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?