Hitler as a baby, via Wikimedia Commons

Would you have killed Hitler, if you had had the chance? The conspirators who tried, but failed, in 1944 had hoped to save incomparably more lives; but the conspiracy failed and Hitler’s reprisals killed thousands, many of them nothing to do with the conspiracy.

Daniel Hill gave a fascinating lecture on this topic on Thursday evening. The conspirators thought they were doing the morally right thing, though one of the audience pointed out some of them also thought they would have made a better job of winning the war for the Germans, as Hitler wasn’t a good strategist. If they had succeeded, we just do not know what the result would have been.

So were they right to have a go? Was their moral duty to be judged by assessing likely consequences, or by their intentions, or by something else?

Consequences

The trouble with consequentialism is that it presupposes that you can foresee the relevant outcomes. The conspirators got it wrong. We all misjudge the consequences of our actions quite often. In fact, whatever we do we never foresee all the consequences. But how else can we make decisions, and how else could they have decided whether to go ahead with the attempted murder?

When Hitler was 4 years old a priest rescued him from a river where he was drowning. If the priest had been able to foresee his future life, would it have been right to let him die? If so, would it have been right to kill him anyway, even if he hadn’t got stuck in the river?

Rules

I have been influenced by two personal stories. One dates from 1975, when I was working in a mental hospital. At the time I was a pretty literalist pacifist, accepting the ‘You shall not kill’ commandment as a straightforward moral rule forbidding me to use force on others. One day one of the patients seemed not to have been drugged up as much as usual. He stomped off in a huff, got himself out of the ward and marched off towards freedom. I was deputed to fetch him back. When I caught up with him I tried to remonstrate with him. He punched me on the nose and carried on walking.

I can’t remember what happened next, but afterwards it got me thinking. Somehow or other force had to be used to get that chap back on the ward, because we all knew that leaving him to his own devices was in neither his interests nor anyone else’s.

And if that was the case for this patient, what about Hitler? If other people can have the authority to judge that the patient needed to be constrained, why not Hitler too? If society can invent a category of mentally ill people and deprive them of freedom, why not deprive Hitler’s freedom on the basis of that or some other category? In Hitler’s case the only method would have been a conspiracy to kill him.

So I began to realise that my version of pacifism was too much about me and my moral purity, not enough about what I could do for other people. Ever since then I have felt the pull of situationism. No list of moral do’s and don’t’s, however long, can cover every situation in life; we have brains and consciences and sometimes need to use them creatively.

Character

The other story comes from before I was born, the summer of 1940, in Athens. The Germans were moving in. My grandmother heard a knock on the door. She opened it to find a military officer in full German uniform. He wasn’t used to the Greek weather. Instead of walking in he keeled over and fainted.

My grandmother could have killed him. However, unlike Daniel Hill she wasn’t an ethicist. She did what came naturally: she cared for him and helped him come round.

‘For your kindness’, he said, ‘instead of stationing 12 soldiers in your house I’ll only station one officer.’

What if she had killed him? Almost certainly there would have been reprisals. My grandmother would have been killed, and my mother who was there with her, and probably others as well. I and my brothers wouldn’t have been born. Beyond that, we just don’t know.

Here’s my way of trying to make sense of all this.

With every decision we make, assessing the consequences is part of the story. If you offer me a choice between two biscuits and I choose the ginger one, I know there may be any number of unforeseen consequences. Maybe you run out of ginger biscuits, walk to the shop and get run over; but I will not consider myself personally responsible. On the other hand if my biscuit-eating habits make me put on weight and I have a heart attack, the responsibility is mine.

When it comes to bigger issues like whether to kill Hitler, or wage war, we know that there will be major consequences and we know that we cannot foresee them all. Because of the importance of the decision there is a greater responsibility to consider possible consequences in greater detail, as Just War Theory demands.

With big decisions as well as small ones, what we decide is more than just rational calculation. How we act is influenced by the kind of person we are at that point in time. If we have been in the habit of obeying the moral rules we were brought up with, or practising particular virtues, we are more likely to be guided by them. If, on the other hand, we have lived our lives looking for opportunities to benefit ourselves at the expense of others, we are more likely to respond in terms of self-interest.

This is just as true of governments as it is of individuals. Unfortunately it is one of the besetting sins of governments to exaggerate their ability to foresee consequences. Today’s ubiquitous veneration of statistics gives a false impression.

This leaves me feeling that the case for virtue ethics is strong. Suppose the conspirators had succeeded? Then, the fact that they had mixed motives would have mattered a great deal. Those who did it to save lives would have found themselves in conflict with those who did it to prosecute the war more successfully.

In order to make the best decisions in difficult situations, we need to practice the art of doing the right thing in normal situations.