Sophie’s Other Choices
NPR’s “Think” podcast recently featured Binghamton University philosophy professor Lisa Tessman discussing “Impossible Moral Dilemmas” and I just happened to tune in as a caller to the program asked about the film Sophie’s Choice. Full disclosure: I’ve always avoided seeing that movie because its premise was so horrifying to me, I just didn’t want to spend two and a half hours of my life contemplating it. And yet, because the universe has a way of making us face our fears (I turn on the car, the radio had been left on, and I hear a man from Fort Worth ask about Sophie’s Choice), I’ve now spent way more than two and a half hours contemplating it.
First, let’s understand the dilemma. During WWII, Sophie and her two young children (her son Jan, around six-years-old, and her daughter Eva, around four-years-old) were captured and taken to Auschwitz, where Sophie was forced to choose which one of her two children would be killed and which one would live.
On the NPR podcast, Tessman suggested that Sophie wasn’t really responsible for her choice because it was forced upon her. Yet, Tessman observes that, for Sophie, there is still a moral guilt that haunts Sophie and eventually leads to Sophie committing suicide. As Tessman recognizes, we can be morally blameless and still feel guilty. While I generally agree with Tessman, here’s my dilemma: I think Sophie had other choices available to her and because of this, I don’t think she was forced to make the choice she made. If I’m correct, then Sophie is morally responsible. Let’s look at the scene in more detail.
The scene begins with Sophie standing in a crowd of other prisoners, having just arrived by train. She’s holding Eva; Jan is standing next to her. The trio is simply waiting to see what will happen next. Suddenly a Nazi solider approaches Sophie and after looking at her he tells her that she’s attractive and that he’d like to sleep with her. She doesn’t really respond, she just looks surprised and awkward. He then asks her if she’s Polish, she nods yes. Then he inquires if she’s a communist, she nods no and he walks away.
It should’ve ended there, but it doesn’t because Sophie nervously (and inexplicably) blurts out that she’s Polish, that she and her children are racially pure, and that she’s a Christian, not a Jew. The soldier turns and icily stares at her as if she’d just committed a crime (he’s a picture of pure evil) and then, after holding his stare for an uncomfortably long moment, he walks back toward her. After questioning her faith, he presents the choice: choose one child to live and one to die, otherwise, both will die. He claims that her ethnicity has earned her the right to choose and as she repeats that she cannot choose (over and over again) he summons another solider to take both children. In the heat of the moment, Sophie tells the guard to take her daughter and Eva is ripped out of Sophie’s hands, her piercing cries echoing as she’s carried past the trains into the darkness.
Yeah, it’s a hard scene to watch – you can’t cry, you’re just numb (and very angry). But, once you see the whole scene, the whole context of it, you have to ask yourself if Sophie can really be excused. Is she really morally blameless? Was she really forced to choose?
No one wants to blame any parent for the choices they make. Perhaps it’s because we all make mistakes and we don’t want anyone to judge us. But, this wasn’t just a parenting decision made public (like the lady who recently posted on Facebook that she wouldn’t let her son accept a perfect attendance award, oblivious to the fact that it was his award to refuse, not hers). Sophie literally let one of her children be killed so the other could live. To be fair, it’s difficult to say if we’d be able to even make any choice in such a moment, let alone do what we might think is the morally right thing to do – can we really judge her? And, what other options did she have?
Other Choices from Popular Culture & Philosophy
In The Matrix Reloaded Morpheus proclaims that “everything begins with a choice,” while the Merovingian counters that choice is an illusion, there is only causality. This is the classic (and ancient) free will versus determinism debate: do we have the freedom of will to make choices in our lives or are our lives predetermined (the effect of some cause)? Simply put: if Morpheus is right, then Sophie is morally blameworthy; if the Merovingian is right, then Sophie is morally blameless. The question becomes: did Sophie choose for Eva to die or was that outcome the (predetermined) effect of a cause? (To be even more analytical about it, we could ask if Sophie would always make the same choice in the same situation, would Eva always die?)
For the Merovingian, effects are nothing more than predesigned (programmed) responses. Thus, we not only respond, our response is exactly what is supposed to happen, so we can’t be blamed. But this isn’t what happens with Sophie. Yes, she responds, but she could’ve responded differently. At the very least, she could’ve sent Jan to die instead of Eva. That means Sophie made a choice and she should bear some moral responsibility for making it. And, even if we argue that Sophie was forced to make the choice, as Tessman maintained on NPR, Sophie wasn’t necessarily forced to let Eva be killed. In other words, while the situation was forced upon Sophie, the choice (Eva or Jan) was still hers. Morpheus is right.
In fact, choosing Eva to die and Jan to live wasn’t the only choice Sophie made. There were actually a series of choices Sophie made that led up to the fatal choice. First, she chose not to flirt with the Nazi soldier and in doing so she chose to remain silent, answering his questions by nodding yes or no. Then, she chose to highlight her nationality. Then, she chose to highlight her religion – and these choices were made after the soldier had walked away. In other words, Sophie chose to continue the encounter and it could be argued (which might make the Merovingian happy) that the series of choices Sophie made caused the Nazi soldier to present her with the fatal choice (it certainly seems like the Nazi soldier is judging and punishing Sophie for having said what she said). We could ask why she chose to say these things (perhaps it was her nervousness) and we could ask why the Nazi, who’d walked away, came back and presented her with such a horrific option (perhaps he’s just an evil Nazi). But what matters is that Sophie’s choices led to Sophie’s choice – which means she’s still responsible.
