Following in Schindler’s footsteps

Can it be ethical to take a job working for an immoral corporation if one does so with the aim of making the world a better place?

Suppose, for example, that you could work for an arms company, supplying munitions to soldiers fighting an unjust war, in order that you could earn enough money to save thousands of lives? You know that, if you don’t take that job, someone else more ruthless than you will take it, hurting more people than you would.

Is that sufficient? Intuitively, it seems that it just can’t be ethical to do this. But a historical case suggests otherwise.

The example I’m thinking of is that of Oskar Schindler, who was immortalized through the novel Schindler’s Ark and the film Schindler’s List. Schindler ran munitions factories for the Nazis, producing mess kits and, later, ammunition for Nazi soldiers. He did this so that he could earn enough money to literally buy the lives of 1200 Jews.

A key aspect of the story is that he deliberately ran his factories less efficiently than whoever would have been in his place. Though accounts of Schindler have questioned his character – he was an opportunist and a womanizer – his decision to run the Nazi factories in order to save his workers has been universally admired.(1) In particular, we think that Schindler should have acted as he did even if he had had the option to escape, avoiding having to work for the Nazis, but saving a much smaller number of Jews.

As well as the sheer size of the benefit he was able to give others, two salient reasons why we think it admirable that he acted as he did are that he did not intend any of the harm that he caused – in fact he acted with the best of intentions – and that he in fact managed to better the lives of many people by running his factories less efficiently than the person who would have been in his shoes.

As regards career choice, we often think that working for an immoral organization is itself immoral. The example of Schindler shows this not necessarily to be the case. In general, if you have the view that pursuing professional philanthropy by working for an immoral corporation is unethical, then you have at the same time to be able to explain why Schindler acted commendably. It seems to me that this is pretty difficult to do.

(1) A casual survey of the many tribute websites reveals rhapsodic praise for Schindler. See, for example, Louis Bülow, Oskar Schindler: His list of life, 2011, who claims: ‘Oscar Schindler rose to the highest level of humanity, walked through the bloody mud of the Holocaust without soiling his soul, his compassion, his respect for human life.’ Even David M. Crowe’s biography, Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activites, and the True Story Behind the List (Basic Books, 2007), which takes a particularly dispassionate and unromantic view of Schindler, describes him as ‘one of the most remarkable Righteous Gentiles in the Holocaust’ (p.624).