Hitler Saves the Day!
If you've ever argued with someone on the internet, you know that eventually someone is going to bring up Hitler. It's inevitability is known as Godwin's law. To some, this is where they completely disengage from the conversation, as the thread is deemed to have reached the lowest point possible.
But I would like to argue in favor of the Hitler argument.
There's nothing in particular I can say I like about Hitler. But he is probably the single most demonized person in our education system. Many people throughout the world will name Hitler when asked "Who is history's most evil person?" Mao and Stalin might be lesser known, but even when recognized would probably earn a similar response as if you had used Hitler. Because he is such a well known villain, Hitler is a great point of reference as an extreme. I'll get to the importance of extremes in a minute.
The Morality of the Law
Another interesting point, especially when arguing morality, are determinations made in the Nuremberg trials. This is where a tribunal court, after WWII, determined that "just doing your job" was not a valid defense to absolve Nazi soldiers of their crimes, simply because they were just following orders. This is an extremely important point to bring up when debating someone on laws versus morals. Some will argue that because something is done by the government or in accordance with the government's rules, that it is somehow right, moral or absolute.
This is an important issue. If we can only use the law to determine what is right or wrong, how do we know when the law needs to be changed? It is important in any discussion to only be concerned with the actual morality of an act in question, and not the law itself. There have been plenty of laws historically that were written, only to be deemed immoral or unconstitutional and later overturned. These laws would never have been overturned if everyone simple accepted them as a moral absolute, and never brought the question to the proper venue to determine if they should be overturned.
The same question becomes deeper when you ask, if fallible men were able to create an immoral law, is it possible for different fallible men to inappropriately determine that those immoral laws are moral? In the US, this would mean that some legislators could write an immoral law, some judges could determine that it was moral enough to be upheld, and some enforcement officers followed their orders and enforced it immorally?
A system of checks and balances is in place to prevent things like this from happening, but history is filled with examples where it happened anyway. After all, the total number of people it takes to pass, uphold, and enforce, is relatively small compared to the whole of the population.
Now back to the point of extremes. If I were to give you a scenario where we both agree that an act A is dangerous but moral, but we disagree on whether a similar yet more dangerous act B is moral, how can we discuss that? We could talk about the differences, between the two acts, but many of them might be subjective. We do have some common ground already, but if we have a sliding scale on the amount of danger, where do we draw the line on where the act becomes immoral, if at all?
Consider the following graph:
Alice and Bob both agree that something with minimal danger, act A, is not immoral for whatever reason. When they can't decide on whether Act B is moral, the question becomes why not. Assuming danger is the only factor we have to weigh here, Alice might say to Bob: "Bob, I understand you don't think this act is immoral. I would like to know if you think a dangerous act is ever immoral?" Bob might instantly say no, because he feels that it would weaken his position that Act B is still moral. But what if there was an act so dangerous that even Bob couldn't deny it's immorality? This is where Alice might bring up Hitler as an extreme.
The objective is not to compare Act B to Hitler, or even to his worst action. I'm sure Hitler putting on his pants in the morning wasn't as destructive as some of the other things he did. The objective is to determine whether Bob can withhold his position that any act, no matter how dangerous, is always moral, even in the most extreme circumstance. The reason this is necessary is because asking Bob at what point a dangerous act becomes immoral, yields no answer at all. All Bob has to do to defend his position is to say "I can't think of one, and so therefore I still assert that any dangerous act is immoral."
Of course, the flaw in Alice's strategy is that Bob will ridicule her and terminate the conversation. This might be an appropriate reaction if Alice's purpose was solely an appeal to emotion or even an ad hominem attack. But Alice is not accusing Bob of being Hitler, she's trying to give Bob a point of reference for his own position. So what if Bob tried to respond to the question? Would he be forced to admin that at some point danger becomes immoral? And if he did that, would he have to come up with a way to articulate why Act C is immoral, but Act B still hasn't reached the level of danger that makes it immoral?
Can this same argument be made without bringing up Hitler? In most cases, I'm sure it could be. However, as I mentioned before, this extreme is something that has been so deeply engrained in our education, it's easy to grab. If Alice has picked something less extreme, she runs the risk of Bob somehow justifying it. She already knows that he thinks act B is still moral, and we don't know where Bob will draw the line. So how can she be sure that the point of reference she chooses is beyond where eve Bob would have to draw the line? It's an easy reference to grab at a moments notice.
When morality is in question, it's usually not a black or white determination. And because of that, we need a sliding scale to determine where a line can be drawn. It's impossible to draw that line if there are no points of reference, or if we can't even see that we are on a sliding scale at all.
Now I'm not saying everyone should jump right into the Hitler argument, but I am saying that it should not be dismissed completely, simply because of the name.
There is one more important connection that I want to make between Hitler as an extreme, the morality of the law. This might shock you, but hear me out. Using the law as a reference point for morality is the same, although less offensive, as using Hitler as a reference point for immorality.
How can I make such a claim?
If Bob's argument was that something was moral or immoral because the law says so, Alice could say that doesn't make it right. But Bob has referenced an authority, and at this point, Alice's only option is to disprove the validity of that authority. Bob could reinforce the validity of the law's authority by saying things like "the collective we voted for it" or "if you don't like it you can change it". None of these are real arguments to support that validity, but they are commonly accepted as such, and so are difficult to refute.
This is an extreme because according to Bob, there is no authority higher than the law. According to Bob, morality itself is not higher than the law. If the law is immoral, the law must be changed by the process allowed by the law itself. According to Bob, morality means nothing, only the law. If you ask me, this is the cowards way out, because it relieves Bob of having to think for himself to determine what is moral, and simply places that burden on other men.
There is also a paradox. The law is meant to reflect a system of morals, and so the law is determined by what is moral. At the same time, what is moral is determined by what is law. If this is the case, law would never change, except by an immoral act.
But as the law is, incorrectly, used as an extreme of what is moral, Hitler is used as an extreme of what is immoral.
Now here's where things get really confusing. Everything that Hitler did was completely legal. He was democratically elected, and laws were written to support every act that he ordered. So if the law is a point of reference of absolute morality, and Hitler is a point of reference of absolute immorality, how could anything he had ever done be legal? Or from the other side, how could anything he had ever done be immoral?
Using Hitler as an argument is asking to compare an act to an extreme. Using the law as an argument is answering a question with a question, and dismissing an opportunity to engage your brain in critical thinking. Why have a philosophical discussion about morality, when there's probably already a law that's been written?