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.

I admit it–I’m not a big fan of thought experiments. There’s a decline in liberal arts education in the United States, and I often hear about the impracticality of a liberal arts degree. (We all heard this: “A philosophy degree? What are you doing to do with that?”[1]) Even when I think about philosophy, I have the image of a head-in-the-clouds, white, male professor who is primarily concerned about his research to find yet another nuanced version of nominalism, who doesn’t care about connecting with his students. And that, for me, is what philosophical thought experiments harken back to.

I taught one ethics class at a university where many of my students grew up either in or around poverty and blatant racist institutional practices. Many of them had clearly been disenfranchised by their high school educations. They grew up under the no-child-left-behind system that teaches kids how to pass a test and not how to learn. Some of them, even by the end of the semester, didn’t grasp the difference between an opinion and a reasoned argument. Across the board, they rejected the thought experiments I used.

When I presented them John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance,” they ripped it to shreds. They pointed out that people are incapable of eliminating their biases; that people (especially those in positions of power) don’t consider everyone else as free, rational, and equal; and that inequality is foundational to every human society (that they were familiar with). The veil of ignorance is unhelpful, they said, because that’s just not how people or society work. College students are often stereotyped as wide-eyed, naive idealists, but these students weren’t–maybe due to their own life experiences, or maybe from an unwillingness (or inability) to see any benefit in abstract thinking.

I don’t care to get involved in the debate about thought experiments with other philosophers here, but it exists if you want to seek it out. But I do want to respond to the famous thought experiment posed in true clickbait fashion by New York Times Magazine, because I think it’s a terrible thought experiment to pose to the general public. It turns a complex event that reveals something ugly and impossible about humanity into a simple yes or no question.

So, back to Hitler.

One problem with the question, of course, is that traveling back in time is impossible.[2]

A second problem is that people have a tendency to conflate “reasons” with “causes,” and this baby Hitler thought experiment operates on the assumption that if we cut Hitler off as the cause, then the atrocities committed during WWII wouldn’t have happened.

Did we learn nothing from David Hume? Ignore Hume’s framework if you can and focus on one of the (simplified) takeaways: causation is something we assign after the fact in order to make sense of our impressions. Causation works well in cases like billiard balls. We can measure angles, speed, and momentum, and we can explain with a reasonable amount of probabilistic certainty why the 5-ball went into the corner pocket and expect the same result next time.

Causation does not work so well with things we can’t reduce to mathematical equations, i.e., human behavior. There’s this great scene in The Simpsons where Apu is trying to get his citizenship, and he is asked, “What was the cause of the Civil War?” Apu starts to explain the confluence of reasons, and the tester interrupts him and says, “Just say slavery.”

We really like thinking in terms of simple cause and effect relationships. We especially like it when we can blame other people when things happen that we don’t like. But this is not an accurate reflection of the social world, especially something as complex as war.

Matthews is absolutely right to point out that we cannot foresee all of the consequences:

You could also imagine an alternate history where the Nazis don’t take power but the Völkisch movement in post-WWI Germany gives rise to another virulently anti-Semitic regime, or at least a regime that also sparks a second world war. Or maybe Germany is fine, but absent WWII, tensions between the US and the Soviet boil into a hot war that is even bloodier and more destructive than the actual Second World War was. Maybe this war doesn’t lead to the kind of postwar human rights revolution that WWII actually did, slowing the spread of liberal democracy and causing additional suffering for millions. All of which is to say: We have no idea how the world would have differed if Hitler had died in infancy.

But I want to take what Matthews is pointing to a step further. Even if you went back in time and killed baby Hitler, the social conditions–the political ideologies, nationalism, expansionism, militarism, anti-Bolshevism, the concept of a master race, the aftermath of the Great Depression–all of those things would still exist. The conditions were there for something like World War II and the Holocaust to happen. There’s not much we can learn from possible consequences, but we can learn from possible conditions.[3]

So this leads me to a third problem. It’s easy for us to say that Adolf Hitler was a sociopath, a human anomaly, totally unlike you or me or everyone we know, and something unrepeatable. But the thing we don’t like to admit is that, even taking his particular psychological issues into account, Adolf Hitler was a product of a socio-historical context just like everyone else.

