“Choosing the lesser evil” is a ploy to evade responsibility for one’s actions. This hackneyed justification of cowardly irresponsibility should be phrased as “each choice was more evil than the next.” Sometimes there are no moral choices. Sometimes there are only evil choices and still a choice must be made. Sophie’s choice for example. Choose between two sons, fail to make a choice both die.
Many attempts have been made to square this circle. Every proffered solution, whatever its rationalization, is as unsatisfactory as any other. Somebody always dies. Sophie’s choice looks like a conundrum. It has the form of a puzzle. It is not a riddle either. It is a piece of poetic imagery casting light on a very dark fact about any ethic or morality that ties responsibility to choice.
Ethics and morality offer no guidance. They presume some good to be had or ideal to be striven for. Morally and ethically speaking there is no choice but to do evil. Pointing out the lack of choice and the impossibility of choosing anything other than what one did may go some way toward easing conscience. Post hoc justifications do not help in the heat of the moment. Nor do they do anything for the traumatic fact that some evil has been committed by one’s own hand. This shattering loss of freedom, independence, autonomy, call it what you will, is the stuff of nightmares and even of psychosis. Whatever else morality and ethics may be, they are tools to aid in the processing of the raw materials of social and psychic life: loves, desires, angers, jealousies, fears, bodily functions and needs, and so on. Morality and ethics are orderings and rankings of these psychic materials.
The presumption that each of us does what we do as a preference underlies all ethics, morality, really all of human social life. It is how we interpret the behavior and words of another and of ourselves. Whether explicitly or not, the question is always what does someone want. One’s preference in a given situation can be love, money, fame, the good opinion of others, Enlightenment, freedom from fear, power, security, a sudden rush of adrenaline, the list is endless. We are libidinous creatures. There is always something we want except in pathological situations.
Sophie’s choice short circuits part of our brain. There was an episode of Star Trek the Original Series in which a computer and the androids it controls hold Kirk and crew hostage. Part of their escape plan is to have Spock put illogical and nonsensical questions to the central computer in order to overwhelm its logic circuits. Of course the plan is successful. This is what finding oneself with Sophie’s choice does to our moral-ethical-social-psychological faculties. Such a soul finds itself the embodiment of contradiction: I must not choose evil but I must choose evil.
Sophie’s choice is analogous to an optical illusion. Optical illusions are possible because our brains evolved by selecting for optimal shortcuts: trading off metabolic requirements against computational limits against volume limitations against biochemical limitations against the limits imposed by the laws of physics against the genomic toolkit available to work with. “Optimal shortcut” should probably be replaced by “passable kluges.” Instead of a computer metaphor, a mechanical metaphor: the mechanism seizes up and stops working because the proverbial monkey wrench has been thrown into the works. One does well to not get too hung up on a favorite metaphor.
After experiencing Sophie’s choice, one becomes skeptical of the moral-ethical utility of the concept of choice. Consumer culture is christian choice in full bloom. Responsibility, praise and blame are tied to choice. McDonald’s or Burger King? Coke vs Pepsi? I eat healthy and I became diabetic within the past year. Why do I have precisely these choices and not others? Mac or PC? Most people feel themselves free if allowed to choose even if only within an arbitrarily narrow range of choices. I can at least choose which one I prefer, they tell themselves. What about Sophie’s choice? Why precisely
these choices and not others? Who decides that? Does anyone? If the choices available aren’t all that different and not all that preferable to one another, it can make for a persistent, gnawing unacknowledged dissatisfaction and resentment along with an unidentifiable feeling of unhappiness and a nonspecific feeling of powerlessness.
Buridan’s ass “refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other. The paradox is named after the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan, whose philosophy of moral determinism it satirizes. A common variant of the paradox substitutes two identical piles of hay for the hay and water; the ass, unable to choose between the two, dies of hunger.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buridan's_ass) I find it curious that this paradox is formulated in terms of two conflicting desires. Desire is always for something, even if only to be elsewhere. There is a build up of tension followed by its release. One chooses something. There is an object, a direction and an implied desire for this something. The appeal of the psycho-metaphysics of choice is understandable, at least until one thinks beyond naive understandings. Buridan’s ass is predicated on (frustrated) desire being in the direction of something. The ass starves because the impetus to move in one direction is canceled out by another equal but opposing desire for something else.
