Was Hitler Evil?


Commenter Christian asked whether I would make an exception for the Führer in the post Is Trump Evil?  I would not.  Questions of good or evil are not subject to truth claims, period!

Let me say some things up front about the implications of this claim.  The fact that Hitler was not evil does not imply that he was good.  It does not imply moral relativism.  It does not imply the impossibility of moral standards that are perceived and treated as absolute.  It does not imply that all of us “should” be able to do whatever we feel like.  Nor does it imply that the many soldiers, including my father, who put themselves in harm’s way to smash Hitler’s armies were acting in vain, or that the sacrifice of those who fell fighting him was irrational or absurd.  What the claim does imply is that the source of moral claims is not to be sought floating about in the form of some kind of an independent thing, but in the subjective emotions of individuals.

Let’s consider whether the claim that Hitler was evil is rational or not.  That claim is very different from the claim that Hitler is thought to be evil.  In other words, it implies nothing about subjective emotions, but implies that Hitler was evil independent of them, or of anything that goes on in the minds of individuals.  How could that be?  If so, some agency independent of the mind must exist as a basis for the claim.  Otherwise it is based on nothing.  I don’t believe in a God or gods.  However, it has been suggested that, if one exists, objective good and evil can be determined by His opinion on the matter.  This claim was debunked more than two millennia ago in Plato’s Euthyphro.  What else might be floating around in the aether that could serve as a basis for truth claims about morality?  Something made of matter as we know it?  I find it very hard to make such a connection, although I am always open to suggestions.  Something made of energy?  As Einstein pointed out, the two are convertible, so that doesn’t get us anywhere.

If it doesn’t consist of either matter or energy, where, then, are we to look for the source of this elusive grounding of moral claims?  In the spirit world?  By all means, if you think it’s reasonable to believe in things for which there is no credible evidence.  What other “thing” or “entity” could there possibly be that could fill the need?  Again, I’m open to suggestions, but I’m not aware of anything of the sort, and I’m not prepared to accept the argument that there is an objective basis for morality, but that the basis is nothing.

Consider moral emotions.  They are certainly capable of explaining why some things or individuals are thought to be evil.  However, analogs of these emotions are to be found in other animals.  It seems reasonable to suppose that their existence in both human beings and other species can be explained by natural selection.  In other words, the existence of the genes responsible for spawning the relevant behavioral predispositions apparently increased the probability that those genes would survive and reproduce, or at least that they did at the time that the genes first appeared.  Mathematical models seem to confirm this conclusion, and great heaps of books and papers have been published based on it.  However, if there is an objective basis for moral claims, presumably it must be independent these randomly selected emotional predispositions.  The “real” good and “real” evil must either have no connection to them, or there must be some reason why randomly evolved genes not only improve the odds of survival, but at the same time mysteriously conform to objective moral standards.  This conclusion seems neither rational nor plausible to me.  What does seem a great deal more rational and plausible is what Edvard Westermarck wrote on the subject more than a century ago:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is that the moral concepts are based upon emotions and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

Consider the case of individual Nazis.  Goebbels is a good example, as, unlike Hitler, he left extensive diaries.  Read them, and you will discover an individual not unlike those who are occasionally described as “social justice warriors” in our own time.  He was an activist who sacrificed his time and occasionally his health in the fight to right what seemed to him a terrible injustice; the “enslaving” of the German people by the Treaty of Versailles.  He was hardly a man who woke up every morning scratching his head wondering what evil deed he could do that day.  Rather, he was firmly convinced he was fighting for the good, in the form of the liberation of the German people from the clutches of those who he imagined sought to enslave and crush them.  He was a convinced socialist, well to the left of Hitler in that regard.  He honored and loved his family, and believed firmly in the Christian God, frequently invoking His aid in the diaries.  He often railed at the “gypsy life” he lived before the Nazis came to power, constantly traveling here and there for speeches and demonstrations, and bewailed his rundown condition because of constant overwork.  He fantasized about running off to Switzerland with one of his many lady loves.  His strong sense of duty, however, held him to his work in pursuit of what he firmly believed was the “good.”

Clearly, then, Goebbels was incapable of distinguishing between “good and evil” as they are commonly defined today, at least, in the U.S. and much of Europe.  The same may be said of Hitler, who was a very similar type, dedicated to what he imagined was a noble and highly ethical cause, as can be seen in the pages of his Mein Kampf.  If he actually was “evil,” then, we must conclude, based at least on the standards prevailing in U.S. courts of law, that he was less “evil” than those who know the difference between right and wrong.  If we were to insist on the existence of objective morality, we could go on multiplying these “extenuating circumstances” indefinitely, having a fine time in the process debating the precise level of Hitler’s criminal liability for his deeds in terms of “real” good and “real” evil.  I submit that it would be more reasonable, not to mention less mentally taxing, to simply admit the obvious; that the categories “real” good and “real” evil are chimeras.

Which brings us back to my earlier comments about moral relativity.  I do not believe that it is possible for one individual to be more objectively good or more objectively evil than another.  In spite of that, I make moral judgments about other drivers on the road all the time.  We make moral judgments because it is our nature to make moral judgments.  For the most part, at least, it is not our nature to be “moral relativists,” and all the scribblings of all the philosophers on the planet won’t alter human nature, as the Communists, among others, discovered at great cost, both to themselves and the rest of us.  The fact that Hitler and the rest of the Nazis weren’t objectively evil does not somehow render the fight against Nazism irrational or impermissible.  As Hume pointed out long ago, we are motivated to do things by emotion, not reason, and reason must ever be the slave of emotion.

Most of us have an emotional attachment to staying alive, and to ensuring the survival of those we love.  If Nazis or anyone else wanted to kill or enslave us or them, there is no objective reason why we should resist.  However, in my case and, I think, in most others, it would be my nature to resist, and just as there is no objective reason why I should, there is also no objective reason why I should not.  It might occur to me in the process that my reaction to the emotional desire to resist was in harmony with the reasons that the desire existed in the first place, namely, because it increased the odds of genetic survival.  In my case, this would increase my will to resist, especially in the world of today where so many actions in response to moral emotions seem better calculated to result in genetic suicide.  In the process of resisting, I would hardly dispense with such powerful weapons as moral emotions merely because I am aware of the non-existence of objective good and evil.  On the contrary, I would exploit every opportunity to portray my enemy as evil, and there would be nothing either contradictory or objectively “wrong” about doing so.

As for absolute morality, no such thing is possible in an objective sense, but it is certainly possible in a subjective sense.  There is no objective reason whatsoever why we should not come up with a version of morality consistent with our nature, seek to live by it, and punish those who don’t.  Eventually, we would tend to imagine compliance with those moral rules to be “really good” and failure to comply with them to be “really evil,” because that is our nature.  I personally would prefer living under such a system, assuming we were vigilant in preventing morality from overstepping its bounds.

As for the Nazis, it will greatly facilitate the historical task of understanding what manner of people they were and why they did what they did if we go into it unencumbered with fantasies about objective good and evil.  Communism was actually a very similar phenomenon.  Its most substantial difference from Nazism was probably the mere substitution of “bourgeoisie” for Jews as the outgroup of choice.  The fool’s errand of trying to pigeonhole the Nazis on some imaginary moral scale did not help us to avoid Communism, nor is it likely to help us avoid similar historical blunders in the future.  It would be better to actually understand the emotional nature of individuals like Hitler and Goebbels, which is probably a great deal more similar to the emotional nature of the rest of us than we care to admit, and how it motivated them to do what they did.  Or at least it would be better for those of us who would prefer to avoid another dose of Communism or Nazism.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

Leave a Reply