In honour of Remembrance Day, Wotton’s Society was lucky to welcome Dr Daniel Hill, a philosophy specialist at the University of Liverpool. He spoke on the subject of whether, if given the hypothetical opportunity, one ought to kill German leader Adolf Hitler to save innocent lives from being lost as victims of conflict and genocide. Members of the Eton community were asked: can murder ever be morally justified?
Dr Hill first addressed the question’s formulation. Specifically, at what point in time would this opportunity be available? Take the exemplary bravery of Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944, at the height of his power. Other dates, however, are worth consideration, such as Hitler as a zygote, as a child, as a rising politician in the 1920s, and as an early global threat from 1933.
At a very active society meeting, the audience were asked to question the moral issues raised by each of the moral arguments presented by Dr Hill.
The first was consequentialism, the notion that moral issues should be decided based on how much utility (‘goodness’) the action produces. Many would contend that killing Hitler would lead to greater happiness overall. However, thought experiments such as Stephen Fry’s 1996 novel Making History posits that we cannot know for certain that this action would genuinely lead to greater utility, as a yet more evil despot could arise in Hitler’s stead and cause even greater destruction and loss of life.
Second is the notion that we should defend the rights of others on principle. This is an idea substantiated by our current legal system, wherein one can justify killing in cases of self-defence or in defence of others. Yet this has the accompanying caveat that any pre-emptive attack on Hitler (such as killing him as a child) could not be justified by this rule.
The third argument presented was that of capital punishment, the straightforward position that certain acts are so deplorable that they merit taking the life of the wrongdoer.
Finally, we heard about Aquinas’ idea of ‘Just War’. As Hitler has violated the code of war he ought to be put to death by an authority capable of making this determination, a view summarised by Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”
Whilst consensus remained elusive, given the challenge posed by such a provocative question, we all enjoyed such a wide-ranging and enlightening talk.
What excites me most about philosophy is that the questions never go stale, they never date.Dr Daniel Hill
Given the size of the audience keen to learn the contentions that such a controversial question raises, it was clear Dr Hill is not wrong in that assessment. The principles that inform moral decision-making are just as intimately tied to our moral and national conscience now as they were all those years ago.