Sophie's Choice

Sophie's choice, described in William Styron's novel by that name, has become a textbook example of a (moral) dilemma.

Sophie, a polish Catholic, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. She is there given a choice: one of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one; otherwise both will be gassed to death. She screams in torment that she cannot make such a choice, pleading that she cannot do so. As the order is given for both children to be taken to the gas chamber, she suddenly does choose. Thinking that her older and stronger son has a better chance of surviving the camp, she in agonizing pain says that they can take her younger daughter. Two years later, haunted by the guilt of this choice, Sophie commits suicide. (Narrative summarized and slightly adapted from the novel)

The following accounts seem to me to sum up the evaluations I have encountered.

1. Sophie did wrong because she chose between the lives of her children.

According to the Talmud, if an enemy comes and demands that you choose someone to hand over to him to be put to death, with the threat that you will otherwise all be killed, you may not do so, but must all be willing to die instead of choosing someone to die. But if the enemy demands a particular person, then according to Rabbi Yohanan you may deliver up that person, even if that person is not guilty of a crime deserving death. Here the understanding seems to be that by making a choice whereby one person dies and other lives, one is making oneself master of life and death, an authority that belongs to God alone.

According to this principle, Sophie acted wrongly in choosing which one of her children would live.

2. Sophie did wrong because she consented to the unjust death of one of her children
Sophie did wrong because she consented to the death of one of her children as a means to saving the other one. According to this view, what Sophie did would have been wrong even if there was no choice between children, even if, for example, she was told, "if you tell me, 'take the girl', I'll just take her to the gas chamber, otherwise I'll take both."

In regard to this argument, we should note that while Sophie was told to choose which one of her children she wanted to be allowed to live, she expressed her choice by telling them which one of her children they could take to the gas chamber. This seems to indicate that she wasn't perceiving a significant difference between these two ways of choosing, either because she didn't consider there to be a significant difference between the two, or just because in her anguish she wasn't thinking clearly about it. Nonetheless, one might argue that in principle it would actually be okay to choose which child to live, but not which child to die.

3. Sophie did wrong because she was dispositive or instrumental in the death of one her children.

Sophie did wrong because by her choice and words she was instrumental in determining which of her children was killed. This claim differs from claim 2 in that it regards not so much the interior act of the will, consent to unjust death, as the external act chosen (telling the Nazis to take the girl), and the outcome to which it leads.

4. Sophie did wrong because she consented to her captor's will to murder one of her children.

5. Sophie did wrong because she materially cooperated with her captor's evil will, making use of that evil will to achieve good.

6. Sophie acted rightly, making a reasonable choice and taking a reasonable means to save the life of one of her children.

7. Sophie may have done wrong or may have done right, depending on what she was thinking and willing in regard to the situation.

8. Sophie did not do right or wrong. The choice was outside the bounds of morality.

These accounts arguably represent all basic possible moral evaluations of the choice: if the choice is wrong, it is so either because the choice between her two children as such is wrong, or because there is formal consent or material contribution to a grave evil, where that evil is understood either as the death of her child, or as the Nazi's moral evil in willing the murder of a child. If it was not wrong, than it was either right, was potentially right or wrong, or the distinction between right and wrong was inapplicable.

So, which of these accounts is correct? Was Sophie right to feel guilty? Did she do wrong? Did she do right?

12 thoughts on “Sophie's Choice”

  1. "if the choice is wrong, it is so either because the choice between her two children as such is wrong, or because there is formal consent or material contribution to a grave evil"

    Her own anguish indicates there is not formal cooperation. Formal cooperation means a will towards the evil committed, she didn't want either child to die.

    Material cooperation must be willed. Not that you will the evil, but you will to be there, involved with the evil. She did not will to be in the concentration camp.

    Intentionally, she seems to be willing to save the save the son, even though exteriorly, the only way to do that is permitting them to kill her daughter. She is not even saying to kill her, but simply permitting them to take her where she can reasonably guess death awaits.

    In other words, I don't think she likely committed an evil act.

    This doesn't mean she won't have anguish and the suicide is inexplicable.

    I think you analyze what you get from the Talmud a little odd. They were asking for two specific people to kill: her children.

    At least that is my analysis, but I am only in second year theology and you are a professor.

