Killing Hitler: The Mistake of Utilitarianism

One of the objections to the pacifist view of violence is that there are just causes for violence.  The most typical example of such a just cause is Hitler, or, more generally, World War II.  If only we had just killed Hitler early on, the thinking goes, the whole tragedy of World War II could have been avoided.   Or, failing that, World War II was a just war, because it was needed to end the tragedy.

The thing about killing Hitler is that the reason we imagine it will work is that we think that  Hitler is the problem. But he's not. He's an insane person in a position of power. That is a problem that can be solved without killing; indeed, the context in which he had his power would remain if he were killed, so merely killing him wouldn't have saved a single person from the death chambers.

Look at Trump: in my mind at least (sorry if you're in the other tribe) he is a dangerous idiot. But get rid of him, and what do you have left? A completely dysfunctional situation that has been getting more and more dysfunctional pretty much since the end of World War II.

Focusing on Trump as the problem isn't just ineffective. It's missing the point. The reason these poisonous situations persist is that we persist in allowing them to: we persist in not doing what actually is required to improve the situation. We take shortcuts: we find some person to blame, and then we focus on getting rid of that person, instead of fixing the real problem, which is much, much harder.

One objection to attaining an awakened state of mind is the fear that an awakened person would be pacifist, and therefore would not undertake a just war, or would not kill Hitler.

In fact, this fear is backwards. What we should fear is continuing to think that we can solve the world's problems by killing one malefactor, or by winning a war.  Dwelling in an awakened perspective, we are able to do our part of what actually needs to be done.

Of course, the awakened perspective is very pleasant.   There are no problems.  There is a tendency to simply enjoy this.  This is why, for example, the Bodhisattva tradition of Buddhism puts so much work into priming people: it is that priming, after awakening, that determines whether you go out and save the world or go live in a cave. This is not unique to Buddhism: the teachings of Christ offer the same advice, as do the mitzvot in the Torah.

The other problem with killing Hitler is that the whole idea is preposterous.  Suppose you were to travel back in time and find Hitler before he came to power, and try to kill him at that point.  How do you know that your attempt to kill him will succeed?  How do you know that, in failing, you will not be the very thing that sets him down the path to becoming the monster we remember?  Perhaps he was a terrible person before that, but now he is a terrible person who is afraid of an invisible time-traveling foe.  What would a person with that kind of fear accomplish.

This is the mistake of utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism which holds that we should act in the way that produces the most happiness, even if that seems objectively immoral at the time of the action.  This can be the motivation, for example, behind a “just war.”

The problem with this is that it presumes that we know what the consequence will be.  And of course we don’t.  Well, we do know generally, but utilitarianism urges us to ignore that.  We know that a philosophy that accepts that wars can be just allows for war as a solution to problems.  And when war seems like the easiest solution to a problem, more difficult solutions will not be pursued.

The problem with this is that wars don’t actually solve problems.  They just make the problem submerge until the pain of defeat at war subsides.  Once the pain has subsided, the problem resurfaces.  We see this happen over and over again in history; it is not a mystery.   We are seeing it happen in our own time, with the resurgence of white supremacy and anti-semitism.

If there is any lesson to take from World War II, it is that fighting a war does not work.  It may have cured the immediate symptom, at great cost, but it did not end the problem.   And of course, this assumes that the war will be won, which doesn’t always happen.

So what is the right approach?

Think of this: how did World War II start?  How did Hitler rise to power?  The answer is complex, in a sense, but it’s also simple.  Look at the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.  It was known at the time that the treaty was signed that the punitive reparations visited upon Germany and its allies were unsustainable.  These created a situation in Germany after the war that was a fertile breeding ground for hate.

Then too, the Catholic Church had historically smiled on anti-semitism, on the basis that “the Jews killed Christ.”  Here we have a supposedly enlightened religious hierarchy effectively supporting hatred.  It is not difficult to imagine what their Messiah might think of that.

What we have is a systemic problem, not a bad actor problem.  There is no one place to point to and say “there, that is the cause.”  How do you solve systemic problems?  You do it by noticing how they are happening, where the positive feedback loops are, and finding ways to break those feedback loops.

