Do you remember a time you were in an ethics class and were given a “Sophie’s Choice?” That is, a choice between two things that are so horrible that a good choice is impossible. Common versions are “kill this group or that,” “kill this individual or this group,” “kill your spouse or your offspring,” etc.
The common thread to all these questions is that there is no solution that could fairly be called “ethical.” Let’s take the question of “kill your wife vs. kill your daughter.” You can make all sorts of economic analysis, of course. “The wife has a good job, but the daughter is expensive!” You could even do a sort of emotional economics analysis: “It’d be less painful emotionally to grieve for a wife than to grieve for a child.” You could do a genetic analysis. “The child shares half my genes. The wife shares none.” You could do a memetic analysis. “The child may share this percent of my views. The wife definitely shares that percent of my views.” You could do a projection of the future. “If I kill the daughter, it’ll ruin my relationship with my wife. If I kill the wife, I’ll keep my relationship with the daughter.”
But, of course, none of this suffices. This is why it’s useful in an ethics class. It’s a problem that can be chewed on and split into chunks, but its core cannot be digested. Regardless of your non-ethical analysis, the ethical question remains the cellulose in the shit.
I think this represents a line of demarcation between two types of questions. To get at this, I’m going to take a quick detour through a math anecdote.
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A few months ago, a friend of mine (a mathematician) was talking about cake cutting. We are all familiar with the algorithm by which you solve the question of getting two self-interested players to cut the cake evenly:
1) First player cuts.
2) Second player chooses first slice.
Assuming self-interest (and cutting precision), this should always result in even slices.
My friend was speculating as to whether or not it would be possible to find a general cake-cutting algorithm to cut a cake into n slices. I tried to come up with some methods, and I think I even had a solution for even numbered slices (I unfortunately, didn’t keep my notes). The following day, while spending time with friends, I bought an oreo cake. We all spent some time speculating on the problem, without reaching many conclusions.
I later found out that the cake cutting problem is a well-studied area of math, complete with terms like “envy free division.”
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I want to suggest that cake cutting and Sophie’s choice problems are fundamentally different. Here’s why: in both cases, there is an ethical and economic dilemma. In the wife vs. child question, the economic concerns are smaller than the ethical concerns. In the case of cake cutting, the economic concerns are much more important. We can imagine a case where both parties are angry because they each wanted 75% of the cake, but we believe the fair division was the bigger concern.
I think there is an important distinction there: Some problems (even hard ones) can be reduced to cake cutting. Others refuse to reduce.
An example of a hard ethical question that could be reduced to cake cutting would be the dilemma of two lovers. So you have two men who you love, both of whom you would like to be with. Social rules force you to make a choice. The ethical question is over hurt feelings. However, where we cannot countenance the emotional economics in a Sophie’s choice, we have no problem doing it for the choice of lovers. We accept that feelings will be hurt, but are willing to move forward with the analysis, prioritizing the particulars – is this person physically attractive, do we share common goals, is he smarter than the other? We’re back to cake cutting.
You with me so far? I hope so.
A famous example of a Sophie’s choice is the bombing of Hiroshima. For the sake of argument, I’m making two assumptions:
1) The Japanese would not have surrendered as a result of a demonstration of the bomb on an unpopulated area
2) It was very likely that, having used the bomb, the Japanese would surrender
3) The Japanese people who stand to be killed are largely non-combatants who don’t play a direct role in the deaths of Americans, including purely innocent individuals such as small children.
I’m not saying 1, 2, and 3 are true. I’m saying, since I don’t want to get to far into this question per se, let us make those simplifying assumptions.
If we make those assumptions, we’re back to a Sophie’s choice: Kill a bunch of American or Kill a bunch of Japanese. Once again, we can try to cut the cake: “They started the war.” “It’s important geopolitically to show the U.S.S.R. we have this weapon.” “A nation’s first role is to protect its citizens, not those of other nations.” “It will result in fewer deaths overall.”
I think you’ll agree these are (as I’m using the term) economic questions. They’re cake cutting questions. They fail to answer the central ethical concern – is it ethical to take x lives for the sake of y lives.
The cake cutting part of the problem is easy. The ethical question remains impossible.
Let’s go back to your ethics class. Do you remember how you answered the question? I don’t. But what I do remember is thinking what a pointless exercise this was – pointless, because it is a form of choice I will almost certainly never face. We’ve all faced problems that were ethically difficult, but very few of us have faced problems that we couldn’t ultimate take back to cake cutting.
Over time, I’ve come to think that’s the real answer. The answer isn’t “kill the wife” or “kill the daughter.” The answer is that we should try to avoid situations in which Sophie’s choices arise.
This is why I mention Nagasaki.
I believe it was Keegan who wrote that war is normal life turned upside down. Back home, if someone tries to kill you, he is reviled and sent to jail. In war, if someone succeeds in killing you, he is treated as a hero.
I would add that war also increases the instance of Sophie’s choices. If somehow you could plot a graph of Sophie’s choices over time, I suspect you would see it clustering around war. You might also see it around events like famine or plague, but war would likely be where the real spikes occur.
And, I think, this is as good a reason as any to try to make a world without war. We accept that nobody should have to make an impossible choice. I think we can also accept that the instance of Sophie’s choices increases during war. In other words, the ethical questions in war lack solutions in themselves, so we ought to avoid encountering the questions in the first place.
In that regard, the Nagasaki question is not one where I see an affirmative “ethical” “non-ethical” characterization. The existence of the question itself is inherently non-ethical. A good ethics then should not just provide the solution to the dilemma, but try to stop the dilemma from ever existing.
Shall we say: Make cake. Not war.