The Value of a Life: A Moral Evaluation of Schindler’s List’s Oskar Schindler

By Blair Ewalt (12/2014)

How do you morally evaluate one’s life? Is it based off of society’s standards, personal standards, or are there absolute moral truths that are ever existent, even without the intervention of people? When ethically analyzing the qualities of any individual’s life, it is helpful to be very cautious, as no one is perfectly pious. It is also beneficial to not compare yesterday’s morals to today’s morals. For the simple passage of time can change societal values towards further liberalism and freedom. To exemplify, just because the bible says that slavery is normal, does not in any way justify slavery because it is no longer socially acceptable or apprehensible.

To start to evaluate morality, morality itself must be defined. Merriam-Webster defines morality as, “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior.” The concept of right and wrong behavior is based solely on the principle of reciprocity, or more simply put, “do unto others as you would have do unto you.” For example, if an elderly woman was struggling to reach for something on a top shelf, and you had the ability to help, it behooves you to help her, as it ends her suffering and makes everyone happier. Which is, at the end of the day, what most people seem to be seeking in order to have a fulfilled life, contentment. To clarify, the action of helping the elderly woman was not carried out for any intentional personal gain. It was done to make her life easier, as you would hope (if you were in her position) someone would be able to help you.

Although in the universe of obligations most people put themselves before others, to center on someone else or a group is giving them your service and gratitude which demonstrates great ethicality as that call to duty extends beyond that man’s own self-preservation. The three quintessential , “unalienable” rights from the United States Declaration of Independence are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Anytime anyone goes out of their way to pursue these rights for others, it illustrates civility and morality. If the person is having a profound positive impact on someone else’s life, then based on the principle of reciprocity they have done something morally right.

There are different levels of how right or wrong an action is depending on a few factors. First, whom is it affecting? How are they impacted? Second, why was the action carried out? What was the motive? Last, did the person who committed the deed ever take a moment to consider what they had done? For example, a little bit of infidelity burdens both partners with mistrust and further relationship problems; however, the act of cheating on one’s wife is still not as immoral as murder, since both lives can go on and the implications cheating are minimal compared to those of murder.

Comparing the principles of morality stated to the life of Oskar Schindler provides a two-sided argument, however, the positive outweighs the negative and Schindler’s net morality ends up being more righteous than the common man, even in his instances of greed, infidelity, and unethical business practices. Chronologically working through the film Schindler’s List, Schindler has a massive change of heart and makes a total ethical turnaround. Initially, Schindler’s business practices are not to standard code. He poses as someone more important than he truly is to persuade powerful people to respect and renown his name. Thus lying to Nazi generals in order to fulfill his own greed, hurting no one in the process. Oskar Schindler’s next move was to find himself an elegant, big home, and he did so by taking advantage of the newly available gentile dwellings. Schindler here did not directly cause any harm to anyone, he merely took his opportunity for cheap housing and repossession of their property. Although he was not causing anyone any further hardships, he was failing to help the decimation of the Jewish population as he knew their fates of being murdered or being put into labor-intensive camps.

His first step in the right direction is to hire the Jews to work for him, which kept them out of the streets where they would be at the mercy of Nazi soldiers. Although it should not be counted as moral because he is once again just taking advantage of the swift changes in Krakow, unintentionally his newfound slave labor force would have more opportunity to live a normal life thus leaving longer lasting moral implications.

A step in another direction would lead you to Schindler’s infidelity. Known for being charismatic, and getting what he wanted, Schindler would cheat on his wife  Emile quite extensively. This breech of trust, which mentioned earlier in regards to the principle of reciprocity, negatively affected his relationship and personally damaged his psyche. His infidelity was immoral, but then later fixed when he admitted to his sin to his wife and changed his ways.

Oskar Schindler’s began to sympathize with the Jews as they were not just people, but very kind, grateful people. His first bribe, a lighter given to Itzhak Stern was given because Schindler knew that it would end up saving the life of one of his workers. Even if it was in his own self-interest, as a larger workforce is a more productive workforce, he still managed to save a life through his own generosity. The quote, “whoever saves one life, saves the world entire,” represents the moral nature of this action. Schindler at this point had saved a life, which according to the principle of reciprocity is one of the most righteous actions that can be committed.

Past this point, almost all of Schindler’s actions are made in consideration of others. He kisses a Jew to make an example to a party of Nazi’s of his gratitude, fire hoses train cars in order to give them water, and personally talks to Amon Goethe, as a dominant figure, using reverse psychology in hopes to save the life of Goethe’s Jewish domestic worker Helen Hirsch. This reverse psychology leads to Goethe walking around, saving Jews instead of killing them, uttering, “I pardon you.”

Schindler’s list of Jews he wished to bring back to his hometown with him, was called, “…an absolute good. This list is life.” His list consisted of 1,200 lives he wanted saved. He took every precautionary step to verify that his will was to be met. He even made a trip to Auschwitz to save the train full of women and children that had been shipped there, in an attempt to keep families together and make everyone he could happier by treating them like people and not objects. Schindler’s compassion was unmatched, warning guards not to enter his factory, while subsequently telling a worker he should not be working but instead preparing for the Sabbath.

Schindler’s moral compass pointed in the right direction. His generosity, literally trying to spend his last cents, was unmatched by any other man of the era. The good men and women who were working for him were the only ones able to parallel his respect for others. On a map of social obligations, Schindler placed the Jewish people in the middle, and worried about himself last. And in the ending scene, where Schindler breaks down crying, he yawps, “I could’ve gotten more, I didn’t do enough,” only further verifying his dedication to the cause.

When asked to morally evaluate Oskar Schindler’s life, it is clear that he lived a partially immoral life, but the outcomes of his actions were so overwhelmingly positive for so many people and families, he must be regarded as an ethical hero. Schindler evolved, just like society’s values. He started out doing everything for himself, but then he finally opened his eyes to realize that he wanted to help everyone else, and asked for nothing in return. Oskar Schindler was an incredibly honorable and virtuous mensch.

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