Term Paper: William Styron's Novel Sophie's Choice

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[. . .] Another important ethical system that contrasts with Styron's views is the relativist position. An ethical relativist believes that ethical norms are contextual to a society, not inherently valuable:

Ethical Relativism is t]he view that moral appraisals are essentially dependent upon the standards that define a particular moral code, the practices and norms accepted by a social group at a specific place and time... there exists no point-of-view from which these codes can themselves be appraised, no 'absolute' [sic] criteria by which they can be criticized.

Honderich 758)

From a relativist standpoint, any one ethical system is as good as another. Morality and ethics have no intrinsic "value"; that is to say, ethics and morals derive their meaning from the cultures that create them and are meaningful only insomuch as the remain within that cultural context. To export one's own morality for the judgment of another is an absurd exercise, because one's own morality is just as meaningless out of context as the one that it is judging. It is important to realize that a relativist may not accept the statement that morality is meaningless; rather the issue is that morality is defined so contextually that its meaning is dependent upon context. The difficulty occurs when ethical systems clash. Since these ethical decisions only have a meaning within their own systematic contexts, how can you possibly judge them in some "objective" fashion? The simple relativist answer is, then, that you can't.

From the example of the terrible choice that Sophie is forced to make, one might ultimately conclude that Styron, then, accepts a relativist position on morality. Almost anyone would have to reject Kantian values in this application -- by applying the categorical imperative Sophie would have almost certainly lost both of her children, and how could anyone call a mother immoral for being unwilling to sacrifice both of her children to the "higher cause" of an abstract ethical system? Making such a choice would seem terrible, cruel, and inhuman, so we can say of the Kantian analyzing Sophie's situation that, if he is willing call her unethical, he may be "theoretically" correct, but he has no heart. Utilitarianism seems similarly flawed, and Sophie's good faith efforts to save one of her children probably did not work -- regardless she is at best uncertain as to her son's survival and doubts of it. In the face of such radically damning evidence, then, is not the only solution to agree with the relativists, to say that all systems are relative and that the morality of Sophie's decision is beyond the pale of morality? Can we, too, then, refuse to judge the SS officer who imagines this terrible choice? Can we simply argue that his statement was part of the Nazi system of values and therefore his decision, too, is untouchable using our moral judgments? Surprisingly, Styron does choose to judge the Nazi, but in a deeply strange and theological way. Although Styron does cast doubt on these several moral systems, he ultimately uses the terror and tragedy of Sophie's situation as the foundation for a theological surmise.

Styron explains that the Nazi procedures at Auschwitz varied greatly, and then, in imagining the SS officer who forced Sophie to choose one of her children, assumes that he has been torn down and disillusioned by the terrible weight of his job inspecting people and deciding if they are to live or die. He starts to believe as the relativist does, that there can be no such thing as an inherent value to morality, and more to the point, that there can be no such thing as sin. In realizing this, Styron's hypothetical guard comes to doubt God's existence, saying that "It had to do with the matter of sin, or rather, the realization that the absence of sin and the absence of God were inseparably intertwined" (Styron 565). If sin does not exist, then that is because there is no one sitting above us and arbitrating the morality our decisions -- and this missing arbitrator, God, who is to give meaning to our lives -- deeply disturbs the SS officer. So he formulates a plan to restore his faith in God by creating the greatest possible sin:

Was it not supremely simple, then, to restore his belief in God, and at the same time to affirm his human capacity for evil, by committing the most intolerable act of sin that he was able to conceive?

Styron 566)

Thus, the SS officer commits the worst sin possible in order to convince himself that sin exists, and then, by extension, that God exists. Here, Styron calls the officer's act evil, but points out that even an evil can have a purpose and that even evil can strangely be affirmative. Thus, Sophie's decision, for Stingo, is not the cause of a plummet into the depths of relativism and meaninglessness, but acts as a fulcrum to restore faith in God and even to return to the idea that there is an inherent, and in fact divine, meaning to morality.

Thus, Sophie's decision, for Styron, ultimately serves as a theological proof, a proof that, by extension, serves to show that Styron believes in an inherent meaning to morality very much in the same manner that Kant does. It's interesting that Styron chooses to come to this conclusion by first implicitly criticizing the other forms of morality. One questions, however, what Styron would argue the moral path for Sophie would have been. Is she to be viewed as the victim of human evil and is Styron then suggesting that, when faced with truly diabolical human evil, no solution can be truly moral? Are we then to view Sophie as merely an example -- is she a sacrificial lamb who enables the rest of us the find our belief in God as the narrator does? Perhaps unlike Kant, that rational philosopher who felt the need to analyze morality into a science, Styron is willing to act like his narrator and ultimately let these unseemly issues fall under the categories of tests of faith. Perhaps their inability to be answered would be, for Styron, a testimony to the mystery of God and the mystery of life, and these very questions and their essentially unanswerable nature are also testaments to the existence of a greater theology that pervades all of our existence. Regardless, in his apt hypothetical situation of Sophie's terrible choice, Styron has presented an example that deeply questions the foundations of all of our ethical schools of thought.

Bibliography

Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Styron, William. Sophie's… [END OF PREVIEW]

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