Consider the following two scenarios, a specific one, and a more general one:

Specific Scenario

  1. A long time ago, a robber, Rob, stole a large sum of money from a bank, and "got away" with it.
  2. Rob had a child, Unice, who went on to attend a university and became a wealthy doctor.
  3. Rob used the stolen funds to pay for Unice's education.
  4. The stolen bank deposits were not insured at the time, and it turns out that Rob had stolen from the savings account of a person named John.
  5. John also had a child, Paul, who he had hoped to send to a university as well, to become a doctor.
  6. After the theft, John could not afford to send Paul to a university. Paul, went on to a different career, but with an income that was a fraction of Unice's.
  7. Rob and John have died a long time ago. Unice and Paul are both alive. Through the use of DNA technology, Paul recently found out that Unice's father was the original bank robber.

Question: Are there any moral theories that would prescribe an obligation or debt from Unice to Paul? I.e. What, if anything, does Unice owe to Paul?

General Scenario

  1. A long time T ago, a group of people, P, benefited financially from doing something wrong (e.g. stealing, exploiting, repressing, etc...) to another group of people, V.
  2. At some point, P stopped the wrongdoing towards V, but was not punished for it.
  3. Members of P and V are now dead, but their descendants, are alive today. Most of the wealth that P had obtained was passed onto their descendants and had compounded over the years since.

What, if anything, do the descendants of P owe to the descendants of V?

  • 2
    Most religions will happily punish people for the crimes of their ancestors. But there's really no justice in it.. nor could one make any good ethical argument for it. It's barbaric.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 20:04
  • We don't prosecute anyone other than the guilty parties involved. Accomplices may be prosecuted if they aided / abetted during the period defined by the statute of limitations. And "group" isn't specific enough. We need relevant names / identities and documentation / evidence of specific crimes committed. We don't prosecute people (dead or alive) retroactively, for laws not on the books at the time they did whatever things we disapprove of. Nor do we prosecute people by simple association, which is prejudicial. We must pinpoint which policy-making officials were involved, first.
    – Bread
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 1:18
  • 2
    @Bread This isn't presented as a criminal law situation, in which nobody but Rob would be guilty. This is more of a civil law or equity situation. Unice benefited from Rob's illegal action that hurt Paul. Clearly, this isn't fair. What should be done about it? What would make this more nearly fair? Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 17:12
  • 2
    @Bread Nobody's talking about holding people responsible for crimes. Nor does equality under the law prevent courts from ordering some people to pay money to other people. The question is not about punishment for crimes, nor even legality. It's about what ought to be done morally in a certain situation. Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 21:41
  • 1
    @Bread I still fail to see what criminal liability has to do with this. Rob's dead, and nobody else committed a crime. There will be no prosecutor under any circumstances. Paul could well be a plaintiff in a civil suit, which operates on considerably different rules. If he were to win something in the case, Unice would not go to jail or be fined, just ordered to pay Paul a certain sum of money. Unice did not commit a crime, but Unice is in some manner a receiver of stolen property, and has no legal claim to it. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 16:56

3 Answers 3


The title describes what is known as the doctrine of ancestral fault, with blood vengeance as an extreme manifestation. It was common in archaic societies, but was pushed out with the establishment of civic morality and law since antiquity. "The guiltless will pay for the deeds later: either the man's children, or his descendants thereafter" we still hear from Solon in 6th century BC. Some rudiments remain to this day, in private sentiment, religion (original sin), and law (mostly concerning inheritance, the role of "next of kin", etc.). Ancestral Fault in Ancient Greece is a good historical study.

However, the scenarios in the post, where financial benefit is involved, are not cases of ancestral fault. The beneficiaries of financial misdeeds need not even be related to the perpetrator by blood, the issue is essentially that of benefiting from stolen goods. The latter is generally recognized as unethical, although not always legally enforceable for pragmatic reasons. The general rule is that the inheritor of an estate inherits also its debts and liabilities, including those stemming from it being illicitly acquired. However, the passage of time may make "fair reckoning" into an intractable morass. A prominent and controversial case is that of reparations for slavery since slave ownership contributed to accumulated wealth of slave owners, and by inheritance, their ancestors. There exists no legal precedent so far, but the fact that the issue is actively discussed and debated indicates that there is a recognized ethical responsibility. The adoption of affirmative action is another manifestation of this recognition. Williamson expresses a common sentiment that redirects the responsibility in such non-monetary directions:

