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Would you kill one person if you knew it would save millions?

I remember my history teacher asking the class what the world would have been like if Hitler had died young. Most in the class thought things would be better, but a couple of argued that potentially we may not have learned the hard lessons that we did if the holocaust hadn’t happened, and it was possible that things could be worse.

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    Aug 18 2011: In the case of Hitler and the holocaust I don't think we should attribute to much of what happened to Hitler. Don't missunderstand me. What Hitler did was terrible, but I think the main problem was the circumstances. People felt dissapointed by the outcome of the first world war, eugenics were popular, and there was the great depression. People were looking for a leader like Hitler to step forward, and I find it likely that if Hitler not had been born someone else would have taken the role instead. This is why I think that the most important thing often not is to find who is responsible for this or that, but to allways try to fight the circulation of stupid and dangerous ideas.
    • Aug 18 2011: I think you nailed this one, Kristopher. The Holocaust was due much more to global anti-semitism than one evil man. The old phrase that you can kill a person, but not an idea is so true.

      I think it is a more constructive thought to consider how many people we each can save by fighting intolerance, ignorance and bigotry.
      • Aug 18 2011: Hitler provided a terrible final solution to the global anti-semitism though. It is true that someone else might have developed a similar solution but might not have been able to carry it out or fluently deliver the solution.

        Without Hitler, it is possible that Nazism would have faded or not developed as such a political force.

        Sometimes one human can have a significant impact on people.

        Look how Steve Jobs influenced Apple as a company and how the flag ship products of Apple have influenced the world.
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    Sep 8 2011: Just making a point. Questions like these are absolutely pointless. Our brains cannot work these out.
    The best you can do is see things in a different perspective. "I don't have time to save this one person, I have to go save millions".
    But the sacrifice thing, we are not ants, we can't solve stuff like this.

    On the other hand, we are a warlike species when it comes to defending our tribe. We wouldn't hesitate to massacre potential threat to our community. Even if say we wouldn't. This is how we're designed.
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    Sep 7 2011: The specific example with Hitler is not so interesting because you can't separate the impossibility of knowing what history will bring. It's always confused by the fact that you can't ever recognize the young Hitler with any confidence and the risk of killing an innocent person accidentally overshadows the discussion.

    But the general question is interesting because it illustrates the way we assign responsibility. We often think that if you choose not to do something, the results of the inaction are not your fault. But if you act, the results are. I'm not sure why that should be.

    Example—For those who answer 'no' to killing one person to save millions, I would ask: would you save one person if you had to kill millions to do it? It's the same problem—your action or inaction leave either one or a million alive or dead, but somehow killing someone is viewed as different than not saving them.

    All of these kinds of problems seem to distill down to the 'trolley problem' which you can read more about here:
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    Sep 6 2011: Definitely NOT.
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    Sep 4 2011: I'd kill a million people I don't know to save one person I know.
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      Sep 7 2011: What an interesting point! But why the massacre?
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    Aug 19 2011: What hard lesson would this be? Genocide is bad? lol.

    If I knew a single action by me could save millions... and I didn't do it, I'd live in fear for the rest of my life.

    Not from the billions seeking revenge, but from Zeus resurrecting himself from the annals of history just to come get me...
  • Aug 18 2011: Here is a related question. Could you live with yourself knowing you let one person kill millions of people including children?
  • Aug 18 2011: For our religion, if person kill the another one, thats means killed all humanity so even if i would save the millions i can not kill the billions. Of course depends on the person, I am not talking about what soldiers do. Obviously they are protecting their land and their people as well as humanity. What Im talking about it assassination like in time 1938, killing Hitler. So I would NOT. Kindest Regards. Greetings from Australia.
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    Aug 18 2011: Arguing that the holocaust was useful for learning hard lessons kinda squashes interest in the question for me. Did I misinterpret something?
  • Aug 17 2011: I would like to stress out the hypothetical nature of the conditional "knew", It is hard to really know what the outcome of such a thing would be, have you ever heard about the butterfly effect? (ignore the movie) some times heroes are direct descendants of villains, sometimes heroes become such because of the existence of the villain, and on a long enough time line there is no way to know what the consequences might be for the simple action of killing a butterfly, let alone saving millions of people!
    Imagine the probability of at least one of those saved millions being an even worse villain than Hitler, or one of their descendants! think of how wide the tree of saved people spreads!
    Imagine that two survivers of the holocaust got married and wouldn't have even met if that hadn't happened! Think of their offspring, now multiply that by how many people were conceived that way!
    An interesting phenomena of the Holocaust were the "baby boomers", this is a term used to refer to thousands of kids that were conceived as a direct consequence of the celebration of the end of WW2, you would be preventing their birth!
    By killing Hitler you might be preventing the existence of just as many people as you are saving, maybe even your own!

    Best not toy with such possibilities, leave the killing for life or death imminent threats when there just isn't another option.
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    Aug 17 2011: Millions of dollars? No I certainly wouldn't kill someone for any sum of money.

    Would killing Hitler as an infant have made such a difference? Someone else could have rose to power and committed worse crimes; but who knows, it certainly is worth arguing about.