    1. The text from the Talmud is:

      A company of men is confronted by non-Jews. They say “Give us one of your number whom we will kill. If you do not, we will kill all of you!” Even though all of them will be killed, let them not deliver a single Jewish soul into their hands. However, if they specified a single individual, as for example in the case of Sheva ben Bichri (II Samuel 20) then they may deliver him up and not themselves be killed. Rabbi Shimeon ben Lakish said, ” This is so only when that person is guilty of a capital offense, as was Sheva ben Bichri.” Rabbi Yohanan said however, “He may be delivered up, even though he is not guilty of a capital offense.”

      I was referring to Rabbi Yohanan's opinion, who in most cases is considered to be in the right when he and Rabbi Shimeon disagree. But the subsequent interpretation of this disagreement between the Rabbis is a complicated one, and I am not an expect in the field.

      Comparing the case to that of Sophie, the Nazi doctor would be telling her, "give me your son or your daughter who we will kill. Otherwise we will kill both of them," and the Talmudic principle is that she could not agree to give them one or the other, even if the consequence of refusing were that they would take and kill both.

      1. Sorry I took so long in gettin back. I had an exam on the Eucharist and had to memeorize everyone's refelctions from Amalarius to Journet. (And I am switching to a handle I usually use.)

        Thanks for this, I have not gotten to the point in theology that I look to Talmudic sources for guidance. According to Melchor Cano, they wouldn't even be a proper source for theology (unless one were to expland tradition to include post-paschal jewish tradition in Tradition which is agianst the indented sense).

        Now, when she told them to let her daughter go, she no longer had either one, the soldiers had already begun to take them both. The Talmudic principle seems to indicate that such people are still in your power to deliver not already in the power of the enemy.

        In other words, I question the validity of using the talmudic principle on the grounds it is not a Christian source and it refers to a situation with a key diference from Sophie's.

        I saw it somewhat like the following situation: you are boating through alligator infested waters, you stop to fish but after a while you see two alligators come too close so you hit the engine hard and your two kids fall into the water from the jolt and are immediately caught in the mouths of different Alligators. You swing the boat a round and realize you don't have time to save both, now what do you do? Obviously, you try to save one.

        The only substantial difference here is that she is required by the guards, to express her decision in reverse. Id est, she wills to save one but she needs to say the name of the other so they will release the one. (I personally dislike this but would not judge it immoral on the fact that the enemy requires a verbal expresion that does not correspond to her decision to save her son.)

        1. I agree with your comments. I referenced the Talmud not because that is a proper source for theology, but because, given the context (where persecution is directed particularly against Jews), it is possible that the author had in much such a traditional Jewish principle, and because I have heard an argument along very similar lines from Catholics, though without referencing or being aware of this passage from the Talmud.

          Among Catholic theologians, Martin Rhonheimer seems to suggest a somewhat similar principle in his discussion of "vital conflicts" (his conclusion, in brief, is that if both a mother and her child will die without intervention, and the child will die no matter what, then one can intervene to save the mother's life by an early delivery or even craniotomy, though that results in the earlier death of the child, but that if the child has any reasonable chance of surviving, one cannot intervene, because that would amount to making a preferential choice for the mother over the child). Nonetheless, whatever the value of this principle for such cases, I think you are right that it is not applicable to Sophie's case, because even if there is a choice to save one person, this choice is not thereby a choice "against" someone else, as it would be in the case where a mother chooses to abort a child in order to reduce some risk of death for herself.

          Regarding the choice, as I read the novel, it seems that she was not actually required to say which child they would take, but which child she wanted them to release. It seems, though, that in her anguished thought process it amounted to one and the same thing to name one child to release or to name one child who would be taken.

  2. The relevant excerpt from the novel:

    The doctor said, “You may keep one of your children.”

    “Bitte?” said Sophie.

    “You may keep one of your children,” he repeated. “The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?”

    “You mean, I have to choose?”

    “You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege—a choice.”

    Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. “I can’t choose! I can’t choose!” She began to scream. Oh, how she recalled her own screams! Tormented angels never screeched so loudly above hell’s pandemonium. “Ich kann nicht wählen!” she screamed.

    The doctor was aware of unwanted attention. “Shut up!” he ordered. “Hurry now and choose. Choose, . . . or I’ll send them both over there. Quick!”

