April 13, 2024

An excursion into time machine ethics

We missed this, sorry, but October 21 was #BackToTheFutureDay, the day Marty McFly travelled to in Back to the Future II. The internet was abuzz with the kind of stuff the internet buzzes about better than anyone else and even POTUS tweeted “Ever think about the fact that we live in the future we dreamed of then? That’s heavy, man.”

But with all the palaver about time travel, the only person who studied the bioethical conundrums of time travel was Dr Janet D. Stemwedel, a columnist for Forbes who specialises in time machine ethics. She took seriously a question posed on Twitter by the New York Times Magazine: “If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?” (Only 42% said yes!)

First of all, she notes that this is question that only a utilitarian will take seriously. Killing an innocent child now is deemed right because it will prevent great evils later. But she counters:  “Given all the moving parts in a world of many people who raised, nurtured, enabled, and assisted Adolf Hitler, why is baby Hitler the moving part to eliminate? If you gamble on killing this baby, who has done nothing wrong and for whom there is no guarantee yet of eventually committing the horrors you hope to prevent, aren’t you using the kind of logic that could justify mass exterminations of other people?”

Furthermore, given the large number of people who shared Hitler’s depraved ideas, someone else would probably step into the gap left by his non-existence. She concludes: “In the process of trying to avoid a great harm that, at the stage of Hitler’s infancy, is in no way inevitable, you’ve made yourself a baby killer, which is surely a harm to baby Hitler, to his survivors, and (if you have any kind of conscience) to you.”

Sound advice, readers, if you ever get your hands on a reliable time machine. 

Michael Cook
Would it be ethical to kill Hitler in his cradle?
time machine ethics