Perhaps the most powerful early experience of awakening is a dropping of the feedback loop of self-cherishing.  This might sound a bit daunting; the experience of it is of incredible relief.  Finally, we can let go of this feeling that there is a person here who must be defended at all costs, against all attackers.

And it turns the other way as well.  Think of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004.  Two hundred thousand people died in a period of a few hours.  Now think of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 1, 2001.  About three thousand people died.

If you were alive at the time, which of these two events do you recall as having had the biggest impact on world history?  The death of 200,000 people, or the death of 3,000?  If you weren’t alive at that time, have you even heard of the Christmas Tsunami?  Probably only if your family lost a member.  Think of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.  Millions died.  Did we go to war over that?

The answer in both the case of the Tsunami and the case of the Spanish Flu, of course, is that we did not.  Why not?  The answer is simple: there was no person to blame.

What’s going on here?  The answer is that we have a cognitive bias, because we are humans, and humans are tribal.  When there is a problem, we have a cognitive bias toward looking for the person who caused the problem.  When we find that person, we punish them.  This is seen as solving the problem.

When there is clearly no person to blame, we think about preparing for the next time.  When there is a person to blame, we do whatever it takes to kill them.  And of course this turns into things like anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. following 9/11.  In the case of Nazi Germany, the poverty brought about by war reparations, combined with the wealth of a small minority of Jews, created a fertile environment for anti-semitism.  Our human cognitive bias to find a person to blame lead to the deaths of millions.

There is a tendency to think that only other people have this problem.  This is another form of cognitive bias: the view that whatever I see as true is true, and if someone disagrees with me, they are presumably mistaken.  This bias is so strong that even when someone presents us with facts that contradict our belief, and that we can see are true, we still hold on to the belief.

The pacifist view is a mental discipline.  The purpose of the discipline is to counteract the cognitive bias toward finding a person responsible for whatever bad thing is happening right now, and punishing or killing them in order to solve the problem.  It should be fairly clear that the pacifist view would have prevented World War II, if most Germans had practiced the discipline.

Not only would they have sought other solutions than the Shoah to deal with wealth inequality, but they wouldn’t have supported a war.  It’s easy to say that the Brown Shirts, Hitler’s “ruffian” supporters, could have forced the populace to support the war, but looking back at German history, it’s again quite obvious that the Brown Shirts served as a whip to push a people in a direction they were generally willing to go.  If the majority of Germans hadn’t been willing to go in that direction, Hitler couldn’t have pushed them there.

But there is some truth to the idea that it was fear of violent punishment at the hands of Brown Shirts that led the populace to support the war effort.  How did this happen, then?  It’s not simple, but at the root of many of the tools that were used is the self-cherishing I mentioned earlier.

This takes many forms.  For example, there is the desire for approval.  If I feel bad about myself, then having someone approve of me becomes a powerful motivator.  We’ve all probably felt this when we have a crush on someone, and suddenly see ourselves behaving in ways that are uncharacteristic and self-defeating.  We’re doing it because we want the approval of our crush so badly.

This sort of approval seeking also comes from social hierarchy, whether formal or informal.  The approval of a person who is seen as strong will provide strong motivation to go along with what that person encourages us to do.

Another example of self-cherishing at work is the fear of retribution.  If people are being punished for behaving a certain way, and I know it, I will want to avoid behaving that way.  This will be true even if the vast majority of people want to behave that way, because each of us are deciding individually—we aren’t consulting each other.  And so public reprisals against dissent are very effective at stopping it, even though if everyone who was afraid of reprisal rose together at once, they would have no difficulty overcoming their oppressors.

I think that this problem is the origin of the various moral codes we see from the various world religions.  These codes encourage us to act selflessly.  But acting selflessly is hard to do, until you have woken up enough to see through the nature of self.

Think back to the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the Christmas Tsunami of 2004.  These quite terrible events produced no backlash to speak of, no hatred of other.  I’m sure there were isolated instances, but there was no mass movement.  This was because no scapegoat was seen.  And so we looked past the scapegoat, and at the problem itself.  Tsunami early warning systems.  Advances in health care.

Imagine if we had taken the same approach in response to the 9/11 attacks.  Rather than seeing them as caused by some person, or worse, as in fact we did, as being caused by some class of person, we saw them as being caused by a certain form of ignorance, and set out to eliminate that form of ignorance.  How different would the world in which we live be, today?