Today’s ethical quandary is an oldie but a goodie: A scientist has created a time machine that can take you back in time to when Adolf Hitler was a baby (let’s say at five months old). You will be sent to his nursery at a time that baby Hitler is alone. The nature of the time machine is such that you are only there for a maximum of two minutes. You cannot bring baby Hitler back to the future with you. You can, however, kill him. Ignoring the question of whether it is possible to change the past or not, should you kill Hitler when he was a baby or not?
My students, following my example, don’t take long before offering up “Hitler and the Nazis” whenever I ask for an example of great moral evil. Indeed, if there were a prohibition on mentioning Hitler, I’m not quite sure what I’d do, pedagogically. I suppose I’d have to resort to fictional super-villains. (Maybe I should anyway. It’s not as depressing to talk about Lex Luther.)
So, faced with the opportunity to wipe out the source of perhaps the greatest evil perpetrated in the last couple of centuries, what would I do?
My initial thought is: Of course I would kill baby Hitler. But there are some mitigating ideas that cross my mind soon after.
For one thing, Hitler was not alone in carrying out the Holocaust, and perhaps it would have happened regardless of his existence. It could well be that social forces were pointing Germany in that direction, and that another figurehead would’ve stepped into Hitler’s place, if Hitler hadn’t been available. If we’ve learned anything from time travel movies it’s that the whole thing is very unpredictable. But let’s put this worry aside for the time being, and address my feeling that the baby Hitler should be killed.
I imagine that this is the popular intuition here. But what is the basis for this intuition? Well, I can see two probable bases: utilitarianism, and righteous vengeance.
Utilitarianism is the philosophical stance that ethical decisions should be made strictly on the basis of weighing the possible good and bad outcomes of your actions. Famously, utilitarianism says that, other things being equal, ten lives are more valuable than one life, and so an action that kills one person in order to save ten is ethically justified. (We’ll save the finer points of this theory for another post. Utilitarianism is not, as you might imagine, free from problems.) Well, if you can save ten lives by killing one, just imagine the scenario where you can save millions by killing one. That’s the scenario we’ve been tasked to analyze here. By killing the baby Hitler, we are ostensibly saving millions of lives that will eventually die at his command.
Another thing that makes me pause, when thinking about killing baby Hitler, is that I’m tremendously squeamish about death, and the idea of killing a baby (even an evil one) makes me blanch.
Now, psychological squeamishness, one could argue, has no place in ethics. If something is the right thing to do, and I don’t want to do it, I’m just wrong about that, despite whatever my superego is telling me.
But there is an aspect of this squeamishness that is actually philosophically relevant, and it revolves around the issue of virtue. Most theories of ethics are action-based. Utilitarianism, for instance, is supposed to tell you what to do in any given situation. Virtue ethics (Aristotle is most often credited as its founder) is based more on the idea of developing a good character — the idea is that if you are a generally virtuous person, you’ll generally make the right decisions when faced with moral dilemmas.
Well, it is reasonable to argue that it’s the sign of a virtuous character to be squeamish about killing a baby. And so perhaps killing the baby Hitler is the wrong thing to do, if we are to take virtue ethics seriously. Of course, it’s also the sign of a virtuous character to save millions of lives if you can, and so virtue ethics sends us mixed signals on this one.
The Right Thing To Do
In the end, I think that killing the baby Hitler is the right thing to do. And if you try to justify sparing his life, on the basis of virtuous squeamishness, you’re probably displaying the unvirtuous trait of cowardice.
There are some philosophers who argue that utilitarianism goes wrong in cases of human death, because it’s just wrong (and impossible) to weigh a life. But I say there’s something wrong with a theory of ethics that tells us we can’t weigh one life against millions.
Alec makes some good points in his write-up of the issue. I think that baby Hitler should also be killed, but I am not sure that it is for the same reasons. Let’s see.
What should we do if we have the chance to save a life, and we can do so at little to no peril to our own life? We should save the life. Few people would argue that point. Well, I might argue that point. I am not entirely convinced that life, least of all human life, is always worth saving, and that is not even based on the character or worth of the (human) life. That is a matter for another post though, perhaps. Here, I am content to go with the status quo and agree that life should be preserved.
If you see a person about to cross the street, but he does not see an oncoming car, you should alert the person to the danger, grabbing him if necessary (and, again, if it does not immediately imperil your own life). Should we save life if the only way that is available to us is to end the life of another? Whew. Good question. Do we have time left for this? We do? Dammit.
Hitler was a bad, bad, superbad, person. If anyone ever deserved to die, it was Hitler. Perhaps, as Alec suggested above, Hitler was not the sole person responsible for all the evil attributed to his movement, but he was close enough to the sole person. Would most of it still have happened had Hitler not have been? While that is an interesting question, I don’t see that it matters much here. Baby Hitler is, as a baby (philosopher-speak: qua baby), is not evil, has not committed evil, and does not, in any modern understanding, exhibit evil tendencies or character. We are going to kill baby Hitler for what adult Hitler will bring about.
This is an interesting sense of justice: we are trying to balance a wrong that has yet to happen, but will certainly happen. The ‘balancing’ act however, is such that it will ensure the evil never occur. If that is so, then our act is unjust. If we do not do this act though, then great evil will result and that seems to make not committing the act unjust as well. There is a true dilemma here, and each horn is going to do whatever you think would make for the least possible cliche here.
This is not a true dilemma of the ordinary sort as we know what will happen if we do not act. We are 100% positive (Mel Gibson’s father aside) about what will occur if Hitler is not killed as a baby. Hence, I suggest that all the time travel does for this scenario is modify our verbs in a way that bothers us. In a justice sense, baby Hitler has to die for what we know adult Hitler will do.
Squeamishness, Utility, and the Right Thing
As for the squeamish factor that Alec notes above, I think I agree, but only as an interesting artifact. Can we trust squeamishness as a guide to morality? No, but nor does Alec think so. It is a suggestion or a clue at best.
Would I feel squeamish about killing baby Hitler? I would like to say no, because of the greater good I would be serving, but that would be a lie. I would be a little squeamish; he is a baby after all. Were I to look at his little mustache and think for even a moment about the evil commands that would march out, albeit much later, from beneath it, however, I would full on vomit with squeamishness were I not to kill him.
Lives will certainly be saved by killing baby Hitler and an enormous evil will be excised from the world. Will some other evil fill that void? More than likely, as the world seemingly sucks. Will that substitute evil be more evil than Hitler? Who can say? Baby Hitler should be killed because more lives will be saved, including infant lives, than will be lost by the singular act of killing baby Hitler, and this we can be remarkably certain of given our futuristic knowledge.
And if it turns out we were wrong, surely we would appear to ourselves in the past to stop us before it is too late. Right?