From this, we might ask: but what choice did she really have once the Nazi solider demanded that she choose one child? Either way, a child dies. That’s why it’s an impossible moral dilemma, right? Yes, but this logic assumes the choice was necessarily binary – either Eva or Jan. Let’s consider the lottery scene from The Hunger Games (which illustrates an altruistic perspective) to see how Sophie might’ve had a third option.
When the reaping ceremony comes to District 12 (which looks like a Nazi labor camp) Prim’s name gets chosen to participate in the 74th Hunger Games (where two dozen kids will fight to the death until one remains). Almost immediately, Katniss (Prim’s older sister) protests and volunteers to take Prim’s place. On the surface (and perhaps because it was a strong emotional response) Katniss’s choice seems to validate the Merovingian – Katniss is simply reacting to the cause of her sister being selected (she’s not thinking it through). But, what Katniss does is not what is expected. It’s the opposite of what’s expected, surprising everyone (especially those in charge) and maybe even herself. Thus, her decision to volunteer is more in line with Morpheus – it was a choice to volunteer, not a programmed response. And, it’s a choice Sophie could’ve made, she could’ve volunteered.
What parent wouldn’t give their life for their child? Yes, if Sophie had begged the Nazi to take her instead it wouldn’t have guaranteed that her children wouldn’t have been killed. But, in terms of moral guilt, which Tessman highlights, wouldn’t it have been better to at least try to volunteer? Or, given the Nazi’s attraction to her, couldn’t Sophie have offered herself sexually in exchange for her children’s lives? (If Forest Gump’s mother could exchange sex for Forest’s education, couldn’t Sophie at least offer it so both of her children might have the chance to live?) In other words, Sophie represented a third option, one that fits the philosophy of altruism, which as Auguste Comte defined, simply means living for others. Don’t parents live for their children? Similarly, isn’t that what the Feminist Care Ethic is all about? Doesn’t Carol Gilligan’s observation regarding the difference in moral reasoning between women and men suggest that Sophie should’ve approached the situation differently? If Sophie had considered the greater context (the guard’s attraction or the Nazi’s atrocities) perhaps she would’ve seen the third option.
A fourth option would’ve been to simply let the Nazi take both children. Rather than chose one over the other, let them both die. Allowing both children to be killed could be seen as being more merciful (in a euthanasia type of way) than what actually occurred – the horror both children must’ve experienced is unfathomable and, for Jan, beyond traumatic.
This option would be similar to the logic the character Keyser Söze uses in The Usual Suspects. In the backstory Kevin Spacey’s character tells, Söze had come home to find his wife raped and beaten and his children traumatized (because they’d been forced to watch). So, Söze kills his entire family so they wouldn’t have to live another day with that memory (he killed the bad guys, too). It’s not an easy thing to contemplate, but given the aspect of survivor’s guilt that Jan would’ve endured (not just in Auschwitz but in knowing that he was saved over his sister) and given what Eva likely suffered (her last moments, utterly helpless, knowing that her mother abandoned her) wouldn’t it have been more merciful to simply let them both go?
A fifth option would suggest that Sophie could’ve requested that all three of them be killed together – because if one or both children are going to die, why not go with them? This isn’t just altruistic, it’s pragmatic (and, I would argue, it adheres to the Feminist Care Ethic). For example, in The Road to Perdition, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character holds her youngest son tightly when a man comes to their home to kill them (he’s actually looking for Tom Hanks’s character and their oldest son). The man storms into the house and surprises them in the bathroom (the little boy had just had his bath). She doesn’t run, doesn’t fight, and doesn’t try to talk – she knows it’s over. So, she holds her boy and dies with him, their last moments spent in each other’s comfort. Perhaps Sophie could’ve done the same, especially since she wasted the rest of her life, resorting to suicide anyway. Certainly, there would’ve been something heroic and noble in her standing up to the soldier and offering all their lives – and dying with her children would’ve perhaps been the most comforting (and motherly) choice Sophie could’ve made (especially if she could’ve held them as they all died).
This option, as I see it, also resonates with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which suggests that we should act in a way that our behavior could be considered universal law. In other words, when we make a decision we should make it as if it were a maxim we’d always follow, regardless of the circumstances or context of a given situation. For example, if we believe in “thou shalt not kill,” then no matter what situation we find ourselves in (like Andrew Garfield’s character in Hacksaw Ridge) we will not kill. It’s a non-negotiable, inviolable principle we must follow. Sophie chose her daughter to be killed and, inversely, she chose her son to live. This choice doesn’t follow a categorical imperative. If it did, then her maxim would be “thou shalt not kill my son, but go ahead and kill my daughter,” which is absurd. However, if her imperative was something like “our family stays together no matter what,” then Sophie could’ve easily decided to just end all three of their lives – and they would’ve died in a dignified way, with all the moral blame resting on the Nazi’s shoulders.
What’s Done is Done
Of course, who knows what we’d do if we were faced with the same dilemma as Sophie. What seems clear, however, is that the dilemma is only impossible until a choice is made. After that, Sophie bears some moral responsibility. It’s a credit to Meryl Streep (who won the Oscar for Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice) that she plays the scene organically, as if she were really going through it – looking bewildered, frightened, shocked, desperate, and helpless all at once. With barely any time to think, much less weigh the pros and cons of each option, Streep’s Sophie reacts frantically, emotionally, and remorsefully – standing with her mouth wide open in shock as her daughter’s screams fill the darkness, as if to say to herself (and the viewer) “what have I done?”
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
“Impossible Moral Dilemmas.” Think with Krys Boyd. Npr.org, 25 July 2017. Podcast.
“Sophie’s Choice | “The Choice.”” Youtube.com, 22 Nov. 2010.