Killing Baby Hitler

When Kevin Drum and Jeb Bush agree about something, one of two grossly implausible events must have occurred: either Kevin is wrong or Jeb is right. Since Jeb’s wrong-headedness is more reliable than even Kevin’s good sense, a devout Bayesian in this situation will start out suspecting that Kevin has made one of his rare mistakes.

Some time ago – sorry, real life has been interfering with my blogging – the New York Times asked what seemed like a remarkably silly question: “If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?”

Answers: 42% Yes, 30% No, 28% Not sure.

The Huffington Post picked this up and asked it of JEB! by email. Bush (sensibly) ducked it until he was asked on camera, at which point he emitted a characteristically inarticulate grunt of affirmation. “Hell yeah, I would! You gotta step up, man.”

Kevin was more thoughtful but equally decisive:  “I’m not an especially bloodthirsty guy, but hell yes, I’d do it. Sure, maybe World War II would happen anyway, though that’s hardly inevitable. Maybe the Holocaust too. But even a reasonable chance of stopping either one of them would be well worth the life of a baby who would otherwise grow up to be a monster. What am I missing here? I wouldn’t even hesitate.”

I’m pleased to report another success for the Rev. Mr. Bayes. In my judgment (which I would be glad to pronounce ex cathedra if someone would just build me a cathedral) both Bush and Drum are obviously and catastrophically wrong.

Forget about time-travel paradoxes, forget about the risk that something even worse would happen, and assume that your powers of foresight are perfect. You still shouldn’t kill Baby Hitler, for the simple reason that the Baby Hitler you’d be killing wouldn’t have done anything wrong, and intentionally killing innocent people is wrong, the same way torture and slavery are wrong. End of discussion.

Logically, of course, the Right-to-Life crowd should be up in arms about Bush’s expressed willing to intentionally take innocent life. And logically, of course, Bush himself couldn’t really hold his expressed position on abortion and also his expressed opinion about baby-killing. But, of course, logic has nothing to do with it.

A couple of points for those who would prefer a more leisurely exposition:

  1. OK, you’ve taken Jeb’s advice and strangled Hitler in his crib. Now his mother, Klara Hitler, comes into the room and starts to scream at you about why you just murdered her baby. (As it turns out, her only surviving child, after the deaths of three older siblings.) Do you have any intelligible response to her, or to the judge who asks you why he should not sentence you to death for baby-killing?  No, you don’t.
  2. If you’re justified in killing Hitler as a baby, a fortiori you’re justified in killing him later in his career, say after the Beer Hall Putsch. But if you find it justifiable to kill your political opponents because you think they’re pursuing horrible policies, you have just bought into Weimar Regime politics.
  3. If I predict that Bush’s preferred climate policies will lead to mass extermination in low-lying areas, am I justified in killing Bush? And if not, is it only because my prediction isn’t quite the same as the pre-vision our imagined time-traveler has, or because Bush is less causally linked to climate catastrophe than Hitler to the Holocaust?
  4. More generally, if it’s OK to kill people because you think that the world would be a better place if those people were dead, then what’s the objection in principle to the Final Solution? The principle of killing Baby Hitler is the same as the principle of Naziism.

This whole thing reads like a reductio ad absurdum of the dimwit version of consequentialist ethics. I’m not surprised that a trick question caught Jeb Bush. But Kevin Drum should have known better.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

30 thoughts on “Killing Baby Hitler”

  1. "2. If you’re justified in killing Hitler as a baby, a fortiori you’re justified in killing him later in his career, say after the Beer Hall Putsch. But if you find it justifiable to kill your political opponents because you think they’re pursuing horrible policies, you have just bought into Weimar Regime politics."

    What about after Hitler started World War II and the Holocaust? Was Hitler then merely a "political opponent" who engaged merely in "horrible policies"? Was it all right to kill German soldiers during the war but not to kill their commander in chief?

