Thursday, December 3, 2009

Smallville: "Would You Kill Hitler as a Baby?" or, "Kneel Before Zod?"

The mid-season finale of Smallville put a Kryptonian spin on a popular hypothetical: "If you could go back in time, would you kill baby Hitler before he could start WWII?" " It's a question that I don't take seriously, personally, since there is no such thing as time-travel. But by questioning the question itself, we reveal more about the philosophical mindset that creates such a question.


In the case of Smallville, Hitler is replaced with General Zod, after Clark witnesses a future where Zod takes over. When returned to his own time, Clark decides to answer this question in the negative: instead of killing Zod, he decides to befriend him and change him in order to change the future. An interesting choice, considering the nature of the question. It's normally put to the questioned whether or not to KILL Hitler, not save him. Clark's choice got me thinking about the nature of the question in general, which is a fantasy assumption of omniscience.

The fantasy assumes that someone has special knowledge of the, whether via time travel or whatever, and can somehow go back and undo the past. By placing the person back in the past, with the knowledge that Hitler will go on to murder 6 million Jews, the questioned is assumed to be omniscient about the situation. It's really a useless question, practically speaking (at least until time travel is possible.) So the question is not really about "saving the world" as much as it is a moral test of the questioned. Would one kill for their ideals? Would one break the moral commandment "thou shall not kill," even if for "the greater good?" When the question is put to someone like Superman, a Christ-like figure who swears never to kill another "sentient" being, Christianity itself is put to the test. (As a song from ELP puts the question to "God": "How could you lose/six million Jews?")

Clark's decision to "save" Zod needs to be taken in context of the earlier versions of the Superman/Zod battles. General Zod is a Kryptonian as well, and Superman's equal in power. It's the morality that separates them. In the movie Superman II, Superman defeats Zod and his Phantom Zone allies by taking away their powers (their actual fate is left uncertain, as they are buried in the snow.) In the comic Superman #22, however, the fate is MOST certain: After Zod and his allies commit mass genocide, Superman, as judge, jury, and executioner, exposes them to Kryptonite, killing them. It's a decision he did not make lightly, as it violated his code. As a result, Superman exiles himself into space, wracked with guilt.

On Smallville, however, Clark decides to befriend Zod. Now, despite the impracticality of time travel ethics issues, it will help to assume it for this exercise in ethics. In the Hitler hypothetical, the question is put to kill or not to kill a child Hitler. Clark is seemingly omniscient on the matter: he saw it with his own two eyes. But if Clark knows it, and can try to change it, why can't Zod? If Clark can convince Zod of what happens, now Zod is also omniscient. The power of omniscience brings choice: if Zod speculates on what will happen, and genocide is not his original goal, he still acts as a moral agent with choice. If he plans for genocide, then he has already chosen. If, however, it's a pre-genocidal decision, as in the case of a child Hitler, and one decides to honor the question as framed, and kill him, the omniscient is presented with two situations: by being "omniscient," he is admitting that fate is inevitable, that omniscience brings no real choice; things will happen regardless.

However, if we are dealing with an omniscience that allows for change, then it is not true omniscience, but simply an awareness of possibility, which places the would-be-savior back to square one: he does not know whether or not the child Hitler, if informed of his future genocide, will still continue to choose that path. Free will is a killer for the concept of omniscience, and for godhood. The question tries to place the questioned in a god-like position with the assumed knowledge of fate. But without the power to change fate, the godhood itself needs to be questioned. It's assumed that the Christian god is all-powerful and can change fate, but this was not the case with the Greek or Norse gods, who could NOT escape the fates; hence, the "Twilight of the Gods."

So Clark's decision to befriend Zod is in keeping with the Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness and choice. This is in keeping with the "self-sacrifice" of the Old Testament God, who incarnates himself in his "son," Jesus Christ. The self-sacrifice replaces man's need to offer up sacrifices to an angry God (and arguable, represents an "about face" by God, who is "atoning" for his past punishments of man, the actions of an "angry and vengeful God.") But, by NOT killing Zod, he recognizes that Zod has free will, while admitting that he is not truly omniscient, a problem for a would-be Christ symbol. Clark not only brings a twist to the "Kill Hitler" question, but also highlights the question/contradiction of free will in that question, as well as the Bible. If man has free will, yet if God is omniscient, and knows what choice man will make, then either we are only under the illusion of free will, or God is not truly omniscient.

What consequence will Clark's choice bring? Since we, somewhat omnisciently, know from comic lore that Zod will be Zod, we can surmise that Clark's friendship will probably not take, and he will again be confronted with the choice to kill or not to kill, and deal with the fallout of not killing Zod when he had the chance, and deal will with issues of "godhood" once again.

By this logic, the very question of "whether or not one should kill baby Hitler" becomes clearer in its intent. It's not really whether a question about stopping Hitler, or saving lives...it's to question whether or not the answer reveals a "god" complex, and unfairly suggests that since we are not omniscient, we are not qualified to make such judgements of life and death as humans, that free will of other trumps one's own self-defense. If one is Christian, the answer will probably reveal a deference to God, and decline to take on that responsibility. But if one is Jewish, or a Holocaust survivor, the answer may be a most certain "yes, of course!" If one is atheist, however, that opens up a variety of possible answers. In Libertarian terms, this is the principle of "non-initation of force" which prohibits the idea of a "pre-emptive strike."

An Objectivist answer, however, would acknowledge that man is not omniscient, and recognize free will. Because of the fantastic nature of the question, it would be rejected as a serious hypothetical. But if reframed, there is an answer. We can't time travel and undo the past. We aren't all-knowing. We can only deal with the choices in front of us. Objectivism does recognize free will, the potential for good and evil actions, and treats others in a way represented by that other sign on the dollar: the olive branch and the sword. The olive branch is extended as a sign of good faith, while the sword is a reminder: "Don't Tread on Me." If the situation presents a possible threat to life, with evidence that some individual or organization is planning to commit such an atrocity, the Objectivist morality would not prohibit self-defense, up to and including death. In that case, the answer would be: "judge, and prepare to be judged."

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