221 – Sophie’s choice is no choice

Posted on March 13, 2013 by

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“Sophie reveals her deepest, darkest secret: on the night that she arrived at Auschwitz, a sadistic doctor made her choose which of her two children would die immediately by gassing and which would continue to live, albeit in the camp. Of her two children, Sophie chose to sacrifice her seven-year-old daughter, Eva, in a heart-rending decision that has left her in mourning and filled with a guilt that she cannot overcome.”[1] This is “Sophie’s choice”. I’ve seen “enhancements”: if she refuses to choose, both her children will die. This “choice” has now made its way into philosophy seminars.

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One remark at the outset: to call Sophie’s situation “choice” is an implicit espousal of the sadistic doctor’s mindset. The “philosopher” is complicit in torturing Sophie, by calling the situation “choice”, when what is on offer is no choice at all, and certainly not one in which Sophie would enter knowingly and willingly. Circumstances beyond Sophie’s control have placed her in a situation where every course of action has catastrophic outcome.

How to get out of the conundrum? Forget ethics! Grab the dice. Let chance decide. This is what the ancient Greeks did (and for good reason). When in doubt, the ancient Greeks asked the Delphic Oracle, or watched birds in flight; others may have looked at a goat’s entrails. The Chinese used scapulomancy. The method was always the same: let chance choose. This entrusting the choice to chance was sacralized.

What was the intent? When catastrophe looms, pain from loss is inevitable. We are ready to bear it – we are fatalists. Fatalism allows closure. The wound is clean and eventually it will heal – albeit leaving scars. We should not, however, also weigh the person’s soul down with guilt for the choice. The wound will fester on forever. Guilt can only be resolved by truth and in Sophie’s case “truth” – the “right thing to do” is not on offer. Sophie is forever on the rack of guilt – which is what the sadistic doctor wanted.

Contrary to fate, truth brooks no closure. For, when “seeking truth” one embarks on a never-ending journey. “Love of truth”, or “faith” may be our spiritual GPS, but all the GPS does, in the end, is obsessively to remind us of our distance from the ideal. We become obsessive.

How much better it would be to outsource the (illusory) choice to a “randomizer” and bear the pain, but not the guilt. Imagine the Palestine issue settled by the roll of the perfect dice – and not by “justice”, or “historical precedent”.


[1]           http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie%27s_Choice_%28novel%29 This text is based on William STYRON’s novel.