The New York Times Magazine polled its readers. “If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?” 42% of people said yes.

Why they decided to ask the question is a mystery, but it sparked a meme that’s been bouncing around the internet ever since. The meme reached its zenith when Huffington Post asked Jeb Bush whether he would do the deed.

“Hell yeah, I would,” he declared. “You gotta step up, man”. Bush acknowledged the inherent fragility of time travel – as explored by scholars Marty McFly and Doc Brown, but ultimately conceded, “I’d do it. I mean, Hitler…”

Before you saddle up behind Jeb on the time travel express to Hitler’s nursery, here are a few things to consider.

Baby Hitler is innocent

Most ethical justifications for killing start with the presumption that people don’t deserve to be killed unless they’ve done something to forfeit their right to life. Depending on who you speak to, this might include being involved in an attack against somebody else, being in the military or even trafficking drugs.

Unless baby Hitler is running a Walter White-esque meth operation out of his preschool, he’s done nothing to forfeit his right to life.

But unless baby Hitler is running a Walter White-esque meth operation out of his preschool, he’s done nothing to forfeit his right to life. Until he does – say, by orchestrating genocide – Hitler retains it. Killing him as a baby would therefore be wrong.

Acts of evil have personal costs

Knowingly doing the wrong thing – like killing an innocent baby – carries a personal cost. When we transgress against deep moral beliefs we can experience debilitating guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression. Such actions can even come to define us permanently.

Some academics are now using the term ‘moral injury’ to describe the personal costs of acting against our moral beliefs. “Don’t kill innocent children” is arguably the most deeply held moral belief any of us have. Violating that norm comes at a severe price.

“Don’t kill innocent children” is arguably the most deeply-held moral belief any of us have. Violating that norm comes at a severe price.

Doing something wrong for the greater good doesn’t always work

German philosopher Immanuel Kant rejected the idea that ethics was just about “the greatest good for the greatest number” (a view known as consequentialism). Instead he argued that ethics was about doing what you are duty-bound to do – such as tell the truth and don’t kill.

He once considered the question of whether you could lie to save someone’s life. A murderer asks you for the location of a certain baby because he wants to murder him. Can you lie to save the baby’s life? Kant argued that you couldn’t – because you can’t guarantee that your lie will save the baby.

If you send the murderer to the bowling alley knowing the baby is upstairs, who’s to say the babysitter hasn’t taken the baby to the bowling alley without your knowledge? Suddenly you’ve told a lie and the baby is still dead, so you’ve made the situation worse overall.

In the case of Hitler, you would need to be certain his death would prevent the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. If – as many historians contend – the rise of Nazism was a product of a range of social factors in Germany at the time, then killing a baby isn’t going to reverse those social factors. Butchering the babe might even allow for the rise of another power – equal to or worse than Hitler.

And you’ve still killed a baby.

Killing isn’t necessary

Some people argue that killing the innocent might be justified when it is the lesser evil. But even in that case it has to be absolutely necessary. If time travel is possible, it seems unlikely to be necessary to kill baby Hitler as opposed to, say, kidnapping him, adopting him out to a Jewish family or offering him a scholarship to the Vienna School of Fine Arts.

If time travel is possible, it seems unlikely to be necessary to kill baby Hitler.

Human lives are of immense, perhaps even infinite value. To take one – especially an innocent one – when it isn’t absolutely necessary is a serious ethical issue.

Dangerous precedent

Where do we draw the line? Once we’re done with Hitler which baby is on the block next? Pol Pot? Stalin? The guy who spoiled the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for me in high school? We would require a set of consistent, universal ethical principles by which to determine which babies deserve death and which don’t.

Giving baby Hitler all of our murderous attention betrays our cognitive and personal bias – surely there are other worthy candidates? How many lives must a person take before their infant self is a legitimate target for killing? What standard will be applied?

For me, I wouldn’t do it. I mean, just look at baby Adolf…

Join the conversation

Would you kill baby Hitler?