William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice presents an almost unimaginably terrible moral dilemma to the reader. In the novel, the character Sophie and her two children are taken to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Nazi purge of the Jews. When entering the camp and being examined by an SS officer that is also a doctor, she tells the doctor that there has been a mistake, that she is not Jewish, but Catholic, and that she should be spared. Allegedly sympathizing with her, the doctor then allows Sophie a "reward," and her reward is to be able to save one of her children -- but she must choose which one is to be saved and which one is to die right there on the spot. There are several ways that one could ultimately view Sophie's decision to save Jan, her elder boy, such as using a Kantian, a utilitarian, or a relativist moral perspective. Styron, however, ultimately shows the difficulties of using any of these views to understand Sophie's decision. The Kantian perspective, while it seems rational and consistent, would have resulted in Sophie effectively sentencing both of her children to death -- and thus Kant's categorical imperative seems cruel and heartless. The utilitarian perspective, which is the one Sophie ultimately used, seems not to have produced the desired result, and in this fashion, the meaning of that ethical paradigm is compromised. Ultimately, the tragedy and difficulty of Sophie's position might lead one to embrace the relativist position that there is no meaning to morality, but this is not the position that Styron embraces, however. Styron instead employs a hypothetical theological argument to show that the SS officer's decision to make Sophie choose was the ultimate sin, and from this point of departure, Styron's narrator then reasons that the presence of sin and the capacity for human evil ultimately serve as an argument for the existence of God. Rather than serving as an element that makes Styron believe in a disordered, cruel, alienated world, the terrible choice that Sophie undertakes serves as an ornament to illustrate the world's underlying order.
Kantian ethical systems basically revolve around something called the "categorical imperative." It is by following the requirements of the categorical imperative that one can tell whether or not one is acting in an ethical and moral manner. It is important that Kant makes several assumptions in order to make the system of the categorical imperative. There is nothing wrong with making assumptions as long as these assumptions are admitted and defended reasonably. Kant's first assumption is that morals have an inherent value or meaning. While this may not seem like a very important assumption, other theories of morality sharply disagree with this idea and it will be extremely important in considering relativism later. The second assumption that Kant makes is that we have an imperative to do our duty. Based on these assumptions, Kant goes on to formulate his idea that "the 'maxim' implied by a proposed action must be such that one can will that it become a universal law of nature" (Honderich 124). The meaning here is that one would be willing to make one's conduct a universal model for all future behavior. The point of this is to say that moral action should never act with an obvious end in sight. Rather an action, according to Kant, can only be truly moral when one refuses to consider either the gain or the reward that the person will receive by such an action. The categorical imperative's idea of willing an action to a universal law then becomes the method by which to do this; if before undertaking an action we consider its application in all circumstances, then the specific circumstance of the situation cannot possibly affect the moral choice. Thus, we are no longer making our choice based on the outcome, but on a more analytical, reasoned, and universal criteria.
Someone taking a purely Kantian perspective would probably argue that Sophie's choice was ultimately immoral. She did not take the time to consider the effects of her action in all situations, and it is unlikely that her choice, indeed, any choice in her situation, could have been willed universally. The reason that Sophie's choice is unethical from a Kantian perspective is as follows. In choosing which child would live, Sophie also had to decide which child would die. Can we ever universally will the idea that it is acceptable for us to choose for someone to die? This seems highly unlikely. Therefore, Sophie's choice to send one of her children to death, even if it would save the other child's life, would be unethical. The only ethical option would be to refuse to choose on the grounds that choosing someone to die is inherently ethical. While this might have been an acceptable decision based on the categorical imperative, it does seem a bit inhuman, to say the very least. Sophie's decision to follow the Kantian line of reasoning would have certainly lead to the imminent death of both of her children -- and how could a mother possibly decide to let both her children die? Isn't this even more awful than choosing one of them to die? Styron, in setting up this situation, seems to be making a strong comment on the very possibility of engaging in Kantian systems. How can one remove thoughts of personal well-being or profit from any decision? While such decisions might be ethical, they seem to fly in the face of everything that makes us human, since our first care is the survival of our progeny and ourselves. Sophie's choosing Jan as the child to survive was also not a spurious decision, but based on criteria. Jan was older and stronger, and in this way, Sophie's decision ultimately adhered not to a Kantian sense of ethics, but to a utilitarian one. But the ultimate fate of her children also raises some questions about the sustainability of that system of judgment, too.
Utilitarianism is a philosophy that argues that ethics should be based on their ability to provide happiness to people. The most common phrasing of this ethical concept is "that action is best which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers" (Honderich 589). The general thrust, though, is that morality is to be judged by its utility rather than a categorical imperative. Unlike Kant's system in which one does not consider the outcome of taking a certain action, utilitarianism bases its entire premise on the idea that the ends are what will justify the means. What's attractive about utilitarianism is its virtual simplicity. Rather than an expansive analytical network like the Kantian categorical imperative, one only needs to act such that one's actions bring about the desired results. One can easily imagine several principle difficulties with utilitarianism, however. The most obvious difficulty is that almost anything can be done with a utilitarian justification. With the right argument, we can make a sound utilitarian argument for killing a child or dropping a nuclear bomb. Many "terrorists" might make utilitarian claims regarding their own actions, saying that while they are extreme and have immediate horrific results, their long-term results will be beneficial and justified. Nonetheless, there is a very basic appeal in utilitarianism, because, especially under states of duress, this is how we seem to make decisions. We choose the action or series of actions that we think will ultimately benefit us. In comparison to Kant's analytical system, this idea seems very human, and so it is only natural that it is this very understandable and emotional method that the distressed Sophie uses for making her unholy decision.
Styron's novel implicitly critiques this concept as well. The critique here chiefly comes from the fact that Sophie's decision, although it is made along utilitarian lines, does not work. Sophie chooses Jan because he is stronger and older and she feels it is more likely that he could survive life in the camp. But her bet does not pan out, because it does not appear that Jan survived. This brings up the major difficulty with utilitarianism -- since the ends justify the means, what happens when you make a decision with the hope of bringing about a certain goal and that goal does not pan out? Is your action then unethical? And can we then only decide whether an action is moral by its effects? This situation would be perplexing indeed, because one couldn't know if a decision was ethically correct while one was undertaking it. Even more to the point, we could imagine a situation in which a choice fluctuates between being ethical and unethical as the process of history unfolds. To take a purely hypothetical example, imagine one country invades another country to liberate that country from an authoritarian dictator. If the country succeeds, a utilitarian might say the action was ethical. But what if the invasion caused so much destruction that the invaded country's economy was ruined and millions died in a resulting…