  2. Personally I find it kinda horrifying that you're willing to let millions of people die to keep your own hands clean. Innocence or guilt doesn't enter into it. If killing Baby Adolph will save a greater number of other lives it's the right thing to do. In reply to the specific arguments:

    1. I'd tell them the truth. They'd probably think I was insane and have me executed or at least send me to prison or a mental asylum, assuming my magic time travel couldn't get me back out again. This would suck for me, but obviously if I'm willing to sacrifice Baby Adolph's life for the greater good I can't be any less willing to give my own.
    2. Yup, killing Hitler in 1924 would also be justified (with the caveat that if you're Jewish and likely to get caught killing him once he's become prominent might do more harm then good). This does not mean it's always okay to kill your political opponents because calling Hitler an extreme outlier is an understatement. There have been only a handful of people in all of history who did as much harm as he did, and moreover even if you think your opponent will be one of them you can't possibly be remotely as certain as we are about Hitler.
    3. See #2. Answering your specific questions: both. Also, Jeb in particular (I assume you're still talking about Jeb?) seems particularly unlikely to have a great negative impact on policy compared to the scenario where he's a martyr.
    4. I'm all in favor of maintaining meta-level principles, but the whole point of meta-level principles are to protect against the cases where you're wrong, and here we're more certain than anyone can ever be in real life, making the meta-level objection much weaker. Moreover, when the stakes get high enough, sometimes the meta-level principles have to be compromised in favor of the real object level people who are going to die if you don't do something.

  3. I end up in the same place that you do, but for different reasons. If the chain of events were strictly deterministic, then I think your arguments go out the window. If we can predict with perfect accuracy what the results of someone's life would be, then I get off your train at the point you insist that the infant is innocent. No, he isn't. Because the future is perfectly determined, we are burdened with the guilt of our actions even if we haven't reached the point in time when those actions manifest themselves. And, yes, I understand the implications of this if you posit a God that stand outside time and is thus omniscient.

    The problem is that, if you really have the chance to kill Hitler in his crib, then time cannot be deterministic. Now the baby really is innocent. What is also the case is that you have alternative methods for trying to derail World War II other than killing the innocent baby. Maybe that won't work; maybe Hitler will still grow up to lead the Third Reich, but, as Kevin points out, killing him isn't certain to prevent that, either.

    1. In a deterministic universe, there is no innocence and no culpability. Each person is acting in the only way he or she is able to as dictated by preceding events. If there is free will, I'll do what Olivier did in "The Boys from Brazil" and let the Hitler clones live. Killing babies never works. Thus Pharaoh's attempts to spare Egypt a liberator for the Hebrews and Herod's attempt to spare himself the troubles of a Messiah. And what of Laius trying to forestall being deposed by his baby son?

      1. You're confusing time being determined with a lack of free will, probably because I was sloppy in my terminology and elided over some things. Saying that the chain of events is fixed doesn't mean that there is no innocence and no culpability. It means that you only get one shot at every decision and there's no way to rewind time and try again. And so, if you time travel back from the future, there remains only the one possible set of outcomes. If someone was guilty in the past, there is no way to alter that guilt.

  4. "If you’re justified in killing Hitler as a baby, a fortiori you’re justified in killing him later in his career, say after the Beer Hall Putsch."

    Actually, you might be justified in killing him after the Beer Hall Putsch, or after he took power in 1933, but not before, because he couldn't have started World War II or the Holocaust before. He's certainly entitled to enjoy his childhood, whatever he becomes when he grows up.

    1. Yes. A lot if things happened to Adolf Hitler between his birth and 1923: being beaten regularly by his father (or was it stepfather?)’ failure as a painter, success and against other odds survival on the Western Front, reading the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery. Murdering babies as a utilitarian strategy only makes any kind of sense if (a) heredity is fate (b) the course of history can be known in great detail 50 years ahead, neither of which is true.

  5. I think Jeb hurt himself with his answer. The correct response was that he would have gone back in time and given Baby Hitler a tax cut.

