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On Firing Into a Crowd and Accidentally Hitting Hitler
I’ve been using the following hypothetical for a long time. It doesn’t google, so I’m pretty sure that I originated it.
The year is 1946. You’re in Buenos Aires and see an ordinary crowd of people. Due to severe misanthropy, you take out a gun and shoot randomly in their general direction. You hit exactly one person and he dies. Yet as luck would have it, the person you killed turns out to be none other than Adolf Hitler. The next day, global headlines trumpet, “Hitler Shot Dead in Argentina.”
What are questions raised by this moral thought experiment? What are its lessons? My top five:
Was this a virtuous act? I say the answer is obviously No. You tried to kill people you reasonably believed were innocent. Plus, your motive was awful. While you made the world a better place, you were trying to do the opposite.
Did you make the world a better place in deontological terms? Yes, because you killed a person who richly deserved to die for his crimes.
Did you make the world a better place in consequentialist terms? Yes again. Due to the media coverage, you helped deter murderous ideologues around the world. Who, after all, would imagine that you hit Hitler accidentally? Even if you revealed the truth in a tell-all interview, no one would believe you: “You had no idea that the man you were shooting was Hitler. Right, like I’m really going to believe that.”
Did you do the right thing? Using standard usage in analytic philosophy, yes. An exemplary moral advisor with full information presumably would have told you to shoot Hitler. (If you protest, “You should have just informed local authorities,” I’ll just tweak the hypothetical to stipulate that local authorities are corrupt or incompetent). And you did precisely that.
Needless to say, randomly shooting crowds remains horribly wrong! The fact that a seemingly wrong action has a miniscule probability of being right is, as laymen say, academic.
Stepping back, when is my hypothetical even relevant? Simple: Anytime someone defends a vicious action that — against all odds — works out well. Feeling dumbfounded? Just respond, “That’s like firing into a crowd and accidentally hitting Hitler” - and listeners will either grasp your point at once, or be intrigued enough to request elaboration.