That Foolish killing-baby-Hitler Scenario

I’m not a fan of ridiculous hypotheticals in ethical discussions. But this one just refuses to die (pun intended). Suppose you had a time machine, and could go back in time to shortly after the birth of Hitler (Austria, 1889). Is it moral to kill baby Hitler to prevent World War 2 and the Jewish Holocaust? The scenario is foolish because there are no time machines, and we don’t really know what the historical/future effects would be. The assumption is that the Holocaust at least would be prevented, and maybe the entire war also.

This ethical conundrum was in the news recently. The New York Times Magazine polled its readers last month and found that a plurality of respondents said they would, in fact, kill Hitler as a baby. Then presidential candidate Jeb Bush was asked the question.

“Hell yeah, I would!” the former Florida governor told HuffPost. “You gotta step up, man.”
“It could have a dangerous effect on everything else, but I’d do it — I mean, Hitler,” Bush said with a shrug.

From the point of view of Catholic ethics, the question is essentially this: Does the end justify the means? The means, in this case, is killing an infant, and the end is preventing World War 2 and the Holocaust. The end is very weighty, but the means is not trivial.

The direct and voluntary killing of an infant is always the grave sin of murder. No infant is guilty of some serious crime or threat, in defense of which one would need to use deadly force. And murder is intrinsically evil, that is to say, it is a type of act which is wrong by the very nature of the act, independent of intention (the reason or purpose for choosing the act) and circumstances (the context of the act, including the consequences).

So the correct Catholic answer to the question is “No”. It is not moral to kill an infant, even if you somehow know, with absolute certitude, that the infant will grow up to be a brutal dictator, responsible for the deaths of millions of innocents. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. No matter how good the purpose, no matter how dire the circumstance, every intrinsically evil act remains a sin to knowingly choose.

Can you kill Hitler as an adult, after he begins his reign of horrific crimes against humanity? Yes, you can. Catholic moral theology upholds the killing of a tyrant, in some cases. I won’t get into the complexities of that question here (which considers an unlawful leader with a peaceful reign as within the definition of tyrant). But in the extreme case of a ruler, like Hitler, who openly kills massive numbers of innocents, any human person can intervene to defend those innocents, using deadly force.

A terrorist rams a car into a bus stop, then attacks random innocent persons with a meat cleaver (not hypothetical; graphic footage). An armed citizen, who is not being directly threatened by the terrorist, can morally run over to him and shoot him in defense of other innocent persons. Certainly, the same moral evaluation applies when the terrorist is actually a tyrant using his power over a nation to kill vast numbers of innocents.

But you can’t kill Hitler as an infant, because murdering an infant is gravely immoral. The end of saving millions of lives (if indeed that were the effect) does not justify the means: an intrinsically evil gravely immoral act.

Consider a similar problem. You and your spouse have 17 children, and 16 are kidnapped. The criminals demand that you kill your remaining 17th child, an infant, in order to obtain the release of the other 16. If you do not do so, the 16 will be killed. Again, you cannot kill an innocent infant, in this case your own child, in order to save any number of other children or other innocent persons.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation.” [CCC 1753]

{3:8} And should we not do evil, so that good may result? For so we have been slandered, and so some have claimed we said; their condemnation is just.

Would killing baby Hitler prevent World War 2 or prevent the Jewish Holocaust? We do not know. Wars occur for a range of complex reasons. If one man wishes to go to war, and no one else is willing, the war does not occur. A dictator cannot rule over a nation unless he has the cooperation of many other persons. So taking one person out of the situation does not necessarily prevent a war. Similarly, the Jewish Holocaust occurred because of widespread anti-Semitism and because many persons were willing to take their hatred of Jews to the extreme. Some persecution of Jews would necessarily have occurred in that situation. But how far the perpetrators would have taken it, absent Hitler, is unknown.

Other Cases

The end does not justify the means. If the means to an end is immoral, then the act is a sin. One of the most basic principles of ethics is that good is good, and bad is bad. If you commit a thousand good acts, and one bad act, the bad act remains bad. If you commit a thousand bad acts, and one good act, the good act remains good. No good deed, however virtuous, can make an immoral act into a good act.

Can we justify an act of direct abortion, as the means to the good end of saving the life of the mother? No, we cannot. It is not moral to kill an innocent unborn child, not even to save the innocent mother of that child.

Some false teachers say that, if the mother’s life is in danger, then the abortion is necessarily always indirect and moral. But this is just a clever way to justify the means by the end. By reference to the end, they redefine the means as if it were not intrinsically evil and not a grave sin.

The same analysis applies to abortifacient contraception and mere contraception. These acts are intrinsically evil, and so they cannot be used as the means to a good end. The intention to obtain a good end result, does not justify the choice of an intrinsically evil act.

Neither can we say that the good intention implies that the act is not intrinsically evil. Such a claim is simply a clever way to justify an evil means. For the moral analysis of the means is based solely on the good end. Those who make such a claim insist that the act of abortion, or abortifacient contraception, or contraception, or some other sin is not intrinsically evil, in the particular case, because of the good end. But using the end as a way to define the morality of the means is nothing other than the end justifying the means.

Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” [Evangelium Vitae, n. 62.]

Pope Saint John Paul II: “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain irremediably evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. ‘As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt),’ Saint Augustine writes, ‘like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?’ ”

Pope Saint John Paul II: “Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act subjectively good or defensible as a choice.” [Evangelium Vitae, n. 81.]

I will be writing about Catholic ethics more frequently as the great Warning of Garabandal draws near (Good Friday, 2016). Most Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics are poorly instructed on the topic of Catholic moral teaching. My readers would do well to pay close attention to these posts, and to read my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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