That was the unthinkable dilemma revealed at the climax of the Meryl Streep classic Sophie’s Choice, which left the heroine emotionally scarred for the rest of her life.
The poignancy of that final scene tears at the insides of anyone who’s ever seen it. Some things are too hideous even to contemplate, and we simultaneously rage against the evil of the Nazi tormentor and ache for the mother who had to choose and could never forgive herself for choosing.
But reality can be just as disturbing as fiction. A recent study by University of Florida scientists describes how herons, egrets, and storks living in the Everglades willingly sacrifice some of their young to alligators living below their nests so that the alligators will protect the remaining chicks from raccoon and possums.
The deal makes perfect sense for the alligators: they get a steady diet of baby birds falling from the sky almost straight into their mouths. And it makes perfect sense for the mothers as well: since birds typically have more young than they can care for, so giving up a few who wouldn’t survive anyway to protect the rest is practical, logical and, arguably, moral.
Except that it isn’t. What separates human beings from animals is conscience. When our moral compass is functioning as it should, simple pragmatism isn’t enough to govern our decision-making. And if the cost of cold, hard logic, no matter how sound, requires us to sacrifice our humanity, then it is our willingness to embrace the full measure of devotion to a higher moral standard that serves the greater good, even when no one else is watching and no one else will ever know.
Sacrifice of oneself for the benefit of others is the most noble quality of humankind. Sacrificing others for our own benefit shows us to be lower than the lowest animal. Because, unlike animals, we know better.
Or, at least, we should.