How Pop Culture Tackled the ‘Kill Baby Hitler’ Question
Forgotten 'Twilight Zone' episode nailed the moral complexities of time travel
Though it was well before my time, I always loved watching the original “Twilight Zone” series.
Subsequent reboots never impressed me as much, but the 2002 episode “Cradle of Darkness” is an exception.
Directed by Jean de Segonzac and written by Kamran Pasha, it stars Katherine Heigl as a young woman sent back in time to Austria in 1889 to rewrite history by killing Adolf Hitler when he’s just a baby, preventing (hopefully) the Holocaust and World War II.
The idea of sending someone back in time to change the future is a familiar one to sci-fi fans. Movie buffs will recall the T-800 cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor to prevent her unborn son from leading the resistance that takes down Skynet in “The Terminator.”
The difference, of course, is that in “Cradle of Darkness” it’s the good guys who are trying to kill an innocent person to change the future. Heigl’s character, who indicates she has (ahem) special DNA that allows only her to travel through time, reasons that the moral thing to do is to strangle the wretched little Nazi in his cradle.
“Adolf Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 60 million people. Fathers, mothers, children,” she says gravely, moments before she is whisked back in time to become Baby Hitler’s nanny.
‘An Acceptable Price to Pay’?
“Cradle of Darkness” is a little campy, but it’s worth watching and can actually teach us a lot about our own ethics. There’s a reason the “would you kill Baby Hitler?” hypothetical pops up every few years. It’s a question with huge moral implications, and it’s one people are deeply divided on.
In 2015, New York Times magazine asked, If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it? Readers couldn’t reach a majority consensus. Forty-two percent said yes, they’d kill Hitler in his infancy. Twenty-eight percent said they were not sure. Just 30 percent gave a definitive no, saying they would not kill the child.
We asked @nytmag readers: If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it? (What’s your response?) pic.twitter.com/daatm12NZC
— NYT Magazine (@NYTmag) October 23, 2015
Some say the Baby Hitler question is “a more dramatic version of the trolley problem,” but there’s a key difference: the former scenario involves a clear and explicit act of murder, versus merely flipping a switch to save some lives. This is one reason the Baby Hitler thought experiment is more interesting than the trolley problem (in addition to the fact that it involves one of the most vile monsters in history).
It’s asking a clear question: would you commit murder to save lives?
How one answers the Baby Hitler question can reveal a lot about one’s moral philosophy. Religious people, for example, tend to say it would be wrong to murder Hitler in his cradle.
“The truth is no pro-life person would kill Baby Hitler…Baby Hitler was a baby,” said conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, an orthodox Jew, during a 2019 pro-life rally. “What you presumably want to do with Baby Hitler was take Baby Hitler out of Baby Hitler’s house, and movie Baby Hitler into a better house where he will not grow up to be Hitler.”
And he’s not alone.
Progressives tend to have fewer qualms about snuffing out a diaper-wearing Hitler. Writing at Vox in response to Shapiro’s talk, Dylan Matthews called Shapiro’s comments “baffling.”
“You don’t have to be a die-hard utilitarian to think one baby is an acceptable price to pay to save tens of millions of lives,” wrote Matthews.
To be fair, Matthews adds that certain “strong assumptions” must be met before such an action should be taken. Would killing Baby Hitler actually prevent millions from dying? What would the ramifications be?
He goes on to discuss the larger ethics of consequentialism, a philosophical framework that suggests actions are moral or immoral depending on the consequences that result from them.
‘The Most Monstrous Deeds in History’
Though Baby Hitler and time traveling murder questions are relatively new, questions surrounding the morality of utilitarianism and consequentialism are not.
In his masterpiece Crime and Punishment, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky explored this very subject. The novel centers on a young law-school dropout named Raskolnikov who rationalizes the murder of an unscrupulous old woman—a “useless, nasty, pernicious louse”—reasoning it would allow him to perform great deeds by lifting him out of poverty.
Raskolnikov is keenly aware that a lot of the most powerful people in history did atrocious things on their way to the top, and Crime and Punishment, like “Cradle of Darkness,” toys with a simple question: can an evil act (murder) be justified if its consequences are sufficiently positive?
How we choose to answer this question is incredibly important, and history shows why.
The Civil Rights Movement in America would have looked a great deal different if its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had seen violence as a moral and appropriate tool for social revolution. But King determined that violence, even when carried out for a just cause, ultimately undermines peace and justice.
On this date in 1964, Dr. King was announced as that year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Here he is accepting the award in Norway later that year. #MLK @NobelPrize pic.twitter.com/qjcdzdiNSL
— The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center (@TheKingCenter) October 14, 2019
“In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace,” King wrote in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech. “It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”
Essentially, King saw that the means we use matter more than the ends we seek. This is a truth FEE founder Leonard Read understood well.
“Ends, goals, aims are but the hope for things to come…They are not a part of the reality… from which may safely be taken the standards for right conduct. They are no more to be trusted as bench marks than are day dreams or flights of fancy. Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good—in pursuit of some ‘noble’ goal. They illustrate the fallacy that the end justifies the means.”
This is why the “would you kill Baby Hitler” question is important. It can shed light on to what extent people are comfortable committing an evil act (murdering an innocent child) to achieve a “greater good.”
The reality is many people are comfortable with unjust actions as long as they believe or can be convinced they’ll achieve a greater good. But as Dostoevsky, MLK, and Read all understood, the evil we commit immediately becomes part of reality, while the “greater good” we seek is often frustratingly elusive.
This, as it happens, is something Heigl’s time-traveling character learns in “Cradle of Darkness.”
“The Twilight Zone” might be a work of fiction, but the moral ethics of the episode are sound—and it reminds us of the danger of committing evil acts to achieve desired outcomes.
Jon Miltimore is the managing editor of Fee.org. This article originally appeared at that site.