Sophie’s choice is not about desire and it’s associated choice. Sophie is placed equidistant between two equally and extremely repulsive choices. There is no solution that would save Sophie from a lifetime of nightmares and reliving the horror of that day, attempting to process on a neuronal level what cannot be psychologically processed or forgotten. The horror of it is that there is no should-have that would illuminate one’s failure. The experience resists assimilation even as guilt and failure.
In the hubbub of everyday life with its pressing business, it is all too easy to forget that those things we do happen in an instant, but live long in memory and imagination. Playing up the rightness or wrongness of a choice within the situation at hand ignores this very real and important fact. A traumatic event is over after a period of time which is vanishingly short in comparison to the length of time that comes afterward. The harmful effects of a traumatic event plays out over time, repeatedly threatening to overwhelm and destroy the psyche in new and unpredictable ways.
Sophie’s choice flashes a light on a dark fact of human existence. We do not set the limits to our range of choices. We do not get to decide what our choices are. I may be able to choose between what’s in my refrigerator, but I did not select the available choices at my supermarket. Fresh seafood is not a likely food choice in rural Montana. The example of food choice is apt because it is one of the first of many mundane freedoms taken away from prison inmates. The choices in the moment, as it were, that are available to a human being are always limited and arbitrarily so. If we keep asking the question why this set of choices and not others, especially if we do not shy away from applying it recursively, the answer becomes we never had any choice. The whole universe finds its way up into our brains there behind our eyeballs with its tendrils winding its way down into our hearts. We too are part of the questions and answers with the limits in our choices we set on ourselves and on others. To use the metaphors of cause and effect, we both cause things to happen and we are an effect that is caused to happen, just like everything else in our lives, in the heavens above us, and down in the dark places where we try not to go.
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If this should seem overly abstract and leave you with a feeling of “and so?” Consider an aid worker in the immediate aftermath of a horrible earthquake in a densely populated area. He (or she) cannot possibly hope to save everyone in need of saving. He has to choose who to save or everyone who he could possibly save will die. In a life dedicated to helping the injured and the helpless, choosing who dies and who lives is unvarnished evil. Or consider sexual abuse. Bodily autonomy is the prerequisite of all forms of freedom. Even a slave retains a small measure. It is impossible to specify his movements so precisely that his discretion completely vanishes, some tiny measure of autonomy remains. Sex and one’s choices about who, what & how are an irremovable part of adulthood. If someone forces sex on another (female or male), the victim finds themselves doing things. “Against their will” is too much of a cliché. In some cases reflexes may become engaged. This last can be especially troubling for young males. The experience of powerlessness is discovering that one’s will is worse than useless. Bodily integrity is tightly bound to bodily autonomy, whether in a chaste young woman of whom even Pat Robertson would approve, or in a sexually adventurous senior whose behavior would make even otherwise rather liberal-minded individuals uneasy, or somewhere in between. Choice, bodily control, call it what you will is the foundation upon which the self is constructed.
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Sophie’s choice is a simplified version of the trolley problem (Wikipedia). I’ve never thought it proved very much other than the shallowness of a certain way of regarding moral and ethical conundrums. In almost every variant somebody dies. In none of these variations is there any effort to imagine what it would be like to be faced with the choice of saving 1 person or saving 5 persons. The problem is presented in a trite way. If the problem is presented as situation faced by a figure fleshed out and made to feel real, instead of by an automaton, there would be more concern about how the decider [finally a use for G.W.’s otherwise unfortunate neologism.] fared afterward. Here a reductionist approach obscures really interesting elements of the problem.
In addition, there is the hidden assumption that our choices extreme situations, hypothetical or otherwise, reveal something important. As often as not, decisions made in extreme situations are excused and even disowned because it is felt that those decisions are not made freely. Nietzsche, for one, and no slouch in ethical matters, thought it was precisely in extreme situations that we show our truest colors. Decisions made in the absence of consequences mean nothing. Save 1, save 5, save no one, does the answer really matter to a question phrased so trivially? It could easily be part of a game dreamed up by Cards Against Humanity.