Saturday, October 06, 2012

Making the world a better place

I’m going to quote some comments from a thread on Roger Ebert’s journal:

These comments illustrate why it’s so easy to raise the problem of evil, but so hard to mount the argument from evil. It’s easy for us to imagine short-term improvements to our fallen world, but that bumps into the law of unintended consequences. Eliminating one evil may eliminate a resulting good. Or eliminating one evil may introduce another evil. Floating the problem of evil is simple enough, but turning that into an argument from evil is terribly complicated.

I don’t know that any of these commenters are Christian, but that illustrates the difficulty unbelievers have in pressing the problem of evil as soon as we downshift from vague abstractions to detailed alternatives.

Dom | October 4, 2012 10:24 PM

I think killing Hitler would be worth a shot for changing history. Another German dictator may not have had the same rancid distaste for Jews as he did. Everything I've read indicates that the Final Solution was either his idea entirely, or he was able to convince so many around him to embrace it as fervently as he did. Sure, Goebbels and his henchmen would possibly have led other immoral lives, but I don't think they would have had the power that Hitler gave them.

It's hard to imagine something worse than Hitler. No one's going to blame you if you kill baby Hitler and somehow history suffers even more for it.

B. Harrison | October 5, 2012 1:29 AM

Oh, that's a juicy question.
We'd all like to think history would be better if someone had killed baby (or adolescent) Hitler, but how can we know that? It could have been a lot worse. What you say about such a movement being inevitable in Germany is probably true...preventing the First war would have changed a lot more than killing Hitler. Hitler was in many ways just along for the ride---depending on how well the great man theory sits with you. I'll never forget the portrayal of Napoleon in "War and Peace" as not having, at the core, much to do with anything, acting more as the self-important figurehead of a movement lodged deep in the European psyche. I'm not sure if I believe that, but it's interesting, and probably has some truth to it.
As for worse, let's not forget Hitler bungled things. If you kill baby Hitler and it does turn out to be someone else who leads the Nazis, maybe they would have done a better job. Invading Russia was a big mistake, and another man might not have done that. Another man might have made some decision that resulted in Germany developing the atom bomb first. As awful as the War was, it could have turned out a lot more so.
Destiny's so complex....would things like civil rights have been possible without the War? Before the War, racism was acceptable, a part of everyday life. That all changed when people saw where it led if taken to the extreme. I know many people whose grandparents met because of the War. So, tinkering with time is such a deadly business that yes, I would let baby Hitler live. Not that that doesn't leave my conscience uneasy.

Paul M | October 5, 2012 6:23 AM


I've actually pondered that question for most of my life, I think from when I was 14 and read Stephen King's 'The Dead Zone'. The main reason being there's no guarantee the next world conqueror would be any better, maybe bringing the Final Solution to it's ultimate conclusion: exterminating every other tribe of humans in the world.

Also, having the photographic evidence of the death camps as well as extensive media records of how it all got started serves to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, at least in theory. In practice perhaps it has only made the approach of extreme sociopolitical ideologies more creeping and subtle, a "Totalitarian Tiptoe" instead of the thunderous approach of synchronized jackboots.

These days the Final Solution is looking more like turning the world into a prison camp than extermination, with Total Information Awareness and control replacing the need for genocide, and a varied, managed gene pool to ensure the future supply of worker drones to run the machinery. Extreme population culling would still necessarily apply, however.

Fans of alternate history have long speculated Germany may have conquered the world had they developed the A-bomb first.

Kevin T | October 5, 2012 8:42 AM

Consciously or not, the movie you're referencing is The Dead Zone and I agree with Herbert Lom's doctor that it would be morally justified to save millions by killing the child who would grow up to kill them. But on the other hand Hitler had such an impact on history that you don't know what might have happened had he not existed, and if the alternative timeline might have been even worse. Just one example: what if the A-bomb had been discovered by Stalin?

matt beasley | October 5, 2012 9:35 AM

The Hitler questions always seems to stem from some deep moral questioning of ourselves. It serves no other purpose than to act as a sort of thought experiment. Do you approve of abortion? What if you could have aborted Hitler? And so on...

It seems to be the ultimate example of a utilitarian argument for morality. In which, generally speaking, it is argued that the killing of one person is more advantageous than the killing of two. The question is, what moral situation could be argued to be worse than the mass destruction a single Hitler caused?

