I … guess this qualifies as a palate cleanser?

If you read only one news story today about traveling back in time to kill Hitler, let it be this one.

Researchers from the US, Germany and Canada analysed data that asked 6,100 people a range moral questions, including whether they would kill a young Adolf Hitler to stop the Second World War.

While men and women both calculated the consequences of their decision and computed how many lives might be saved, females found it harder to commit murder and were more likely to let Hitler live…

“Women seem to be more likely to have this negative, emotional, gut-level reaction to causing harm to people in the dilemmas, to the one person, whereas men were less likely to express this strong emotional reaction to harm,” she told NPR.

Specifically, the study asked respondents whether they’d be willing to kill Hitler circa 1920, before he’d committed any crimes, in order to test their feelings on whether it’s moral to do harm to one person in the name of preventing harm to many. Men were more likely to say yes than women. Other scenarios tested by the researchers involved (a) starving parents asking their teenaged daughter to do pornography to raise money for the household and (b) a group of people hiding from soldiers choosing to smother a crying infant so that the noise doesn’t give their position away … except neither of those scenarios is really anything like the “kill Hitler” scenario. The difference, of course, is the moral culpability of the intended victim in each example. The teenaged girl is innocent, the crying baby is very innocent, and Hitler, with the benefit of time-travel hindsight, is the personification of murderous guilt. If you smother the baby or force the girl into porn, you’re placing your own welfare above theirs; if you strangle the Fuhrer, you’re placing the welfare of millions of innocents above his. How are these situations comparable?

The “kill Hitler” dilemma isn’t a moral dilemma — or it shouldn’t be, ladies — it’s a historical dilemma. If you kill him in 1920, does the world change for the better after that? Hard to think it wouldn’t: The seeds of Nazism would still be there in Weimar Germany but maybe, without Hitler’s charisma to fertilize them, the movement never takes off. Maybe it emerges in another fascist party, or various parties. Maybe those parties hold each other in check, or maybe the one that emerges isn’t *quite* as vicious as the Nazis were. (Again, it’s hard to imagine what something worse would look like.) But then you run into the question of whether, without World War II stamping out German fascism, the seeds would grow more slowly and insidiously over a longer time horizon. Maybe Germany would be fascist today; maybe, without having to worry as much about the great power to the west, Stalin would have clashed with the great power to his east in imperial Japan. Or maybe, without the war to catalyze America’s military presence in Europe, the Red Army would have eventually rolled over Germany and on westward towards the Atlantic. How many million people would have died in those offensives? Would Europe be communist today? (Er, more communist than it is now?) Would turning the Eastern Hemisphere communist be worth preventing the Holocaust from happening? There are moral calculations built into all of those difficult questions, of course, but at base, when you’ve got your pistol pointed at Hitler’s face, you want some sense of assurance that pulling the trigger will make the world better, not worse. I’d do it for the basic reason that it’s unlikely that an alternate Hitler-less history lacking world war and genocide could be worse than one with it, but there’s no getting around that you’re taking a gamble by firing. A big one.