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Philosophy and Literature 30.1 (2006) 174-189

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Sophie's Choice:

Letting Chance Decide

University of Arizona

When, if ever, should individuals facing a genuine moral dilemma adopt a random decision procedure to determine the outcome of that dilemma? Or to put the question more metaphorically, is it ever morally preferable to determine the outcome of a moral dilemma by flipping a coin? In this paper, I will argue that sometimes it is. To make this argument, I consider a particularly agonizing moral dilemma—the one found in William Styron's Sophie's Choice. Drawing on this famous example of a moral dilemma, I identify three salient features of a moral dilemma that make it morally permissible, and even morally preferable, for an agent to adopt a random decision procedure to determine its outcome. By 'morally preferable,' I do not mean to imply that an agent is morally required to adopt a random decision procedure to determine the outcome of a moral dilemma. As will be seen, I disagree with the view that humans must always pursue the most morally preferable course of action. Nevertheless, I contend that agents should adopt a random decision procedure when faced with a moral dilemma that possesses three salient features. These three features are: (1) when there is clearly no "better" outcome from the range of choices available to the agent; (2) when particular kinds of moral burdens (guilt burdens) can be alleviated by that agent adopting a random decision procedure; and (3) when the alternatives were given to, and not made by, the agent. The first two salient features are necessary for it to be morally permissible [End Page 174] to decide a moral dilemma using a random decision procedure. The third feature is not necessary since a person could, due to her morally permissible decisions, face a moral dilemma whose outcome could be legitimately determined by a random decision procedure. However, I maintain that all three features are jointly sufficient for determining when it is morally preferable to adopt a random decision procedure to decide the outcome of a moral dilemma.


Hard choices are decisions that require us to choose among conflicting goals, purposes, values, or goods that are very important to us. Such choices pervade our lives. According to David Schmidtz, to face such a hard choice can be "the price of the richness and complexity of a life well-lived. To have both ideals and loved ones is to run the risk of having to make decisions under unresolved conflicts of value."1 Although hard choices are often ordinary, some hard choices can also be genuine moral dilemmas.2

For my purposes, hard choices become genuine moral dilemmas when an agent cannot avoid violating his or her deeply held moral beliefs. Moreover, genuine moral dilemmas are dilemmas that have no "right" answer. So, for example, genuine moral dilemmas occur when an agent faces a decision between outcomes that are, as far as the agent can reasonably determine, equally bad or incommensurable. Indeed, some genuine moral dilemmas can involve choices between such horrible outcomes that it does not make sense to use moral language to justify their decisions—that is, to provide reasons for thinking that one outcome is preferable to another. In these cases, genuine moral dilemmas do not offer any possibility for moral redemption: the agent cannot morally justify choosing one outcome over another. Thus, genuine moral dilemmas can impose serious (and potentially devastating) moral costs on the decision-maker.

William Styron's Sophie's Choice presents an example of such a genuine moral dilemma. Sophie Zawistowska has been asked to choose which of her two children, Eva or Jan, will be sent to the gas chamber in Auschwitz. An SS doctor, Fritz Jemand von Niemand, will grant a dispensation to only one of Sophie's children. If she does not choose which one should live, Dr. von Niemand will send both to their death. Sophie chooses her daughter Eva to go to the gas chamber. Her son, Jan, is sent to the Children's Camp and she...


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