Bioethics Blogs

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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.