  6. A couple of thoughts from someone who was once wrote Terminator fan-fiction:
    First, going back in time and preventing any major historical event can't be justified on utilitarian terms unless the fate of the human race or planet is at stake. You might prevent the evils of the Holocaust and WWII (or the Atlantic Slave trade, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, or any other horrendous event) but you would also wipe out untold billions of people who would not be born but for the contingent circumstances generated in part by those events. Indeed, there is a strong argument that if you reset history to any degree, then all of the chance events of history would be re-run (including every contingent step in the fertilization of every egg and the development of every embryo (see Dr. Manhattan's realization on Mars)), and none of the people who would have been born after the reset in our time line would have come to be. Sure those billions of people would be replaced by other people, and the world as a whole could be a more just place (highly disputable), but you would still be responsible for eliminating billions of individuals. The tens or hundreds of millions of lives you might save by preventing the Holocaust, WWII, slavery, etc. does not outweigh that cost. Of course, the calculus might be different if you had a time machine in 1945 and could go back to 1938 or 1939. Then, the cost of changing history by killing history would be much less.

    Second, in realistic "fictional" universe, where through some MacGuffin, if you have the power to go back in time and kill Baby Hitler, you most likely have the power to cause other changes that could prevent the Holocaust and/or WWII. Instead of killing Baby Hitler, you send him to be raised by adoptive parents in Wisconsin or take him back with you to your time period/dimension.

    Third, if you can reset history, such that all chance events are re-run, it is virtually certain that the world will not turn out the same. Whatever else you can say about Hitler, his particular life was not over determined. You cannot know that Baby Hitler will become such an evil man, survive WWI, or gain any influence after WWI.

  7. Kevin Drum has become an econoblogger of sorts. In that world, the notion that there’s an alternative to utilitarianism is unthinkable.

    We need a sustained examination of economics by other academic disciplines. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet is evidence of Ross Douthat’s point that universities have no positive conception of “the good.”

    I wouldn’t find “the good” where he does. Freedom of speech is overrated by white people who get to talk a lot. Nonetheless, a university that believes in nothing will fall for anything. And nothing proves that better than the field of economics.

  8. A stupid question generates stupid answers. I would have dive-bombed the little Hitler with my flying pig.

  9. First, we have to accept that "going back and killing Hitler" only makes sense in a many-worlds multiverse where each decision point spawns a new timeline. Otherwise killing Hitler is just a huge indirect grandfather paradox. (For example, if went back and killed Hitler, my parents almost certainly never would have met, my grandfather might have lived to a ripe old age and so forth.) From that point of view, we *can* know that the infant being killed would have grown up to become the Hitler we all revile.

    But if you have the technology to go back and kill Hitler, you also have the technology to kidnap him and have him raised by a nice family in the midwest (or the paleolithic), or to swap in an android replacement designed to switch over to radical pacifism sometime in 1934, or gosh knows what other solution that doesn't involve direct killing…

  10. What color pony should I ride when I go back in time to kill baby Hitler?

    At the risk of being glib, it's dorm room wankery to contemplate the ethics of acts that are ruled out by laws of known physical laws. (Or require the lifetime output of energy of a star to open a wormhole needed for the time travel?)

  11. If you take away the time paradox issues, i.e. you are assured that killing baby Hitler will prevent or strongly mitigate the holocaust and WWII and that the resulting future won't be otherwise worse than the current timeline, then the question just becomes another version of the trolley problem. I that case, I think, morally and ethically you have to kill baby Hitler.

    If I'm caught and sentenced to hang for my crime, that's a small price to pay for the lives of millions of innocents. That's similar to the way I think about the legality of torture and the ticking bomb scenario. If you really believe that you need to torture someone because they have information you need to save the lives of a good number of innocent people, they you should be willing to go to jail for it. Do it. Plead guilty. Throw yourself on the mercy of the court.

    Anyway, no discussion about prospective time travelers killing Hitler is complete without this link.

  12. The proper action to take is to kidnap him to the US and put him out for adoption. He could then grow up to be the president of a home owners association…

  13. Once you rule out paradoxes, you assume that Hitler will inevitably follow history's path. Therefore, he has ALREADY committed his crimes. That reality hasn't been played yet, but if he's left alive, they will be. Foreknowledge makes his execution justifiable.

