Last time on Cybermorality we asked the big question: should you travel back in time to kill Hitler? A fundamental assumption in that debate—one that maybe you accept, maybe you reject, or maybe you didn’t even notice—is that killing him is justified because if he’d never come to power, the world would be much better off.
Let’s examine that assumption. It’s got two parts: (1) killing him is justified because (2) if he’d never come to power, the world would be much better off. I think the truth of (2) is self-evident. It’s (1) that we need to examine more closely.
For one thing, it’s not at all clear that you have to be violent to remove Hitler from power. You could just help him stay in art school. Or pull a Back to the Future and see to it that his parents never meet. Or—my preferred method, since I’m a philosopher—engage him in reasoned debate. See if you can talk him out of his irrational anti-Semitism and ineffective authoritarianism. They’re really stupid positions; arguing against them isn’t hard.
But maybe you want to say that’s impossible. He’s a closed-minded bigot. He’s power-hungry. You can’t reason people out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. That sort of thing. Personally I place a lot of faith in the power of reason, but I do understand where you’re coming from.
So let’s take it one step further. Let’s postulate that the only way to prevent Hitler from rising to power is to kill him. You can’t reason with him, can’t guide him into becoming a mediocre artist, can’t prevent him from being born, yadda yadda yadda. Let’s say your only options are to let him be (and he comes to power, and horrible things happen) or to execute him (and they don’t).
There’s still another question to be asked: does he deserve to be killed?
Maybe your first thought is, Well, duh. Of course he does. The dude is a genocidal maniac. But keep in mind, you’re going to kill him before he does any of that. In fact, that’s the point: to take him out before he’s guilty of any of his horrendous crimes.
Philip K. Dick toyed with this idea in his short story, “The Minority Report.” (You can read a summary here.) The central question there is whether it’s right to punish people for things they haven’t done yet. We should point out that in some cases the answer might well be yes. For example, if Joe Thug is trying to whack you on the head so he can steal your wallet, lots of people say it’s not wrong to preemptively kick him in the wee-wee and run. You don’t have to wait for him to actually hit you before you hit back.
But that case is far too easy because Joe has already committed assault by threatening you. By kicking him, you’re just preempting his attempt at battery. For it to count in Philip K. Dick’s sense—what he calls “pre-crime”—the cops would be able to arrest Joe for assault and battery before he even leaves home.
The Hitler case is legitimate pre-crime. We already know what he did. But maybe even his case is too easy, because his name is synonymous with evil. So let’s take a current hypothetical case, the one that’s on the news every night.
I don’t know what it means about my country that the two most hated people in the nation are the front-runners for the presidency. What I do know is that millions of people fear a Trump presidency in the same way they fear a meteor eradicating all life on Earth, and millions of other people fear a Clinton presidency in exactly the same way. The “argument,” such as it is, goes something like this:
This candidate knows absolutely nothing about national defense, nothing about securing our nuclear arsenal, and nothing about dealing with terrorism. Therefore if this candidate becomes president, we all die screaming in a nuclear fireball.
Trump or Clinton, take your pick; either way, you won’t have to look far to find someone spouting this line of rhetoric. (I recommend ignoring these people. There’s plenty of well-reasoned, well-informed journalism out there too.)
But let’s say it turns out not to be rhetorical. Let’s say you intercept a time traveler who has come back to kill the candidate in question. This person brought along some history textbooks from eighty years from now, conclusively proving that this candidate is directly responsible for millions of deaths by nuclear fireball. The only solution, your time traveler says, is to kill the candidate.
So you lock this person in the bathroom and call 911. Good idea. But just for argument’s sake, let’s say all of this really is true. The case for killing the candidate (again, you pick which one) is the same as the case for killing Hitler: namely, if this person comes to power, the death toll will run into the millions. But as of today, this person hasn’t come to power, hasn’t got any nuclear weapons, and hasn’t brought about the deaths of millions.
You have at least three options:
1) It is always wrong to kill an innocent person. Even if this candidate will be responsible for millions of deaths, and even if the candidate will deserve execution for that, s/he doesn’t deserve execution now.
2) Killing one to save millions is morally right. But only if no nonviolent means are available, of course. (If, for instance, it would be enough to kidnap the candidate until November, that would be much better than shooting this person.)
3) Both options are equally right and equally wrong. As of today the candidate is innocent, and therefore deserves to live, but it’s also wrong not to kill the candidate if that really is the only way to prevent millions of deaths.
This may take some air out of the basic intuition that it’s obviously right to kill Hitler. It might also leave you with some uncomfortable commitments:
If you chose 3, you still have to land on 1 or 2. You can’t abstain; choosing not to intervene is the same as choosing 1.
If you chose 2, I’ll bet I can talk you down a lot lower than a million lives. Would you kill one innocent to save a thousand others? A hundred? If so, why not kill one to save ten? If you’ll go that far, why not kill one to save two? And if that’s too far, what’s the magic number? More importantly, how do you justify that number? Or is it just an arbitrary choice?
If you chose 1, you’re actually on pretty solid ground, philosophically speaking—if you can stand your ground. Almost all of my ethics students say killing innocents is always wrong, until I pose one case for them; after that, almost all of them say there are exceptions to the ban on killing innocents.