Sophie’s Choice: Sophie forced to choose which of her two children to send to the gas chambers so the other would live in William Styron’s novel (and a movie starring Meryl Streep).
Gandhi said there’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed, which can be read as a recipe for meeting everyone’s need: Just cut out the greed.
It can also be read as a description of the human condition: Apparently, at least so far, we can’t just eliminate everyone’s greed.
Humans rarely leave advantages unexploited. Exceptions to this tendency – the people who do leave advantages unexploited – are readily replaced by those that don’t. As economic research suggests, money doesn’t get left on the table. The same is so for all potential personal advantages, even those that aren’t rightfully ours but are within our reach.
Whether we might ever transcend humanity’s greed is not germane to addressing the world we’ve had so far or can have any time soon.
Given greed, there is not enough for everyone’s needs. There will be have-nots, and the Sophie’s-choice question is who should they be. If you were in charge of the world and had to decide who would be the have-nots, who would you choose?
This Sophie’s-choice question makes me glad I’m not in charge of the world. I raise it to sober that sentiment in any of us that assumes that if we were in charge of the world we would supply enough for everyone’s needs because we care about the needy in ways that our leaders don’t. We’re woke. We’re all loving.
That sentiment has been the theme of woke campaigns since the Axial age, since Jesus, Buddha, and Lao Tsu.
Such self-congratulatory wokeness is a little greedy actually, a smug sense that we’re uniquely woke to the world’s woes in ways that would make us ideal managers. It’s a fun and healthy fantasy to visit but none of us should live there. Given the greed woven indelibly into human nature, indeed living nature itself – the self-serving nature of all organisms – Philosophy’s Sophie’s choice is the real question: Deciding who should go without.
It’s a terrible, horrible, no good, yet very real question. Ours is not to answer it; nor is it ours to shirk it.
I’d start with the dead. I’d make them the have-nots.
I study and have taught history. I revere many dead people, relatives, geniuses, pioneers, and above all, the many souls who made this improved world that I’m fortunate to call home. Revering the dead can help us keep fresh their high resolve and great insights.
Still, they had their day in the sun. Best not to waste resources on them. The living have yet to get their days in the sun.
Starting with the dead is obvious and easy. Still, it has some bearing on how we live. To the extent that we live afraid to shock or disappoint our ancestors and the founders of ideologies, we stumble forward with corpses hanging to our ankles. Many people trod sluggishly with an eye to what the dead would think instead of prioritizing the living. This applies at the personal and cultural levels. It takes a while to grow beyond concern for what our parents would think of how we live, and cultures can be stuck on some old notion for millennia. Francis Bacon, who gave first voice to the scientific revolution made just this point. Enough already with what Aristotle thought. We don’t owe him any reverence. He’s dead.
OK, but the dead are not enough have-nots. Who else, if I were in charge of the world (which thankfully, I’m not)?
The aged would be next. I can say that now that I’m becoming aged (63 next month). We’ve had our day in the sun too. No one can take our experiences away from us. The young have yet to get theirs. We should be the have-nots. Some old folks recognize this and dedicate themselves to trying to eke out more habitability for the young, President Carter, for example.
Others – the Giuliani’s, Trumps, Kochs, and Adelsons of the world act more like nihilist psychopaths exploiting all possible advantages and then some. The professional psychopath, Giuliani has said he doesn’t care about legacy since he’ll be dead soon. Starve such beasts, all proud backward-looking aged nihilists. They would top my list of living have-nots. If forced to choose between giving more to toddlers or seniors, the toddlers would win.
Obviously. It’s what everybody concludes in lifeboat thought-experiments: “Children first.”
We’re told that respect for elders is in cultural decline. Perhaps culturally, but not economically and politically. We seniors hoard money and power. We demand accommodation at the expense of the needy young. We’re smug about it too, claiming that kids today have no respect for sacrifice.
Why don’t elders take a bullet for the youth? And why do the young enable them? After all, the young are not supposed to pay elders back directly for the world they bequeathed. The young are supposed to pay their parents back by taking care of children and the future.
An obvious reason is that the elders worked hard all life long and are now finally, in retirement getting their day in the sun, the first freedom in a long working life. They’ve saved for it. They get to spend what they saved.
But another reason is that elders are in grief. We old folks miss our day in the sun. Something in elders expects to be maintained in the manner to which they were accustomed. The young feel our disappointment and come to our aid.
I had dinner recently with a retired 92-year-old medical doctor, still lively and fun, enjoying his final years to the extent his body lets him. He still goes to the temple every day. When he’s not in the temple, he’s mostly watching Fox News.
I asked him why he goes to the temple still. Does he do it to ensure that he’ll have a good afterlife? He waved that suggestion away. No, he does it because he knows how. He knows the prayers. It gives him a sense of competency, one of the few places left he can still have that sense.
The aged are often grieving their own loss. You don’t hit a mourner when he’s down. It feels greedy to ask them to sacrifice for the young when they’re mourning their own decline, their loss of competence. No wonder too, Fox news on all day, old people raging against the dying of their light, enjoying the sense of competence in “if I were in charge of the world” self-righteousness at the expense of the young.
I’ve signed all of the “do not resuscitate” health directives. I’ve instructed my daughter to encourage her not to deliberate much about when to pull the plug. Most deaths are haphazard. Very few lives end well and they all end.
True it’s hypothetical. I’m 62 in good health. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if as I age I stop being so valiantly cavalier about letting myself go. It’s easy to imagine exercising the courage of my insignificance in the abstract but picking the day to die is different.
If I were in charge of the world, I’d also try to do something about this sense of life as culminating in the big send-off, the well-attended reverential memorial, proving it was all worth it. I spent years cueing things up as though the object of the game of life was a glorious finale.
I’m glad I got over it. I figure by very old age I’ll be demented enough that if I’m in bad spirits I’ll fictionalize my life as bad and if I’m in good spirits, as good. Either way, fiction.
And in a few years, I won’t be remembered anywhere ever, which is just as it should be. Life rolls forward not backward. The leading edge is what counts if we have to choose. And we do, since having enough for everyone’s need is an unachievable goal. Worth working for but not realistic anytime soon.
The loving, caring Sophie’s choice question is ugly. I don’t like having to think about it. I’d prefer to just assume I’m one of the good ones and if the world were just full of more woke folk like me there would be enough for everyone’s need. Like I said, nice fantasy to visit but I shouldn’t live there. Ours is not to answer the question, nor is it to shirk it.
Above all, I let the question stand as a counter to that smug woke, greedy sense in any of us that since we love and care, we’d simply provide for everyone’s need.