I take anything ethicist J. Budziszewski writes with the utmost seriousness. He is a first-rate Christian philosopher and a retro-Thomist in a world of ethical relativists. I can relate, for as the world turned to hip hop I faithfully kept playing my Steve Miller. Like Budziszewski, I appreciate the wisdom of “an oldie but a goodie”.
Today we are going to look at a provocative excerpt from Budziszewski’s recent book The Line Through the Heart which takes a bold and bracing stand in the face of an unthinkable moral dilemma:
“Without confidence in providence, our vision of every commandment goes askew. ‘Thou shalt not murder’ seems to change before our eyes to ‘Thou shalt keep alive the greatest number possible–at the expense of others, if that is what it takes.’ In the novel Sophie’s Choice, a Nazi guard at Auschwitz commands a young mother to choose which of her children will be sent to the ovens. If she cooperates in the crime, the one she selects will be burned; if she refuses, then both children will be taken to their deaths. After a long, hanging moment, the mother pushes away her little girl, and cries out that he take her–not her favorite, not the boy! Her choice is plainly evil; for the sake of a better result, she has united herself with the sin of the murderer. And in the end her favorite child dies too. But without faith in a God who hears the cries of the poor, how could she choose otherwise? One day I was surprised to hear one of my seminar students argue that it would have been ‘selfish’ for Sophie to refuse to mark one of her children for death. How so? His reply was that she should have been willing to ‘sacrifice herself’ –by which he meant sacrifice her conscience. It took me some time to realize that although my agnostic student considered ‘I must promote life’ to be a real moral duty, he viewed ‘I must not have complicity in murder’ to be merely personal scruple on the order of ‘I am not the sort of person who skips bathing.’ He didn’t deny that conscience speaks differently, but he thought that for the sake of a ‘better’ result, Sophie should have been willing to suffer the agonies of its accusations.” (The Line Through the Heart, ISI, 2009), 37-38.
Here we have a standoff between Budziszewski and his graduate student. I know that in moments like this the wiser course is to side with the prof, but I’m not so sure. I would not go as far as the student by saying that Sophie had a moral obligation to choose a child, but neither am I convinced that doing so was an immoral act. However, my own analysis will remove Budziszewski’s statement that Sophie’s choice is a revelation of her preference for her son. I am going to analyze the case as one that is a wholly arbitrary decision.
Much of my own reticence about siding with Budziszewski’s take on this unthinkable situation centers on the aptness of the following analogy.
Let’s say that Sophie is hiking in the woods with her boy and girl (B and G). In one horrible moment both children slip on the trail and fall over the cliff twenty feet away from each other. In the last possible moment each grasps a vine and holds on. But the grasp is slipping and in a moment each child will fall. Sophie knows she only has enough time to run up the trail and save B or run down the trail and save G. Her choice is to act so that one child will die or do nothing so that both children will die. Is she morally obliged to do nothing?
Of course not.
Now let’s turn back to this business of sacrificing her conscience. This is, in my view, a complete red herring. No matter what her decision, mountain climbing Sophie’s conscience will suffer enormously. If she saved B but not G she will be haunted by guilt that she didn’t save G. But if she didn’t save either she will likewise be haunted by guilt. Either way her conscience will scream at her all sorts of accusations: Why didn’t you watch them more carefully? Why did you take the more perilous trail? Why, why why…?! Is the guilt of choosing the one you will save (however arbitrarily) somehow worse than the guilt of choosing to save neither?
The obvious difference is that the decision in the Nazi case is one forced by the wickedness of human agents. But does that make all the difference? Is Sophie really uniting with the Nazi’s sin by taking one of the unthinkable choices offered to her?