    1. You don't know that they will be replayed. If it's possible for you to change history by killing Hitler, then there cannot be just one possible timeline. There are certainly other ways you could change history to try to avoid WWII, and you don't even know whether, once you are back in time, whether it will play out the same way even if you don't do anything. It's possible that you have conducted enough research to know the answer to that question, but it isn't specified in the thought experiment.

      The implications of time travel are extremely tricky to deal with. Once you admit any malleability to the chain of events, you get a cascading series of consequences that are almost impossible to tease out, especially if you allow two way transit, going from the present back to some time in the past, and then back forward to the present. Someone above mentioned the multiple universes hypothesis, and the implication of that is that there's really no point in killing Hitler to try to stop WWII, because the war will happen in some timelines and not in others, and you really haven't changed the outcome of anything.

  14. If, after saving Joan Collin's life in the City On The Edge Of Forever, when she was 33, and in return, she agreed to become my lover, I would have pushed her out of the way of that car. Simple decision. All the rest is idle speculation.

  15. If you’re justified in killing Hitler as a baby, a fortiori you’re justified in killing him later in his career, say after the Beer Hall Putsch. But if you find it justifiable to kill your political opponents because you think they’re pursuing horrible policies, you have just bought into Weimar Regime politics.

    I don't know why no one wants to travel back in time assist…

    Johann Georg Elser (4 January 1903 – 9 April 1945) was a German worker who planned and carried out an elaborate assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders on 8 November 1939 at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich. A time bomb that Elser constructed and placed near the speaking platform failed to kill Hitler but killed eight people and injured over sixty two others. Elser was held as a prisoner for over five years until executed at the Dachau concentration camp.

    That was 76 years (and 8 days) ago, and I think it would be obvious choice since Hitler had already started a war, had already conquered Poland and had already begun rounding various sorts in Poland and in Germany for execution. In an assassination in that context is a legal war move just to start off with, and if you want to declare it out-of-bounds due to morality, you're locked into pacifism. (It's also completely covered under Just War theory.)

    All you'd really have to do would be assist Elser adjust the timer on his bomb.

    ['One could also point out that Elser would have been seen as a deranged loner, according to Nazi principles, because he acted entirely on his own intending to stop the war – making him a hero in my book. Surely there would be minimal chronological adjustment required here as well.']

  16. The NY Times asked the wrong silly question in the first place. Should have been “If you could go back and abort Hitler as a fetus, would you do it?” Republican answers in general would yield much more entertainment value.

  17. I’d rather go back and not punish Germany so harshly after WWI and do the Marshall Plan then rather than after WWII, crossing my fingers that conditions that brought Hitler to power might no longer exist.

    1. Must. Resist. Posting. Long screed. On why. The conventional view. Of the Versailles Treaty. Is wrong.

        1. Okay. You asked for it.

          First off, the idea that the peace after World War II was successful because it was magnanimous is false, because there was nothing magnanimous about it. Short of actualy selling all Germans into slavery and salting the earth, it was one of the most punitive peaces ever. The Allies occupied Germany for eight years before there was an official peace, and they deposed the German government and forced a new constitution upon them.

          Everyone always forgets that the Soviets were a part of the Allies and were responsible for a part of the peace terms. They, and to a lesser extent the French in their zone, boxed up German factories wholesale and shipped them back home. The total reparations paid by Germany after World War II dwarfed those required by the Versailles Treaty.

          There was an enormous ethnic cleansing between 1944 and 1950. More than 10 million ethnic Germans were forced out of eastern European countries, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia, and somewhere between 600,000 and 2 million were killed in the process.

          The conventional wisdom about why the post-1945 peace was successful is wrong. It wasn't because it was magnanimous. It was, in part, because it was punitive, in part because it involved an actual occupation and remaking of German society, and in part because the specter of the Soviet Union caused West Germany to be very amenable to peace.

