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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.