A Philosopher Weighs in on Whether or Not You Should Kill Baby Hitler

The answer pits Immanuel Kant against utilitarianism. And what would Plato do? 

Joe deSousa/Flickr

Last Friday, The New York Times Magazine decided to casually drop a bombshell of a question on Twitter: “If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?” The publication shared its own findings, gathered from 3,000 subscribers who responded to the survey. Somewhat surprisingly, only 42 percent responded that, yes, they would kill a Baby Hitler.

At first glance, that number seems astoundingly low. Of course you should do it! He was the leader of the group responsible for modern history’s most infamous genocide. But even Twitter wasn’t so unified. Some questioned the time-travel physics of the endeavor. Others couldn’t imagine killing any baby — full stop. Many took a rational approach and argued that removing Hitler from history would not necessarily prevent the evils wrought by metastasizing nationalism in a depressed Germany.

Spending considerable energy on the question, however, could ultimately be fruitless. John Proios, a graduate teaching assistant and Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona’s College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, tells Inverse the answer to the magazine’s poll “really depends on how we interpret the question because … it’s a really poorly formed question.” It’s also a “dramatically under-described” case. “This wouldn’t happen in real life,” he says. “And people don’t face these kinds of situations in real life, so we actually can’t answer the question because we can only answer questions that we actually have to face.”

Proios studies ancient philosophy (“especially Plato”), metaethics, and epistemology. “Lots of meta stuff,” he says. As someone whose specialty is considering things logically, philosophically, and morally, he wasn’t ready to render judgement on Baby Hitler.

The first thing to understand about the Baby Hitler question is that it’s essentially a test case in utilitarianism. A strict utilitarian believes that you always have to maximize the good. The most well known paradigm is the trolley problem, which Proios explains:

“You’re on a train and you’re driving down the road and there’s 20 people on the right track and there’s one person on the left track. You have to hit one of them and right now you’re going to hit the 20 people, but if you pull a lever you kill the one person. Do you pull the lever and save the 20 people, but kill the one person? Utilitarianism says yes. Some people say this is what’s wrong with utilitarianism.”

The Baby Hitler question — taking history and physics entirely out of the equation — is the same as the trolley question, but expanded to the millions of victims of the Holocaust. The flip side to utilitarianism is something closer to deontology, a philosophy notably celebrated by Immanuel Kant. As Proios says, “There are other theories, Kantian theories, that human beings have rights and it’s never OK to use them as means. It’s never okay to kill someone for the sake of a greater good, because people have inalienable value.” That is, in strict terms, a Kantian could not take it upon herself to decide another human being’s value — even one who’s so obviously lost his value.

Adolf Hitler as a baby.

Having gone through the necessary philosophy background and basics, Proios could finally speak on what he would do, based on his own values and expertise.

Inverse: So, would you kill Baby Hitler?

John Proios: OK, so I think it really depends on how we interpret the question because I think it’s a really poorly formed question. So if we mean “Would you kill a baby that’s going to do something horrible, if it would stop the Holocaust?” Then I think probably yes. I don’t think you have to do it in a horrific way, you can do it in a humane way with a sedative or something that kills them.

What else is wrong with the question?

Historically, there were lots of causes of World War II. If you want to go back and stop the Holocaust, you probably want to go back and stop World War I, change the Treaty of Versailles, you know? Just stop the German depression before anything, right? It basically depends on history and if you think history is totally determined and everything is going to unfold no matter what you do.

I also think that philosophically it’s poorly formed because Baby Hitler hasn’t done the horrible things yet. Does that make Baby Hitler innocent? Baby Hitler hasn’t actually been Hitler yet, right? At least as we know him. So is Baby Hitler morally responsible? I think the answer is no. I don’t think Baby Hitler is morally responsible. I don’t think you’re punishing Hitler in that scenario. It’s nothing against Baby Hitler. It’s sort of you have to do this bad thing in order to do this really good thing overall — mainly, stopping the Holocaust.

