I like hypothetical ethical dilemmas. I think they’re interesting, because ordinarily I think we don’t really think about what constitutes “right” and “wrong”: we’ve just got a sense of it, and when questions come up, we respond to them intuitively first, and then justify them later. The purpose of Ethical Dilemmas is to interrogate that mechanism that lets us choose, but in an environment where outcomes are known to us. This lets us examine both how we feel about a question, and how those questions interact with what we say our principles are.
Here are some questions about whether or not you’d go back in time to murder Adolf Hitler.
(Trigger warning for some talk about the Holocaust and about rape and murder.)
The Simple Questions
You have the power to go back in time only once. Would you use this power to murder Adolf Hitler if you knew it would prevent the Holocaust?
You have the power to go back in time to when Adolf Hitler has just taken power or right before. Would you use this power to murder Hitler if it would prevent the Holocaust?
You have the power to go back in time to when Adolf Hitler is ten years old. You have one and ONLY one chance to kill him. You know it will prevent the Holocaust. Do you murder him as a ten-year-old?
You have the power to go back in time to meet Adolf Hitler’s mother. You have one and only one chance to kill her, before she gives birth to Hitler. This will prevent the Holocaust, but Adolf Hitler’s mother hasn’t done anything bad except for giving birth to Adolf Hitler. Do you murder her?
The Cost-Benefit Questions
You have the power to go back in time to right when Hitler is about to seize power, but there is a 50% chance that, instead of taking you back, your time machine will just kill you, changing nothing. Do risk it so that you can murder Adolf Hitler to prevent the Holocaust?
You can go back in time to murder Adolf Hitler, but there’s a 50% chance that the Holocaust will happen anyway – some other guy takes over the Nazi machine and the timeline works out pretty much the same. Do you do it?
There’s a 50% chance that you will die, changing nothing; there’s a 50% chance that you will succeed in murdering Hitler, but if you do succeed, there’s only a 50% chance that it will change anything. Would you do it?
What would be the odds at which you WOULDN’T do it? For example, let’s say there’s only a 10% chance that you’d succeed in killing Hitler, and if you did succeed, a 90% chance that the Holocaust would happen anyway. Would you still do it?
There’s a 50% chance that if you kill Hitler, you will prevent the Holocaust, but a 50% chance that you will create Double Hitler, making the Holocaust twice as bad. Would you do it then?
(Double Hitler is a concept we’ll use a couple times here – it means EITHER that whatever you do just makes Hitler twice as bad, so he kills twice as many people, OR you kill Hitler and some other guy takes over, and HE’s twice as bad. For the purpose of these hypotheticals it doesn’t matter which.)
What would the percentages have to be for you to not do it? For example, let’s say there was a 90% chance that you could prevent the Holocaust, but a 10% chance of Double Hitler. Would you still do it?
The Personal Moral Quandary Questions
You can go back in time. You can’t kill Hitler, but you CAN kill someone else – an innocent person who is completely morally good. Murdering this person will prevent Double Hitler. Would you murder them?
(This is the City on the Edge of Forever Scenario, I think it’s a pretty tricky one; in Star Trek they just defaulted to “whatever happened in time is what SHOULD have happened in time,” but that doesn’t sound quite right to me.)
You can prevent Hitler’s rise to power by murdering one innocent person. The Holocaust will not happen if you do this. Would you?
You can prevent Hitler’s rise to power by murdering one innocent person. The Holocaust MIGHT not happen if you do this. Would you?
You can prevent Hitler’s rise to power by murdering ten innocent people. The Holocaust will not happen if you do this. Would you?
How many innocent people would you murder to prevent the Holocaust? How sure would you have to be that it would work for you to do it?
You can go back in time and rape Adolf Hitler as a young man. He will live with the trauma for his entire life, but it will prevent the Holocaust. Would you?
(Louis CK posited this question once; I think it’s a gross thing to consider, but worth examining. Of course this is a false dichotomy – it’s a made-up scenario – so it’s good that we’d never have to really answer this question, but nevertheless I think it’s interesting to consider.)
Same question, only you have to do it when Hitler is a child. Would you?
You can go back in time and rape an innocent person. This will prevent the Holocaust. Would you?
The same questions of how many, and how sure, can be applied to these scenarios. Similarly, we can apply the same questions as the Double Hitler question – you can do any number of terrible things; they won’t prevent the Holocaust; they will prevent Double Hitler. Would you murder an innocent person? Rape an innocent person? Ten innocent people? A hundred? &c.
The Futility Questions
You can go back in time and murder Hitler, but only AFTER he’s lost the war. You can go into his bunker and be the one who shoots him. Would you?
You can go back in time but you CAN’T murder Hitler. You can savagely beat him before he kills himself, though. Would you?
You can go back in time to just before Hitler’s rise to power and steal his wallet. It will not prevent the Holocaust. There are only twenty deutschmarks in there, so it will not enrich you personally. It will ruin Adolf Hitler’s night. Would you do this?
(This was a question that Chuck Klosterman asked, and I like it just because of how low the stakes are.)
An Existential Question
You have the power to go back in time to kill Hitler and prevent the Holocaust. If you do this, everyone under the age of 60 will cease to exist, replaced by different people. These people are equally likely to be moral and immoral as the people who disappeared; society would be neither appreciably better nor appreciably worse. People who cease to exist do not experience the trauma of death. Would you do it?
(Darryl Ayo got me thinking about this question on Twitter, which is what prompted this whole thing.)
An important thing about these kinds of hypotheticals is that they’re made up, so there’s no point in trying to wiggle out of them – they aren’t real scenarios, if you don’t want to answer them as stated, then just don’t answer them. The purpose of the questions isn’t to figure out what is the right thing to do, but to figure out HOW we figure out the right thing to do; for that to work, you must accept the hypothetical conditions presented.
I would argue that it’s important to imagine the scenario as much as possible before you consider the question, because one of the things that we want to do is examine the difference between what we feel is right, and what we know is right. For example, a couple of these questions I might answer intuitively “yes,” but then the more I think about it, the more I think that my intuitive response is wrong, and the right answer is “no.” This is fine; if our intuition was always moral, we wouldn’t need morality in the first place; we should expect that sometimes our moral principles are at odds with our feelings.
Simultaneously, though, I want to reject the idea that our morality is independent from our feelings — I’m not putting my answers here (I might put them up later), but I would suggest that I actually don’t believe that morality is simply a set of rules that are or are not followed; I think that our sense of compassion and empathy has a huge part in the determination of what constitutes morality, and I would FURTHER add that I’m skeptical of any morality that disregards empathy. What is the point of a morality that doesn’t take compassion as a primary principle? What is its value?
Another good question.