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The Luck of Oskar Groening

Oskar Groening – the so-called ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ who counted money taken from prisoners – is now on trial in Lueneberg. Some philosophers suggest that our moral assessment of people like Groening should take into account his ‘bad luck’ in having the opportunities he was offered to join the SS in 1942, and so on.

Thomas Nagel, for example, in a famous article on ‘moral luck’ notes that someone who became an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life had the Nazis not come to power. Nagel calls this ‘circumstantial luck’, and he believes that it troubles us because we think that people cannot be morally assessed ‘for what is due to factors beyond their control’. The rise of the Nazis was not within the control of Groening, and so, Nagel is suggesting, we are disinclined him to assess him for what he did as a result of that.

Something seems to have gone wrong here, however. Imagine that Groening tried this suggestion on his accusers: it would get him nowhere. What we should avoid is blaming people for what is not their fault – and that is just one class of things due to factors beyond the agent’s control. But we are not responsible for the contingent consequences of our action, and so another kind of moral luck – luck in how one’s actions turn out, or ‘resultant luck’ – does seem relevant to our moral assessments. Nagel offers what has become the standard case: the reckless driver who kills a pedestrian who just happens to step out into the road. We are inclined to blame this driver much more severely than an equally reckless driver who gets away with it, and this does seem problematic.

The reason, I suggest, is that morality, as it represents itself to us, is a system of norms governing our intentions, choices, and decisions – in a word, our wills. The rise of the Nazis was bad luck for Groening, but it doesn’t get him off the moral hook. He is accountable for what he willed, and that was knowingly to participate in genocide.

What about the common aphorism ‘There but for the grace of God go I’? These days, this isn’t usually used as a way of thanking God for his partiality to oneself rather than others. Rather, it is a plea for understanding and mercy; but in most cases it’s not meant to recommend complete pardon. Counterfactuals are notoriously tricky, but let’s say that it’s true that were I faced with circumstances relevantly similar to those facing Groening in 1942, I would do the same thing as he did. That suggests my character is no better than his; but it doesn’t imply that the moral quality of what he actually did is the same as that of my own actions in the world as it is.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. “That suggests my character is no better than his; but it doesn’t imply that the moral quality of what he actually did is the same as that of my own actions in the world as it is.”

    Isn’t this precisely Nagel’s point–that attributions of blame (and perhaps, more controversially, the delivery of punishment) ought to be based on character, rather than the contingency of what one’s actions happen to be in this world?

    Nagel would agree that the moral quality of your actions is superior to the moral quality of Groening’s. But the worry is that though the action is worthy of condemnation, it’s not clear why the person should be condemned, when their character is no worse than that of others. Our character, rather than our particular actions, seem much more central to a moral notion of identity.

    It seems to me we must say that our character is in part determined by our circumstances, actions, etc., so in a sense the counterfactual “What if I had been in his place?” is incoherent. Alternatively, since I think the notion that Groening is not blameworthy borders on the absurd, we might say that most of us (if it’s true that we would have done the same in his position) are (roughly) equally blameworthy.

    1. Thx Cody. Not sure about that — Nagel seems to be quite pessimistic about whether we can blame or praise anything when we reflect properly on the problem of moral luck. And as I said (without much argument I admit) I think morality governs actions, not character. You can’t be assessed for your character except in so far as you’ve done things, or not done things, that have brought it about. Michael Zimmerman comes to a conclusion quite like yours in his account of luck — and I suspect some people wld say it’s almost as absurd to say we are all as evil as Groening (and perhaps as good as some saint?).

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks, Roger, for this post.
    I almost agree with you, that “morality is a system of norms governing our intentions, choices, and decisions – in a word, our wills.”
    And that whilst the rise of the Nazis was “bad luck” for Groening, it doesn’t get him off the moral hook. (Let’s forget the millions of other people for whom fascism was “bad luck”)
    A couple of comments though :
    First, why do you write that “morality, AS IT REPRESENTS ITSELF TO US, is a system of norms…”? Do you mean to imply that “morality” exists out there as an independent thing and that we poor prisoners in Plato’s cave try to grasp what it represents (and whose axioms we presumably try – or ought – to follow) ?
    Secondly, restricting moral judgement to individual wills is IMHO rather limiting : don’t ideologies of whatever nature have moral status? I would argue that their effects can be far more wide-reaching than the actions of individuals.
    It is of course in individual minds that ideologies live, and through individual actions that they are put into practice, but I wonder whether it is not more effective to combat the ideology than the person. This doesn’t imply that individuals should not be held responsible and punished : but the search for clear rules in this case is, I fear, illusory – as Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader, exemplifies.

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      Apologies for the important missing word in my second paragraph : what I meant to write was, of course, “Let’s NOT forget the millions of other people for fascism was “bad luck”.

    2. Thx Anthony. I used that phrase so as *not* to commit myself on whether morality ‘exists’ independently of our views, or whatever. My own view, FWIW, is that morality is in effect a fiction, but we have genuine non-moral reasons which aren’t fictional (see ch. 1 of my *Reasons and the Good*). Point taken about narrowness of ‘will’. But if ideologies don’t actually intentionally will anything, I can’t myself see how we can blame them. (I was thinking of morality in this narrow sense, linked to blameworthiness.) And I agree that it often makes practical sense to focus on non-persons.

  3. Your comments are interesting reading, but lets not forget that morals can only come into play when one has the choice.
    I am not stating that Oakar Groening was blameless, that is for the court to decide, but, when we stand in judgement of others we should consider whether or not they had a choice? were they offered an alternative? were they in a position where it was comply or suffer the consequences. If the answer is no! then can he be moralistically guilty?
    Roger states that “morality is a system of NORMS governing our intentions, choices, and decisions”; this can only be considered as the norm if one has the free will to make that choice. Roger also make the comment that “he is accountable” and this is of course correct, however, does being the company bookkeeper make you guilty of theft should the CEO be stealing from his company?

    1. Thx Patricia. Good point, but note that the consequences for Groening wouldn’t have been anything like those for the victims at Auschwitz, whom he knew about. And I think if you are the company bookkeeper and you know the CEO is stealing, not doing anything would be considered a moral and legal offence. One particularly interesting thing about the Groening case is that he admits his wrongdoing — though what’s not clear is whether he is claiming he only realized it later.

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