"The people to whom reparations are owed are long dead; our duty is to the living, and to generations yet to come, and their interests are best served by liberty and prosperity, not by moral theory"

The counterarguments typically deny not the responsibility but the practicality of reparations. For example, Frum argues that deciding who qualifies and for how much is next to impossible, and the process opens up vast opportunities for predatory abuse and government waste, "people who provide the service usually end up with much more sway over the spending than the spending's intended beneficiaries", etc. In a less dramatic form similar considerations support limiting legal responsibility on inheritance issues generally. Whether the descendants owe something legally, and how much, in the OP scenarios will depend on inheritance laws and minutiae of the legal system in their country, and likely on judge's discretion as well. Deciding how much of the wealth is the fruit of the theft and how much is not wouldn't be straightforward, if tractable at all. Ethics does not dictate reparation amounts.


The descendants owe nothing, unless they were party to the crime. We all benefit from the criminal activity and suffering of others. If you are a trial lawyer or a medical doctor you make a career of it. But the benefit of the lawyer, doctor, or non-participating descendant are with absence of malice, and their benefit arguably is to the greater good of society. Just as Unice's education arguably is. That is the distinction. We cannot hold a specific person under specific circumstances accountable for their benefit from the crimes and suffering of others unless we hold all persons under all circumstances so accountable. I submit those circumstances are ubiquitous throughout the existence of humanity. The end of our days must therefore be the end of all responsibility for our actions. It is arguably the end of our benefit from our actions.

  • I was thinking of posting a similar answer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 5 at 12:10

Unice has no debt or obligation to anyone but Rob, who gave him the college money. Rob in turn has a debt and obligation to Paul, but since Paul is dead Rob has an obligation to repay John. But since Rob is dead who will repay him? Should people be held accountable for the financial debts of their late parents? Whatever that answer, contrast it with the answer to this: Should anyone be held responsible for a debt they didn't approve of? Should we ask whether Unice was aware of where the money came from before he started college?

I believe that if Unice knew the money was stolen he'd be liable to Paul since the money stolen was Paul's, stolen from a person holding the money for Paul.

But what if Unice was in the dark?

Then he was potentially victimized by Unice, who changed his life path and had him go to college rather than several other options that were perhaps never presented to Unice. It is not really possible to assume that Unice was happier as a college graduate than he would have been as only a high school graduate who went on to found a high tech company in a garage then become a billionaire, perhaps marrying his high-school sweetheart with no interference from potential college sweethearts.

It is possible that Unice's fate was changed for the better or the worse, but it is a fact that we can't know that answer either way. Since we can't know that answer we can identify neither Unice nor Paul as victims. In fact, Paul might have it better now.

Other considerations are that the money might have burned in a fire had it not been stolen. All we can know is that it did not burn, it was stolen, and it was used. If Unice had no idea he was using stolen money to go to college then he is not ethically or legally responsible for the crimes of Rob the Robber.

In fact, what if Rob was- instead of Unice's father- his lover? The whole scenario could have still existed and could have still been played out if Rob had a different tie to Unice. It's not like the only way this crime could have been committed was by Rob being specifically the father of Unice.

Rob, despite his relation to Unice, could still have stolen the money for Unice to go to college- then where would Unice's accusers put Unice if Unice had no knowledge of the crime commited by, say, his lover?

Unice owes nothing to Paul or anyone else. Paul has nowhere to go to get retribution. He is then a victim who will have to be reimbursed- if at all- by kind strangers who hear his story.

Sometimes a forest burns to the ground- and the deer aren't compensated for the loss of their habitat. Paul can only accept that his entitlement to compensation falls on the ears of a dead man- who is Rob the robber. This is a dead end for Paul.

Unice has no debt if he was in the dark.

  • 2
    You seem to be making a lot of low-probability speculations. This is an example of a possible moral problem, not a case study. We can assume that it's better to have the option to go to college than not to, and that John's money would have been used to help Paul achieve a better life, and that exemplifies the moral problem. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 16:29
  • 1
    If you have any references to others who take a similar view that would strengthen your answer. Regardless, welcome to this SE! Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 16:44

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