    She could not believe any of this. She could not believe that she was now kneeling on the hurtful, abrading concrete, drawing her children toward her so smotheringly tight that she felt that their flesh might be engrafted to hers even through layers of clothes. Her disbelief was total, deranged. It was this belief reflected in the eyes of the gaunt, waxy-skinned young Rottenfuhrer, the doctor’s aide, to whom she inexplicably found herself looking upward in supplication. He appeared stunned, and he returned her gaze with a wide-eyed baffled expression, as if to say: I can’t understand this either.

    “Don’t make me choose,” she heard herself plead in a whisper, “I can’t choose.”.

    “Send them both over there, then,” the doctor said to the aide, “nach links.”

    “Mama!” She heard Eva’s thin but soaring cry at the instant that she thrust the child away from her and rose from the concrete with a clumsy stumbling motion. “Take the baby!” she called out. “Take my little girl!”

    At this point the aide—with a careful gentleness that Sophie would try without success to forget— tugged at Eva’s hand and led her away into the waiting legion of the damned. She would forever retain a dim impression that the child had continued to look back, beseeching. But because she was now almost completely blinded by salty, thick, copious tears she was spared whatever expression Eva wore, and she was always grateful for that. For in the bleakest honesty of her heart she knew that she would never have been able to tolerate it, driven nearly mad as she was by her last glimpse of that vanishing small form.

    1. It appears that she doesn't know for certain that the child will die. Obviously this is the probable outcome given the circumstances.

      This and the fact of her evident anguish mitigates the evil were the act wrong. Even if one could claim material cooperation or something similar was objectively wrong, I cannot imagine it being sinful.

  3. Well I'm not judging Sophie entirely but what she did was a move I would have never done. I would chosen all 3 of us to die, the look on her little girls face was horrible, she already knew who her mother was going to choose, to hear your mother whose arms you are in, thinking its the safest place to be at and then all of sudden hearing your mother scream "take my little girl" and then throwing you into this monsters arms knowing your fate. I don't even know why she really believed that her son would be safe, I mean she never actually saw him again.

  4. Wow, talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees. Sophie is in no way immoral. The Nazi's who put her in this position are evil, period. When faced with violent evil, the innocent victem is not morally culpible for ANY reaction to this insanity. She could have sliced off both her children's heads and not been guilty. Keep your eye on the real monsters.

  5. Absolutely no fault or guilt should be inflicted on Sophie – the Nazi put her in an intolerable situation. Normal barbaric behavior would be to kill all three, as the Nazi plan to do. They amused themselves with torture first – "watch the Mom suffer". I have heard of other cases – a French mother found her two sons in a Nazi round up cage on a truck. She begged for their release, and the officer said – choose one. She could not, and screamed as the truck drove off with both her boys. Like Sophie, she killed herself, as she could not live with the memories. The total fault here is with the Nazi – were they trained to do this kind of torture? On hearing the French story, I was troubled. What was the "right" thing to do? Choosing one, not choosing at all, either would drive you nuts. Here is my suggestion – the mother should beg and crawl until she gets close enough to the Nazi to sink her teeth into his throat and try to kill him. By forcing this choice, the nazi define themselves as worse than monsters – if you are in the power of such, die with your teeth in his throat.

  6. This is a painful thing for me to think of. I am half Polish, my Grandmother was a child when the war broke out.
    Like Sophie, I have a son and a daughter. Except, its my son who is the youngest.
    I'd have died rather than choose, but if not applicable, I'd have given both up.
    Sorry, but the pain of losing both is nowhere near painful for me, as knowing I had chosen one of my darling's over the other. Its just not possible.
    Like Sophie, I'd have probably wanted to die after.
    Her son didn't live in the end anyway, I think…which must of been a worse blow for her, knowing she chose in vain.
    ITS A SICK WORLD.

    God save us all. 🙁

  7. This is an example in small of what happened often during this period in history. It still happens and is not specific to a single area of the world.

    In the case of a family running from, the camer rouge they come to a river. The ferryman wants payment, they have nothing. He asks for their middle son, age 8. The family leaves the child behind. The man was not cruel, he is old and alone. The family believe that both the ferry man and the child will be killed by the communists. Since that day they honor this child who saved them all. Is it so different?

    A Bishop speaks out against the cruelty of the government, he says that the young must know what God wants of them. All of the religious under his care are taken away and murdered.

    A mother teaches her child what morality is, as a young man he speaks out and is murdered by a gang. We make choices. Few will know our hearts, less will care, but enough will.

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