          With regards to the Versailles Treaty itself, people don't understand why reparations were necessary. The Germans chose to invade France, and the fighting on the western front took place throughout France's industrial heartland. The physical destruction of France's economy was enormous. Germany, on the other hand, suffered very little physical destruction. Their economy was a complete wreck by 1918, but it was the sort of wreck from which recovery isn't horribly difficult in the medium term. They had tamed the first wave of inflation by 1920.

          France, on the other hand, had a tremendous amount of rebuilding to do. On top of the destruction from combat, the Germans carted off a lot of French industrial capital, much as the Soviets did in 1945. They also deliberately sabotaged what they couldn't carry off, especially French coal and iron mines.

          The result was that a war that Germany had started and lost inflicted far more damage on France than on itself. Without reparations, the result would have been a significant shift in the balance of power in Germany's favor. France justifiably was opposed to that, and demanded recompense for the damage suffered.

          The reparations also weren't as enormous. Not only were they less than those imposed in 1945, the were smaller, as a portion of the defeated country's GDP, than the reparations imposed upon France by Germany in 1871. The difference is that, as a matter of national pride, the French paid off their bill early, while the Germans deliberately destroyed their own economy in the 1920s in order to avoid paying.

          Another element of the various peace treaties after WWI that Germans claim victimized them were some of the territorial arrangements, especially the Sudetenland and parts of Silesia, which were majority German but became parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

          The problem is that the Germans made it perfectly clear that they didn't consider either of those to be legitimate countries, and that all of Bohemia and Moravia should belong to Germany. Given German belligerance, it was necessary to figure out how Czechoslovakia could defend itself. The Sudetenland was the answer; it is a mountainous region that can be easily fortified, which was not true of the interior of the Czech portions of the country. The situation with Poland was similar, though the question was how it would have sufficient resources to sustain its economy rather than military defenses.

          Lastly, even had the Versailles Treaty been even harsher, Germany was in no moral position to object, because they didn't have any serious commitment to non-punitive peace. They turned much of Poland into a giant slave labor camp after conquering it in 1915. It was administered by the German military under the aegis of Ober Ost, initially run by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Then there's the Treaty of Brest Litovsk.

          The German commitment to the idea of treating defeated foes generously began as soon they were the ones defeated and not an instant before.

          The reason that the peace didn't hold wasn't that it was punitive. It was that the Germans refused to accept that they had lost. They put together a mythology of being stabbed in the back and that their military forces had never really been defeated. They nursed these grievances to the point that the focus of their politics became avenging WWI rather than doing anything constructive.

  18. Devout Catholics have to deal with some seemingly paradoxical choices, having to choose between doing "right" acts and adhering to ironclad principles involving "sin." Thomistic philosophy allows for some of those choices by use of "with reservations." Example: It's 1943, and the SS are rounding up Jews for Dachau. You are hiding a Jew in your attic. The Storm Troopers arrive at your door and inquire "Do you have any Jews here." Lying is a sin. It's a mortal sin, not just a venial sin. So what do you do?

    You say "Of course not. Not now, not previously, not ever. I would never do such a thing." But you do it with a mental reservation, which is "…not so far as you are concerned, you murderers." So you can justify what would be a mortal sin by virtue of the circumstances.

    Saying "I would not kill an innocent baby" ignores the Trolley Car problem at its most extreme. Suppose God came to my grandfather in 1919 and said "Look here. Here is the next quarter century of history, revealed by Me in advance. If you will kill your little baby girl (my mother), then I will cancel all this horror." My grandfather had no idea of something called the Trolley Car Problem. He would have to look into his Jewish heart and ask himself "is this really the all knowing and all powerful God I believe in." If his answer were yes, then surely he'd have given up his own baby girl. That's the Trolley Car problem.

    But wait. Suppose God offered him an alternative. "Instead of killing your own baby girl, I will send you back in time to kill the baby Hitler. Would you rather do that?" My goodness, that's an easy choice, isn't it?

    In the proposed instance, when confronted with the Trolley Car problem, you don't worry about the "innocence of the baby," because you don't choose who to die. Instead, you choose who to save. That's pretty easy.

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