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Opening Arguments

Would you kill Hitler?

What would you do for the greater good?

Here's a question; if you could go back in time and kill Hitler - likely saving millions of lives - would you do it? Your answer, researchers were surprised to find, might depend on your gender.

New research published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology suggests that, given such a question, men seem more willing to accept the need for harmful actions for the sake of the greater good than do women.

[. . .]

In the study participants were asked 20 questions, all of them involving a moral dilemma centering on such things as murder, torture, abortion, lying or the morality of animal research.


An example was asking them to imagine being a member of a group of people hiding from soldiers and being handed a crying baby. Would they smother the child to save the group or let it live at the risk of the group being caught and likely killed?

The study considered two contrasting philosophical/ethical principles; utilitarianism, which says committing a harmful action is acceptable if it is for the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and deontology, which holds that breaking moral conventions as held by most people, even to secure a favorable future result, is wrong.

Women were more likely to fall into the deontology camp and agonize for a long time over a decision, while men were somewhat more likely to lean toward utilitarianism and make a quick decision, the researchers found.

The study hedges its bets quite a lot, using phrases such as "more likely to," and it doesn't provide any percentages, so we don't really know whether it suggests a small gender gap or a huge one on such moral questions. Still, it's interesting. Is that what it means to be the "kinder, gentler sex," to let Hitler live? Makes me proud to be crueler, rougher man.

Of course there are moral dilemmas in the utilitarian approach, too (or at least there should be). You might have to split some pretty fine hairs to determine just what the "greater good" is. One crying baby to save, say 100 people, is an easier call that, say, three crying babies to save 10 people. And how accurate is your assessment of the danger you are in?

And anybody who's read a lot of time travel stories knows there are problems in going back in time and doing anything, never mind killing off a monster like Hitler. There would more likely than not be unintended consequences. Hitler's untimely death would alter history and bring a different future with who knows what horrors in it. Saving millions by killing Hilter might imperil billions. All the people who were alive today would now have very different lives, if they even were born at all.

I think most of us are some kind of a mixture of utilitarianism and deontology. We are generally utilitarian but occasionally come up against something that our moral code makes us agonize over. Always being controlled by the "greater good" is no better than always selfishly ignoring it.

Posted in: Science