Ethical egoism is an idea that has generated a lot of controversies. There is a lot of comparison between psychological egoism and ethical egoism. The two should, however, be distinguished as they are not similar. Whereas ethical egoism advises we should be selfish, psychological egoism alleges we are indeed selfish. Ethical egoism influences our day to day decisions. For instance, is it alright to intrude someones privacy if we are reaching out to help? Ethical egoism contrasts with ethics of altruism as the latter encourages one to sacrifice for the good of the rest. I will be discussing the morally right decision that Sophie should make in Sophies Choice in this paper, in the light of ethical egoism.
According to ethical egoism, the decision which is morally right is the one that promotes an individuals interests (Rachels, 2012). Ethical egoism contradicts the common sense that we ought to balance our interests against those of other people. Whereas some may argue that ethical egoism promotes selfishness, there are reasons to contradict this. Ethical egoism could, in fact, enhance living in harmony among people. Several arguments are presented by ethical egoism as to why it beneficial and need embracing. There are however some arguments that oppose the arguments propagated by ethical egoism (Thomas, 1980).
In the film Sophies Choice, Sophie has to make a decision on which one of her two children should live. Under the circumstances she was in, it I almost impossible to make the morally correct decision. To understand which would be the morally right decision, we need to understand ethical egoism.
There are three arguments in support of ethical egoism. They are; altruism is destructive to oneself, Ayn Rands argument, and commonsense morality and ethical egoism are compatible (Smith, 2006).
The argument that altruism is self-destructive has several explanations. It says that each individual is intimately aware of their needs. For this reason, one is strategically in a position to pursue their wants. If someone were to do it for someone else, they would not understand what the other person needs inexactness and may end up doing harm rather than helping. It also says that taking care of other peoples needs is an intrusion into their privacy and is offensive. In other words, minds the business of other people. The argument also says that charity demeans people and takes away their dignity and self-respect. The argument explains why beneficiaries of charity are most of the time resentful instead of appreciative. There are some bases on which we can disagree with this argument. For instance, is feeding a hungry child an intrusion of their privacy? It most definitely not an intrusion
Secondly Ayn Rand viewed the ethics of altruism as detrimental to the society as a whole and to the individual who lives by it (Smith, 2006). She says altruism is a denial of the value of ones own life. According to her, those who accept ethics of altruism are ready to sacrifice their lives rather than live it. Sacrificing ones life refers to giving up ones goals and projects in life. She argues that altruism does not value the life an individual as it can be readily sacrificed. One has only one life, and therefore it should be lived optimally. According to her ethical egoism is the philosophy that we should embrace as it allows us to view our lives as of having ultimate importance. She also says that ethical egoism will not impede doing well as if one wants to help no one will stop him or her. A defect with this argument is that it suggests that there are two extremes, whereas practically there is some middle ground (Rachels & Rachels, 2003).
The third argument is that commonsense morality and ethical egoism are compatible. Commonsense morality comprises following of particular rules such as being truthful, not harming others. These rules are derived at from the core principle of self-interest. The explanation is that if we harm others they will retaliate and we will be looked down upon and shunned. It is therefore in ones self-interest not to harm others for ones good. On being truthful, if we lie to people we will acquire a bad reputation and people will lose trust in us and avoid any involvement with us in business for instance.
There are also arguments against ethical egoism. The first one is that ethical egoism encourages wickedness (Smith, 2006). An example is a company that produces harmful products to sell to the population to earn a profit. An example of this is a pharmaceutical company that sells drugs with adverse side effects despite knowing it simply because doing so is in line with their interests. The second argument is that logically, ethical egoism is inconsistent. Logical inconsistency comes by when one persons interest is not in line with another persons interest. The third argument against ethical egoism is that it violates the principle of equal treatment to all as it encourages us to regard ourselves as of an elevated category from the rest. For this reason, as a moral theory, ethical egoism fails (Baier, 1967).
In Sophies Choice, Sophie has to decide on whether to keep one of her children or have them both taken away. She chose to keep her seven-year-old son, and her eleven-year-old daughter was to die immediately by gassing. The decision that is morally correct would have been to be neutral and not choose any child over the other. Under different circumstances, the ideal action would be to save both her children. In this situation, however, it was impossible for her to keep both children. The justification of her choosing the son is the fact that he was younger and also that if she did not make a choice both her children would die anyway.
Sophie attempts to get her son out of the concentration camp and have him join Lebensborn program by seducing Rudolf Hoss, commander of Auschwitz. She does this while interning as a stenographer-typist at his home. She is not successful and never finds out what happens to her son. We later discover what happened to her daughter in the movie.
In her choice, Sophie loses focus on what would be best for her. She carries so much guilt for choosing one of her children over the other. The more appropriate decision morally would be not to choose from which one of her kids lives. Not making a choice, would protect her from the torture of having to choose one child and leaving the other to die. Sophie does not weigh the long-term and short-term effects of her choice. In the short term, she may have saved her sons life. In the long run, however, this may not be as beneficial as she does not know what becomes of her child whom she saved. She is also forced to live the rest of her life keeping a secret that torments her. That title signifies her secret which is her selection of one of her children. The choosing of one child breaks her, and this is the reason why she eventually walks down the path of self-destruction. Had Sophie carefully weighed her choices, her life may not have had a tragic ending. She may have lost both her children, but it was beyond her control, and therefore she could try and move on with her life. Her guilt from the choice she made, however, makes this impossible.
In light of ethical egoism, Sophie does not put her interests before that of her children. It apparently seems that she is willing to sacrifice her life for her childrens sake. To a large degree, this is not morally correct as her life is also of value. Her altruism results in self-destruction. Despite meaning to do well, she ends up helping neither her nor her children. She does accept the fact that things were out of her control and she did her best to save her children. Eventually, this leads to her committing suicide with her husband Nathan by ingesting sodium cyanide.
In summary, the correct moral decision made by Sophie ought to have been based on ethical egoism. In this scenario, it would have been beneficial to her as she did have much say on what becomes of her children. The tragic results of altruism are depicted in the choice Sophie makes and its consequences. By choosing to throw away her life, it does neither her nor her gone kids any good.
Baier, K. (1967). The moral point of view: A rational basis of ethics. N.Y: Random House.
Rachels, J. (2012). Ethical egoism. Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 14, 193.
Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2003). The elements of moral philosophy (p. 20). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Smith, T. (2006). Ayn Rand's normative ethics: The virtuous egoist. Cambridge University Press.
Thomas, L. (1980). Ethical egoism and psychological dispositions. American Philosophical Quarterly, 17(1), 73-78.
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