Is there an age at which it becomes unconditionally right again to kill Hitler? Maybe Teenage Hitler?

It really doesn’t matter what age Hitler is. It doesn’t matter what age the person is, we’re talking about killing. It makes it more morally questionable, I guess, the younger the kid is. It definitely feels worse to kill a baby than to kill an adult, but I think that it shouldn’t really change your answer to the question no matter how old Hitler is.

Of the two prominent schools of thought that apply — Kantianism and utilitarianism — which do you think has the better answer?

It’s a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the Kantians are going to be right, sometimes the utilitarians are going to be right, and it really depends on the particulars of the case. I don’t think we should use cases like the trolley cases or “Would you kill Baby Hitler?” as paradigm cases and infer from them general principles about how to act. Mainly, when x amount of good is maximized but I have to do this bad thing, I don’t think we can take “I will kill Baby Hitler to prevent the Holocaust,” and infer from the variables and make them these general statements that apply to any context. Moral principles will always admit of weird cases where you have to violate the principle. So it’s not the application of a principle, but the figuring out of what to do based on the particulars of the context.

It’s like having a practical skill where you can figure out what to do in the same way anyone figures out what to do. So I think, OK, kill Baby Hitler in this scenario, but in another scenario don’t kill Baby Hitler, depending on what your judgement is about the particular case. There is a right answer. I’m not a reletavist. I think it’s true that in this case we should kill Baby Hitler, but the point is the truth conditions change based on context, right? So one context might not be truth in another because the truth conditions have changed.

Since this is basically a two-sided argument, do you think there’s any case in which a Kantian would kill Baby Hitler?

I don’t think a Kantian can kill Baby Hitler. I think you violate their freedom and you can’t act against duty. You also can’t treat people as mere means and this would be a case of using a person as mere means. So I don’t think a Kantian can kill Baby Hitler.

Is there a way where a strict utilitarian wouldn’t kill Baby Hitler?

Utilitarians would have easily killed Baby Hitler. Utilitarians say you can do it in the most humane way possible. You can think that all things considered the good outweighs the bad here.

Given your knowledge, what do you think someone like Plato would do in this situation?

I don’t know! I mean I actually don’t know what Plato would say. So I have two thoughts. Plato basically says we should always do what’s best. You think, “OK, well, that’s super helpful. Thanks, Plato.” We don’t know what’s best! In the Republic, at one point, he says in order to make the perfect city, we have to take over a city and exile or kill everyone who’s over the age of 10. I don’t want to commit Plato to saying that. It’s a dramatic context and the dialogue and Plato’s view. But if Plato’s open to the idea of doing something like that where you sort of have to fight someone for something fine and noble, then I guess I would say it might be OK.

You are going to have a different answer in different situations. You’re going to have the right answer, but it’s going to be different. That’s basically a virtue ethicist’s view. And the virtue ethicists take inspiration from Aristotle and the Stoics, who think that virtue is the main moral consideration. What would the virtuous person do? That’s sort of what I mean when I say to exercise your practical skill is just to think, “What would the virtuous person do?” I think in this situation that the virtuous person would recognize that this is sort of a tragic situation whichever way you go. Killing a baby is a horrible thing, no matter if it’s Hitler or what. It’s still terrible, but it seems, to me, it’s the way to make the best of this situation, if it’s a yes or no answer anyway.

The other major aspect of the Baby Hitler question is time travel. Do you think that should factor into somebody’s response?

This is a fairly moral thought experiment. The time travel stuff is a way to get the case looking like the way you want to look at it. We could just say, “No, instead you’re still here. You don’t time travel but you’ve predicted the future and you 100 percent know who is going to commit the next genocide. You now know this baby in 30 years is going to be the leader of the biggest genocide since the Holocaust.” Something like that. The basis is the same case.

You said earlier that you’d kill Baby Hitler, if you had to make a decision. But what would you really do, if you could choose to do anything?

I was thinking if I can go back in time, can I get Hitler to go into the Vienna Art School or something?!

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