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The Hitler Paradox

I have two possible paragraphs (although this paragraph actually means that there are three) for an introduction to a time traveling problem that I can pose: the first is to explain that I came up with it during a rather trite time killing exercise in class wherein we had to list the five best things that ever happened and the five worst things that ever happened. The worst things were typical cliche answers that people give in order to sound like they care about the great issues that have faced humanity in its history. All of which have an easy objection. For instance a good number of the people said “nuclear weapons” or “the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima” or something to that effect. Easily objected to because the development of nuclear weapons gave us great advancements in science but more importantly ended the Pacific War, ended the Korean War (at least the threat of using them did), and prevented the US and its allied from getting into WWIII with the USSR and its allies. Nuclear Weapons prevented more deaths than they have taken. More popular than that answer were answers based around Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Essentially these answers were all based around Hitler as if WWII happened in a vacuum. My answer that held tentatively around this was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand (although even then there are subtle things that could have prevented it: like if he was a little more of an asshole and didn’t concern himself with the health of his guards on the initial attempt he would still be alive); after all that caused the first world war which led to the second.

The second possible paragraph to introduce the actual topic of this post was to talk about civility in politics and how maybe we should just stop calling people that aren’t Nazis “Nazis.” Congressman Cohen, you aren’t helping and Jon Stewart had a good point skewering the Democrat last night, that if he thinks the Republicans are lying then just call them “liars.” Yet the topic has been done so to death, that the horse they are beating is already glue. And it’s not like anyone actually means it. Cohen changed his stripes in a week, Governor Palin went from rightful indignation at being accused of being responsible for the shootings to calling the shooter a “leftist;” but I guess everything is going to be fine once they sit together at the State of the Union address.

I decided to not make either of those ideas my real introductory paragraphs. Before anyone points out that, yes, I just did exactly that, I will stress that if they were the actual opening they would be much longer.

I’m just going to dive right into it. Some times, on occasion, a person will pose a hypothetical question about what they would do with a time machine. Often times they ask you, and then nod until they can give their answer. If posed to a group someone will answer, “I would kill Hitler.” This comes up so often that I become confused at the smug look on their face. Am I supposed to be impressed with that answer? It’s not original, and it’s not the self-sacrificial act that the person saying it thinks that it is. Killing Hitler is so trite that in the worst time travel movie (that is to say a movie about time traveling) of all time: Time Cop, the people in charge of the time machine even mention that it’s not a good idea although their reasoning was along the lines of “we just don’t know if he was supposed to be there.”

Here’s the paradox about answering that you would kill Hitler. It’s completely immoral and if it’s not it is useless. Here’s why, we know that Hitler became a genocidal megalomaniac. At the time he was alive only very little of his life was lived as that. If you kill him as a child, congratulations you are a child murderer. If you kill him before he was leader of Germany you are guilty of murdering a man who didn’t get into art school. A non-drinking vegetarian who couldn’t get into the popular art style of the time. If you murder him after his election as chancellor, you basically make him a martyr for his beliefs and someone just like him takes the reigns and if you kill him after he becomes the Fuhrer it’s already too late to have a real effect on the course of history.

The problem is that by murdering the man who would become the Hitler we all like to compare US presidents to, you are effectively eliminating all of the justification that you have for killing him. So murdering him younger then, say 1928, means you have no reason to murder him. Just explain to the person answering the question in that manner, that they essentially want a time machine so that they could just go back and murder someone in the past. See if that wipes the smug look off their face.

You are actually better off using that time machine to bribe an official at the Vienna school into letting him in for a year or two.

Categories: philosophy
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