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Sic Semper Tyrannis

David Cowles

Oct 5, 2023

“His immediate fate is not the 'result' of your shooting at him; it’s the act itself.”

Once upon a time, Ethics 101 was a gut course. The syllabus? “Be a good boy!” There were things you were supposed to do and things that you were not to do. The choice was yours…as were the consequences. “I set before you life and death, therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy)

Later, we realized that things were not quite so simple IRL. Take Adolph Hitler…if we must! While he fooled most of the people most of the time, men and women of goodwill eventually realized that he was slaughtering innocents and devastating Europe. 

You stood next to Hitler once, didn’t you? You were armed, weren’t you? Why didn’t you shoot him in the head, right then, right there, and put an end to this whole sorry mess? You could have changed history (perhaps) but for some unknown reason you chose not to do so; why?

For all those who ever have an opportunity to intervene in history by cutting off the head of a snake, here are some ethical considerations that might weigh on their decision: 

  1. Saving the lives of 6,000,000 Jews and preventing the destruction of Europe constitutes a moral imperative. Anyone who had an opportunity to kill Hitler and didn’t do so is guilty of a grave moral evil…and a crime against humanity. Ends do justify means, regardless of what you learned in Sunday School. (Machiavelli) So go ahead, do it!

  2. "Thou shalt not kill,” even when it would be convenient to do so. Assassinating a political leader would always be wrong in every circumstance, regardless of the leader or their policies. The moral quality of an act is defined by the act itself, without regard to its consequences. (Exodus) Don’t do it!

  3. What’s in it for me? Sure, I might save Europe. But I’d certainly be killed, and probably much worse, in the process. (Bart Simpson) I won’t do it!

  4. So you’re going to kiss (oops, I mean ‘kill’) Hitler and ‘make it all better’. Who are you, God? You know the future, do you? You may conjecture that killing Hitler will save lives, but you have no way of knowing that for sure. Worse things might follow, maybe immediately, maybe later. On November 11, 1918, the world celebrated the end of World War I, not realizing that the way the war ended made conditions ripe for World War II, 20 years later. Trying to change the future is a fool’s game. (Hume) So why do it?

  5. Do it or don’t do it, but stop wringing your hands over the decision. Decide and accept responsibility for your decision and its repercussions. Whatever you do, you’ll do for reasons you thought valid at the time. There’s no higher court of appeal than ‘good faith’. (Sartre) So do it…or don’t! 

  6. By the year 2100, everyone alive in 1940 will be dead. (J. Leo Foley) It doesn’t matter!

  7. Fate has already determined Hitler’s destiny. Whatever you do, or try to do, you will simply be acting as an agent of fate. There are innumerable paths (choices, actions) but only one destination. (Nietzsche) Do it…or don’t!

  8. Everything that happens happens according to God’s plan. Whatever you do, you will simply be following that plan. (Anonymous funeral oration) So?

  9. Everything is determined by the laws of physics. Everything you do is pre-determined, and whatever comes about as a result of your actions is also pre-determined. (Laplace)  You’ll do what you’ll do!

Obviously, there is no way to reconcile these radically inconsistent views. Or is there? Earlier, Aletheia Today proposed a new model of causality. Like the strong force, causality dominates a limited region of spacetime; like gravity, it exerts only a weak influence outside those limits. 

According to this model, there is no ‘cause and effect’, nor are there ‘means and ends’. Divorcing one from the other is one of the major errors of Western philosophy. The proximate effect (or end) of an act is part of the act itself. It begins as its ‘subjective aim’ (intention) and ends as its ‘satisfaction’ (objective immortality). Hitler’s immediate fate is not the result of your shooting at him; it is part of the act itself.

Of course, things do not always go as planned. But whatever happens to Hitler when you shoot at him is part of the act itself. It is the ‘satisfaction’, the legacy, of your effort. 

A completed action includes its immediate result, welcome or not, intended or otherwise. That result gives your gesture its final meaning. I catch a fly ball; a runner on third base tags-up and heads for home. I try to throw him out. My action is incomplete until the umpire gives the sign. Safe or out, that’s the meaning of my act, and that meaning is part of the act itself. 

Traditionally, Western ontologies have separated actions from their results. This makes no sense. If it did, there would only be one play in all of football – the Hail Mary! Put the ball in the air and see what happens. This is not the way the world works!

So, follow Voltaire! “Il faut cultivar notre jardin.” (Candide) Everything has its patch, its locus of subjectivity; outside one’s ‘garden’, acts are just objects. Within the garden, events are self-determined; beyond the garden, they are merely influential. 

So it is right to hold the actor responsible for what happens on her patch, but wrong to blame her for what happens beyond her garden walls.  So where does all this leave Hitler? Dead, of course! Go ahead, shoot the SOB!


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