbott government, which the Malcolm Turnbull government continues to support. This is what a clear majority of Australians want.

Note, though, that this is the new reason for an old decision. After the first refugee boat arrived in Darwin Harbor in 1976, the then Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, tried to dampen emerging hysteria about refugees, but Australians were not persuaded. Every change of government and every new wave of asylum-seekers caused some subtle escalation of panic and adjustment of language. Between the late 1970s and now, little has changed in the minds of the Australian public. Opinion polls over this forty year period show that a clear majority of Australians—with remarkable consistency (though the poll questions have changed)—want to ‘stop the boats’, favor a process to ‘detain and assess’, and have few qualms about sending refugees ‘back to sea’. Australians no longer openly refer, as they did in the late 1970s, to their wish to re-introduce a White Australia policy.

The question is, therefore, have we simply found morally acceptable reasoning to support morally repugnant aims?

The politics of Australia’s moral dilemma has converted the question of what to do with asylum-seekers into a ‘trolley problem’:

What do you do?
 A runaway trolley is about to go either in one direction, where five people will probably be killed by the trolley (if you do nothing), or the other direction, where one person will be killed by the trolley (if you decide to divert it). Would you shove a fat guy off a bridge to derail the trolley? What if the only person killed was Einstein, or the smart girl who will one day cure cancer? What if the fat guy was a villain?

This problem was formulated, in the way we recognise it, by the British philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot in an essay in the Oxford Review in 1967, and published again, later, in her book Virtues and Vices, and other essays in moral philosophy. (Foot died, at 90 years of age, in 2010.)  Her original formulation of the problem differs significantly from all the usual variants in a way that is not immediately obvious. You can read about the popular variant scenarios at the Wikipedia page, where there is also the relevant quotation from her essay:

Philippa Ruth Foot
Philippa Ruth Foot

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found guilty for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.

— Philippa Ruth Foot

As Foot describes the different scenarios of her moral problem it is clear that each of the individual scenarios required different levels of involvement and sacrifice from the person who is to make the moral decision. The judge must accept complicity in an obviously illegal act. The pilot will sacrifice his own life even as he decides to cause as little harm as possible. The tram driver must make a quick decision about an imminent accident the consequences of which he will have to face personally.

In each scenario Foot describes she places the person making the decision near the centre of its consequences. Foot’s description of what has come to be known simply as the ‘trolley problem’ does not allow us to make a decision about what to do as though we were not actually involved in the outcome. In thinking about how to act morally in crisis situations, we must consider consequences and costs to ourselves.

In a similar vein, ‘Jarrahbelt’, a reader of The Guardian, added the following comment to an article about asylum-seekers on Nauru:

In December 1980 I had the great honour to be present at one of the most desperate and remarkable rescues in maritime history. The story is largely untold, unknown, uncelebrated. On the narrow main deck aft of a guided-missile destroyer of the 7th Fleet of the US Navy a number of young men, the rescue detail, good men and true, fought for an hour to rescue about 30 people from a river boat. The river boat shouldn’t have been in the middle of the South China Sea, not in winter, not in a tropical storm with 40-foot seas, but there it was. Grappled alongside by pure brute force. We were obliged to maneuver alongside them since their engine and steering had failed, a fairly tricky operation in the circumstances. It was no-one’s fault that our port screw went into them, no-one’s fault that the port screw guard came down on top of the women and children and babies clustered on the stern cabin roof. For an hour the rescue detail struggled. I lost count of the number of times we went over the wire to replace them, thinking they had been scoured off the decks by the ferocious ocean. A waterspout went over the bows at some point, the sleet was sideways, we may have been in a vast whirlpool, the wind did its very best to tear us off the ship. We were broaching very badly and rolling like a drunken elephant. But none of that mattered. The ocean would not have them. Our own lives meant nothing then. The lives of the US Navy seals who went into that terrible sea meant nothing to them. I don’t know how they made it back onto the ship, but they did, some of them bearing corpses, because the sea was not even going to have the dead. That’s what it was like. We saved 21 souls that night. They were taken back to Subic Bay and given new homes and lives in America.

I learned some valuable lessons that night. I understood that all human beings are exactly the same, no matter what their race, creed or colour. We all die the same way. We all have the same needs, wants, hopes and dreams. We all cherish peace, unless we are insane. We are all brothers and sisters under the same sky. To use people in the way these people have been used, as political pawns to satisfy the lowest common denominator of the Australian public, is beyond shame; it is beyond comprehension in an advanced country that holds its traditions dear and has offered its shelter to so many others.

I doubt very much that I will ever vote in another federal election, I’ll just pay the fine. The choice is between a coward or another coward, unwilling or incapable of raising the timbre of the national conversation to a place where the needs of common humanity take precedence over all else.

— ‘Jarrahbelt’ (a reader) in The Guardian

Jarrahbelt’s comment touches upon factors that have a bearing on Australia’s discussion of the current moral dilemma of our treatment of asylum-seekers: the historical failure of governments to raise the tenor of debate; placation of the public’s prejudices and confusion without open discussion of consequences of government decisions; and the role of personal and social sacrifice in addressing an urgent, life-threatening crisis.

In Australia, as in Omelas, there is little or no open, reasonable, detailed discussion of costs and consequences of the decisions that only appear to have been made by a majority, but in fact have been made on behalf of the majority to garner its support at the ballot box.

The contempt expressed in the media, from all sides of the discussion, prevents at the start any genuine attempt to persuade people whose opinions differ from our own. Political debate generally, and this ethical debate in particular, tends to herd people into one or other ideological camp, which have become like trenches that troops shoot from across a no-man’s land. Notable for their absence from the serious discussion of these issues are many of the very people who should be helping us in the discussion. Where are the philosophers and ethicists of our universities? Where are the economists, whose job it should be to help us think about the costs and the possible benefits of accepting more refugees?

If Australians are concerned about the spiralling costs, estimated to be in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, of supporting refugees in the community, why can we not also have a detailed discussion about how best to spend the billions of dollars allocated to maintaining offshore detention facilities? Have Australian authorities adequately explored alternative strategies, for example, massively increasing the financial, logistical and practical support offered to Indonesian police and navy?

The debate in Omelas

This is what the debate about Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers looked like in 2016, almost exactly forty years after Lam Binh arrived on a boat in Darwin Harbor. David Marr and Gerard Henderson, are openly hostile. They are, however, both citizens of the new Omelas. Mr Marr perfectly exemplified the revulsion some Australians felt when they realised their society had accepted the bargain William James described in his lecture on morals. Mr Henderson, if you listen to his words closely, did not accept the bargain either, recognising that there is a serious problem to be solved and, like many Australians, holding out hope that the government would solve it.

Those of us who decided to stay in Omelas were left with the struggle about what to do. If the lessons of moral philosophy are any guide, we should have considered more carefully what sacrifices we were prepared to make to relieve the suffering of the people we detained. As we delayed, we caused more suffering. The solution required imagination, compassion, daring—and sacrifice. Convincing Australians that this was the right thing to do was the perfect job for a true leader, but there was none to be found.

Related links

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