Hypotheticals, Hitler, and Human Atrocity

“Baby Hitler” was trending on Twitter on Friday. After investigating, I found that New York Times Magazine had posed this question:

Dylan Matthews wrote this response: “The philosophical problem of killing Baby Hitler, explained over at vox.com. He takes up the classical responses to posing such a hypothetical problem, and he makes good points about time travel and consequentialism. I want to go further and explore the only thing I’ve ever gotten out of such thought experiments–the further affirmation that philosophy, and ethics in particular, doesn’t (and shouldn’t) happen in a vacuum.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Granted, it can be kind of fun to think about hypothetical situations, especially about time travel. And maybe thought experiments reveal something about our intuitions. Ethical thought experiments can show the basic idea behind consequentialism, and perhaps they can make you reflect on how you would act differently if faced with an ethical dilemma. The problem, of course, is that you are never going to be in a situation where there are five people tied to a trolley track and your mother tied to another. Just like you are never going to be able to go back in time and kill baby Hitler.

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