Monday, October 9, 2017

Preventing someone from murdering Hitler

You are a secret opponent of the Nazi regime, and you happen to see Schmidt sneaking up on Hitler with an axe and murderous intent. You know what’s happening: Schmidt believes that Hitler has been committing adultery with Mrs. Schmidt, and is going to murder Hitler. Should you warn Hitler’s guards?

  1. Intuition: No! If Hitler stays alive, millions will die.

  2. Objection: You would be intending Schmidt to kill Hitler, a killing that you know would be a murder, and you are morally speaking an accomplice. And it is wrong to intend an evil to prevent more evil.

There is a subtlety here. Perhaps you think: “It is permissible to kill an evil tyrant like Hitler, and so Schmidt is doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. So by not warning the guards, I am not intending Schmidt to commit a murder, but only a killing that is objectively morally right, albeit I foresee that Schmidt will commit it for the wrong reasons.” I think this reasoning is flawed—I don’t think one can say that Schmidt is doing anything morally permissible, even if the same physical actions would be morally permissible if they had other motive. But if you’re impressed by the reasoning, tweak the case a little. All this is happening before Hitler has done any of the evil tyrannical deeds that would justify killing him. However, you foresee with certainty that if Hitler is not stopped, he will do them. So Schmidt’s killing would be wrong, even if Schmidt were doing it to prevent millions of deaths.

What’s behind (2) is the thought that Double Effect forbids you to intend an evil, even if it’s for the purpose of preventing a greater evil.

But here is the fascinating thing. Double Effect forbids you from warning the guards. The action of warning the guards is an action that has two effects: (i) prevention of a murder, and (ii) the foreseen deaths of millions. Double Effect has a proportionality condition: it is only permissible to do an action with a good and a bad effect when the bad effect is proportionate to the good effect. But millions of deaths are not proportionate to the prevention of one murder. So Double Effect forbids you from warning the guards.

Now it seems that we have a conflict between Double Effect and Double Effect. On the one hand, Double Effect seems to say that you may not warn the guards, because doing so will cause millions of deaths. On the other hand, it seems to say that you may not refrain from warning the guards in order to save millions because in so doing you are intending Schmidt to kill Hitler.

I know of three ways out of this conflict.

Resolution 1: Double Effect applies only to commissions and not omissions. It is permissible to omit warning the guarads in order that Schmidt may have a free hand to kill Hitler, even though it would not be permissible to help Schmidt by any positive act. One may intend the killing of Hitler in the context of one’s omission but not in the context of one’s commission.

Resolution 2: This is a case of Triple Effect or, equivalent, of a defeater-defeater. You have some reason not to warn the guards. Maybe it’s just the general moral reason that you have not to invoke the stern apparatus of Nazi law, or the very minor reason not to bother straining one’s voice. There is a defeater for that reason, namely that warning the guards will prevent a murder. And there is a defeater-defeater: preventing that murder will lead to the deaths of millions. Thus, the defeater to your initial relatively minor moral reason not to warn guards—viz., that if you don’t, a murder will be committed—is defeater, and so you can just go with the initial moral reason. On this story, the initial Objection to the Intuition is wrong-headed, because it is not your intention to save millions—that is just a defeater to a defeater.

Resolution 3: Your intention is simply to refrain from acting in ways that have a disproportionately bad effect. We should simply not perform such actions. You aren’t refraining as a means to the prevention of the disproportionately bead effect, as the initial Objection claimed. Rather, you are refraining as a means to prevent oneself from contributing to a disproportionately bad effect, namely to prevent oneself from defending the life of the man who will kill millions.


While Resolution 1 is in some ways attractive, it requires an explanation why intentions for evils are permissible in the context of omissions but not of commissions.

I used to really like something like Resolution 2. But now it seems forced to me, because it claims that your primary intention in the omission can be something so very minor—perhaps as minor as not straining one’s voice in some versions of the story. That just doesn’t seem psychologically realistic, and it seems to trivialize the goods and evils involved if one is focused on something minor. I still think the Triple Effect reasoning like has much to be said for it, but only in those cases where there is a significant good at stake in the initial intention.

I find myself now pulled to Resolution 3. The worry is that Resolution 3 pulls one towards the consequentialist justification of the initial intuition. But I think Resolution 3 is distinguishable from consequentialism, both logically and psychologically. Logically: the intention is not to contribute to an overwhelmingly bad outcome. Psychologically: one can refrain from warning the guards even if one wouldn’t raise a finger to help Schmidt. Resolution 3 suggests that there is an asymmetry between commission and omission, but it locates that asymmetry more plausibly than Resolution 1 did. Resolution 1 claimed that it was permissible to intend evils in the context of omissions. That is implausible for the same reason why it is impermissible to intend evils in the context of comissions: the will of someone who intends evil is a corrupt will. But Resolution 3 is an intuitively plausible non-consequentialist principle about avoiding being a contributor to evil.

