Butterfly Effect: The ethics of time traveling to kill baby Hitler

Gwyneth Gravador/The Cougar

People love thinking about hypothetical situations, especially extreme ones.  Not only are they interesting to think about, but they allow us to think about ethical choices without having to actually handle the consequences. Consider this intense, yet frequently discussed example: If we had the ability to go back in time, would it be an ethical decision to terminate the infamous dictator Adolf Hitler while he was still a baby?

The immediate response to this hypothetical might be something along the lines of: “Well yes, killing Hitler would save the lives of 6 million Jewish people plus countless others.” This is a utilitarian, if not simple, standpoint. In other words, it focuses on prioritizing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And indeed, if there were no other factors involved, saving 6 million lives would be well worth the cost of one life.

But this scenario might not be as simple as it seems on the surface. If we were to take into the consequences of time traveling, for example, the answer might change because of the potential side effects. Hitler’s death would change the entire timeline in ways that are nearly impossible to accurately predict.

As shocking as it might be, this one death could lead to even more dire scenarios than the Holocaust. Could it be possible that someone else would’ve done the same actions, if not worse, if Hitler hadn’t existed? After all, he was hardly the only person in Germany at the time nursing violent thoughts and ideas. Alternatively, consider how society might have developed differently without the events of World War II.

Much of our military and communication-based technology today has been influenced by World Wars or other major historical events. Without them, we could have been slower to advance in our societal development. Certain inventions would have come into existence later or potentially not at all.

Some have called this theory the Butterfly Effect. Based on the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings could set off a chain reaction  ending in a tornado. It stands to reason then that killing Hitler as a baby could cause a ripple effect with an unknowable impact. But even if we didn’t take into account the Butterfly Effect, killing baby Hitler still might not be the best option.  

In his current state, baby Hitler has not yet performed the actions that would eventually lead to the construction of a mass genocide. He has yet to experience the consequences of his actions, nor can he fully take responsibility for them. Even if we knew he would eventually commit these horrendous actions, he remains unaware of this fact.

You could make the argument that because we know he is going to commit a crime with 100% certainty already, then it would be better if he was terminated now rather than later. While this is true, we must also take into account where our values lie and what conditions we are placing on the scenario. 

Since this is a purely hypothetical situation, it can be twisted to best fit the ideals of whoever is debating it. One could argue that it would be ethical to kill baby Hitler if we knew for certain that there wouldn’t be any serious impact on the timeline and that the Holocaust doesn’t happen. However, this still leaves the problem of whether it would be moral to kill someone who has yet to commit a crime. 

Even in this scenario, humans are not divine. We never know when or if someone is going to commit a crime with 100% certainty. This is why we base our legal system on the evidence at hand. In other words, we consider people to be innocent until the moment they are proven guilty.

This idea of “innocent until proven guilty” quickly goes out the window because we do know with 100% certainty that baby Hitler eventually will follow through to mass genocide. This means that legal and ethical restraints are likely to go out the window as well. 

Even aside from the ethical questions, let’s go back to asking whether killing baby Hitler would make a difference in the long run. If we were even capable of such a thing, how could we be assured that his death would not be one little causation in a sea of other causations?

In other words, would killing baby Hitler make such a difference in the first place? Adolf Hitler was, after all, only a reflection of that historical era and Germany’s collective anger after the First World War. He was just one of many causes that led to World War Two.  History is not set in stone, and it’s very possible that Hitler being out of the way could even lead to a more brutal leader rising in his place.

When we think about the bigger picture, would removing one singular variable really change history enough to create a more peaceful outcome? Even before there was Hitler, Germany’s anger and embarrassment were exacerbated to create the conditions that inspired him to become such a brutal dictator. 

It is hard to say for certain whether any action one way or another could possibly change an event as deeply tragic as the Holocaust. But maybe the real lesson to take from this hypothetical is that we should not be living with regrets about the past. After all, the only thing we can actually change is the present.

Life is full of surprises, and nothing is ever truly certain. We can learn a lot from studying even the most tragic parts of history, but maybe we shouldn’t spend all our time dwelling on them. Instead, maybe we should focus on the things we can actually change. We should live in the moment, care for those close to us and try to leave this world better than we found it.

HaiAn Hoang is a biology and philosophy junior who can be reached at
[email protected]

Leave a Comment