Of course, these kinds of discussions are fun (interesting?) thought experiments, but to me do little to forward our actions at hand. I think the question, What is worth killing for?, emanates a real, applicable topic for us all.

Killing for the protection of one's self or the life of another, seems understandably justified. Self-defense it is called. But the line starts to grey when we're talking about protecting not another life, but a concept.

Is killing for liberty moral? Killing for country or culture? Killing for an understandable tax code? Killing for not wanting to wear a burka?

These types of questions challenge the utilitarian approach to morality as it forces us ask ourselves as to what is more valuable. More importantly though, it forces us to realize that our sense of what is valuable, is not universally shared. Thus, people will draw lines in the sand as to what is worth killing for, that others will find absurd.

The Hitler question, in its many forms, is easy to answer. But with a malleable sense of value, the co-existence of extremist Islam with western civilization is much more challenging.

Tim | October 5, 2012 11:58 AM

Too many uncertainties. Despite the horror that Nazi Germany unleashed on the world, if Hitler hadn't been alive to rise to power, would some other evil such as Stalin have been able to run unchecked at a later date and perhaps nuclear war would have ensued? Many people believe WWII was cathartic for the world in some ways. As horrible as what happened in history because of Hitler's existence, unless I had a reset button to explore multiple alternate histories to see EXACTLY what the outcome would be if I went back in time to change certain things, I wouldn't do it. That decision would probably haunt me for the rest of my life, but at this time, I stand by it. WWII was the most destructive conflict in human history, but the world survived it. I would only go back to change history being unsure of the outcomes of my actions if the world was going to be destroyed by something like a nuclear war if I did nothing where the earth becomes uninhabitable.

Sometimes, by trying to spare people pain, you end up making them weaker.

Patty H. | October 5, 2012 4:55 PM

Millions of people were born because their parents met, directly or indirectly, because of WWII. If you went back in time to stop WWII, you would cause millions to be born who did not exist before and doom millions of others to nonexistence. You yourself might no longer exist. The moral dilemma of "killing Hitler" isn't as black and white as you think, even if you killed him when he was a World War I soldier instead of an infant.

Patty H. | October 5, 2012 5:10 PM

More thoughts on WWII. Let's say that you prevent WWII and return to the U.S. Would it be a dirt poor U.S. that never recovered from the Depression and descended into fascism? Would it be a U.S. with the Jim Crow system and legally mandated discrimination based on race, color, sex, ethnicity, etc.? Would it be a U.S. without the huge middle class created by the GI Bill? Like it or not, America's prosperity and expansions of basic freedom have their origins in WWII.

I sometimes tease my father by saying that Dec. 7, 1941 was the luckiest day of his life - he just didn't know it at the time. The war that resulted from the Pearl Harbor attack caused the U.S. government to greatly expand opportunity and offer advancement to millions who would have otherwise spent their lives in poverty.

We have climbed a ladder built with the blood and suffering of millions of strangers. Sad but true.

Wayne Hepner | October 5, 2012 6:00 PM

Kill Hitler? No way, it’s just too big a change to take responsibility for, and I don’t really have that much faith in the power of people’s good or bad intentions over the course of history. I don’t really buy that there would have been a Hitler even if it wasn’t our Hitler, but if you change the proposition to one that, with or without a Hitler, there would have been a World War II even if it wasn’t our World War II, that I find not at all difficult to believe. So, changing the course of the lives of almost every person on the planet from over twenty years before I was born, millions who died living, millions who lived dying, people never meeting the people they would have married in another time stream, every one of those who lives, dies or just changes path potentially the ancestor of someone who would be just as important as Hitler, that’s a little above my pay grade.

Aside from those kinds of obvious changes, even if killing Hitler would have prevented there being a Holocaust and a second World War, would that necessarily be an entirely good thing? Events like that don’t just physically change the world; they change how people think. The ability of a culturally sophisticated, technologically advanced people like the Germans to follow a path of moral depravity shattered outmoded late nineteenth century paradigms of how we define cultural superiority. What if that hadn’t happened? The Age of Imperialism lasting for centuries longer? A world on the brink of environmental collapse without the moderating influences that have kept us alive this long? Or more likely, something much less obvious that will have catastrophic consequences a hundred or two hundred years from now.

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