There were plenty of other people involved in all the horrors that took place during World War II (including the use of atomic bombs on civilians). In the game of “cause and effect,” you can’t just slap a “cause” label on Hitler and then walk away. Take this haunting passage from Hannah Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann:

Eighty million Germans had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s nature. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large. But the practice of self-deception had become so widespread—almost a moral prerequisite for survival…

Adolf Hitler was a person. At one point in time he was an infant. He also grew up in a specific time and place within institutional practices that fostered a particular racism, nationalism, and subsequent use of violence with an aim for domination. I think sometimes we like to chalk violent behavior up to mental illness because we don’t like to think about the ugliness that any human being is capable of given the right psychological and social circumstances.

The thing is, people our society reveres, like CEOs, have been shown to have psychopathic personalities, which to me only shows even more that conditions matter. We have a legitimate candidate for President of the United States who recently said that Mexico is sending rapists to the U.S. Now, I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump has his eyes set on genocide and world domination, but there probably is a human being out there in the world right now who is and who would propagate this kind of rhetoric.

I suspect that there are quite a few U.S. citizens who don’t know that the U.S. government put Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. This isn’t surprising in a nation whose borders were established by a series of actions that culminated in a genocide of the people indigenous to the land. (What if someone went back in time and gave the indigenous population of North America advanced weapons and smallpox vaccines? There’s a thought experiment for you, NYT Magazine.)

I also suspect that there are people who, if they have heard of the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994, when 800,000 people were slaughtered in the span of about three months, they think it’s a Don Cheadle movie and not an actual event that occurred a mere 20 years ago in human history.


My point is that the problem with continuing to use Hitler as an example means we can project all the sociopathic tendencies, racist institutions, and violent practices that happened in the 20th century (and continue today) onto one man and then stop thinking critically about human atrocity. It can’t get worse than Hitler, right?

Philosophers can sit around and discuss hypothetical experiments like baby Hitler and no one gets hurt, but hypotheticals can divorce us from reality and perpetuate ways of thinking that absolve human beings of personal responsibility and don’t take a genuine, critical look at the reasons for violence, especially racially-charged violence, and the conditions that make such violence escalate. Even my students who rejected the veil of ignorance were aware that hypothetical consequences don’t matter to the problems that they experienced in their non-hypothetical lives.

The benefit of philosophy as it has been practiced in the Western tradition since Socrates was wandering around the agora is that philosophy examines questions and forces us to examine different sides of issues in a critical way.

We know Hitler did survive infancy and we know what did happen in WWII and we know what conditions were present before, during, and after the war. We know we live in a world where genocide continues to happen. We also claim to value human life and are susceptible to self-deception.

Now that’s interesting. Let’s use to philosophy to look at that.

[1] I’ve only found one good answer to this question, “I’m going to hang it on my wall. Leave me alone.”
[2] I’m actually not sure where physicists currently stand on this, but I’m assuming if, say, Brian Cox changed his position, I would have heard about it.
[3] A transcendental turn, if you will.


3 thoughts on “Hypotheticals, Hitler, and Human Atrocity

  1. Well put.

    It’s much more interesting AND helpful discussing what might have led him to do the things he did.

    He wasn’t the first nor will he be the last to do horrible things.

    • Exactly. If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. I think it seems less horrifying to us if we can pin it on one individual, but that’s just not a helpful response.

  2. Great post. I was also shocked the other day to see a bunch of people suddenly talking about Baby Hitler.

    I have to say though, I’m also skeptical about using thought experiments as support for philosophical arguments, especially in ethics (not that that keeps me from doing it), but I’m kind of in favor of ones like this which can push people to think a little harder than they usually do. This question could be a jumping off point for a lot of discussions, like about consequences vs dessert, about structural vs. individualist explanations in history, or about counterfactuals. So I think, as far as philosophy goes, posing something like this puts you way toward the more publicly engaged end of the spectrum. At least people understand the question well enough and care about it enough to fight about it on Twitter.

    I could see how discussing hypotheticals could distract from considering real ethical issues, but I don’t think people generally suffer from a lack of ethical bandwidth. The problem is more that they don’t know how to critically think about ethical problems, and I think thought experiments like Baby Hitler would help more than they would hurt in that regard.

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