In fact, if one so wishes, one can use Resolution 3 to fix the problem with Resolution 2. The initial intention becomes: Don’t be a contributor to evil. Defeater: If you don’t warn, a murder will happen. Defeater-defeater: But millions will die. Now the initial intention is very much non-trivial.


Daniel Hill said...

Thanks for another fascinating post, Alex.

Your third solution puts me in mind of Jonathan Bennett's example in _The Act Itself_ of the sea captain that must stop an enemy submarine even at the cost of incidentally running down some survivors in the water, an act that the captain cannot psychologically bring himself to do unless motivated by sinful enmity towards the submarine captain. See Joseph Shaw's analysis of the case at

I was also reminded by the Hitler example of the classic exchange in _Once Upon a Time in the West_:
Jill: And you! You saved his life.
Harmonica: I didn't let them kill him. That's not the same thing.
(This is the second clip at

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks, Daniel, for these references.

I should have added that the third solution is also most faithful to the Double Effect reasoning as to why it's impermissible to warn the guards.

Here's an interesting question. Suppose that you're Adolf's mother and Adolf is a little boy who is drowning, but somehow you know with certainty what Adolf will do if he survives. Suppose Adolf will become an "ordinary murderer" who will kill one person. Then, because the proportionality condition in Double Effect is not impersonal and purely consequentialistic, you are be permitted to rescue Adolf: allowing one murder to happen is not disproportionate to saving one's son. In fact, it would be your parental duty to rescue Adolf in that case. (If your son is drowning in one pool and in another a murderer is murdering a stranger, and you can save either your son or the stranger, it's surely your duty to save the son. It's more complicated when your Adolf is going to be the murderer.) But if Adolf will become the murderer of millions, then perhaps even the mother is not permitted to save him from drowning, lest she become the cause of disproportionate evil.

If this is right--and I am not 100% sure about either endpoint--then at the "one future murder" endpoint rescue is obligatory and at the "millions of future murders" endpoint rescue is forbidden. I wonder if in between there is an in-between case where maternal rescue is permitted but not obligatory. If so, that would be a really tough case.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Alex. Your fictional case -- minus the foreknowledge -- has a similar correspondent in reality:

Alexander R Pruss said...

By the way, you certainly can also have a case where you stop a killing without intending to save a life. Let's say it's your military duty in a just war to kill an enemy, and you see someone about to murder the enemy. You could have circumstances where you have good reason to (a) stop the murder for the sake of the murderer's soul* or the murderer's family or the like, and (b) immediately thereafter kill the enemy. In such a case, it seems right to say that you're intending to stop the killing but not to save the life. Or you could just be a bounty hunter stopping another bounty hunter from getting the bounty, but the morality is unclear. (Maybe a bounty hunter could be an officer of the state with the moral permission to kill someone.)

*One might think that the person is already an attempted murderer, and that's morally just as bad. First, that depends on the case. If he aims a gun at the victim but hasn't yet pulled the trigger, pulling the trigger is surely a *further* soul-destroying act--imagine, after all, that he stops. (It's complicated. I may do a post on it today.) Second, knowing that one has been stopped may lead to a great gratitude to God and repentance.

Heath White said...

I am going to say that failing to warn the guards is not intending that Schmidt do a murder. It is foreseeing that Schmidt will do a murder, and not doing anything about it.

I foresee all kinds of evils all the time: unless I am particularly vigilant, my students will text on their phones during class. I often do nothing about it; I don't intend them to do it, though. I foresee that my children will get into minor mischief in certain circumstances, and do nothing to stop it, because it would cause more trouble to stop than the mischief does. Etc. I think this is a version of that kind of situation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think it's different from these cases.

Imagine two scenarios:
1. You don't stop a student from texting because it's too disruptive to call him out for it.
2. You don't stop a student from texting because you want his recipient to get the message.

These cases are different. There is a prima facie case that in (2) you really are intending the student to send the text. And it is (2), rather than (1), that resembles the Hitler case better, at least prima facie.

Heath White said...

My intuition that this is mere foresight and not intention is pretty strong. So here is another way to approach it:

It seems to me there is always a choice to do nothing. No intention is forced on you. So when you observe Schmidt on his mission, there is some possible state of your will that is not intending. If you warn the guards, you intend him to fail. Therefore not warning the guards cannot also entail an intention.

It seems to me you are just *rooting* for Schmidt: you hope he succeeds. You would have the same attitude if you were watching him on TV and could do nothing about it.

To intend is to plan. If observing Schmidt does not cause you to adopt any plans, or change any plans, or even adopt any counterfactual plans (like: I will distract the guards if they get any closer to Schmidt) then I don't see how you can have formed an intention.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's true that your non-interference doesn't entail the intention that Hitler die. But if your *reason* for non-interference is to ensure that Hitler dies, then that is the intention.