Ethics: Mitigating an atrocity - doing good, or accomplice to evil?

Suppose that, back in the Holocaust, there were a Nazi official who saw many thousands being gassed with Zyklon B in the death camps and recommended that nitrogen asphyxiation be used instead, on the grounds of it being more humane and causing less suffering than Zyklon B. And his recommendation were adopted.

Assuming that the gassing and extermination would have proceeded with or without him, has he done something good or bad? He is an accomplice to evil, but the evil would have been worse without him.
(Any other hypothetical situation could substitute as well - maybe the KKK plans to burn a black man to death, but one of them recommends shooting or hanging instead, which is a less painful death) - either way, is mitigating evil a good deed in itself, or is it simply helping to grease the way to evil nonetheless?

IMO it depends on the options one has. If one has some possibility of preventing atrocities, and knowingly does nothing to do so, then one is guilty of great evil. And making atrocities more “humane” with less painful means of murder doesn’t count as preventing them.

In a binary judgment system, still evil.

For a spectrum, say 0 to 100 from angelically good to demonically evil, this person has shaved a few points off. So still evil but modestly less so. The better of two alternatives can still be repugnant. Something like switching to light beer - mostly same flavor and alcohol content, slightly fewer calories, i.e. still an alcoholic but maybe slightly less weight gain.

Generally I think that, because we can only ever observe one timeline, people who do that kind of “good” need to be content with the fact that their legacy will likely be negative.

It may be that you believe that you are working for the greatest achievable good within a system, but you can never truly know what you might have accomplished by opposing a system outright, nor what kind of change you may quash by aligning yourself with the system.

I think it’s not an unreasonable position for a person to take, but I also don’t see how it can be seen as ethical, as it’s ethical only in contrast to a hypothetical that we can’t be sure of.

But to address your OP more specifically, the ethical line between “peaceful execution” and “painful execution” is invisible compared to the ethical line between “execution” and “no execution”. While I’d have my preferences as to which way I’d like to be murdered, their crimes are fundamentally equal in my book.

Evil people can do mildly good acts now and then. Common people can keep their heads down and let other fight it out. Good Samaritans can be opportunistic. I think the OP is less interesting that it appears. We’re discussing 9.995 vs 10.000 on the Evil-O-Meter. The reformer in the OP reminds me a little of this Ruben Bolling cartoon (Tom the Dancing Bug).

These “mitigations” are ethically good. I don’t think the degree — “how good?” — is the interesting question. The interesting question is WHY they’re good. Is it because the Nazi or Klansman MEANS well? I’d argue no: it’s because the victim prefers the less painful death.
Motives usually don’t matter when we judge actions. (They can help us judge the actors, but that’s not the question the OP asked.)

Compare the position of someone who is in a position, without securing the agreement of the perpetrators and without their knowledge, to substitute nitrogen for the Zyklon B. Assume - I grant that it’s an unlikely hypothetical, but run with it - that’s all he can do to change the course of the Holocaust.

He is, obviously, acheiving very very little, but what it does acheive is positive; a reduction in the suffering of the innocent. And he does this without himself becoming in any way actually or apparently complicit in the evil of the Holocaust.

Whereas the Nazi official who acheives the exact same outcome is complicit in, and a participant in, the Holocaust, precisely because he’s a Nazi official and because he acheives what he acheives by co-operating with the other perpetrators. What he does by co-operating in the Holocause is intrinsically and monstrously evil, and it can’t be redeemed by his role in making the Holocaust fractionally less horrifying.

Well, I did notice that the OP specifically asked about the act (not the person) being good or evil.

That’s the trick of the question. The OP puts the person doing the deed as a member of the group committing it, so makes us implicitly associate the overall deed which is undoubtedly evil (well, provided that one believes in objective good and evil which I guess is its own question) with the ‘mitigating’ deed. If we change the group of the ‘chooser,’ it turns into a much different question. For instance, in the first one, instead of it being a Nazi that suggests Nitrogen asphyxiation, let’s pretend instead that it’s an undercover Jewish spy posing as a Nazi who suggests it. Would we then say that they were guilty of a bad act? Or perhaps instead of a Klansman, it’s a member of the NAACP who is watching a livestream of the torture and suggests just putting the man out of his misery.

It’s a very “Mother Night” kind of question. Vonnegut’s moral wasn’t an especially deep one, either. We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.

I’m still going with my original response, which is/was about the morality of actions, rather than the person.

In a pure binary system, an evil act pure and simple. But then again, binary systems are rather boring and overly reductive.

In a spectrum of evil acts, it’s one which is marginally better but still well on the evil half.

In judging the act, I personally don’t think it matters much if the person is a spy, a true believer, or anything in-between. The act itself is marginally less evil but it’s still overall a horrendous thing to do. As with my previous beer analogy: still evil, less filling.

If you care if the person is a spy or whatever, instead of judging this one decision, you’re really just punting the ball down the way. You would then need to add some kind of ‘running tally’ which measures not just the individual action but the collective actions through a campaign, war, or lifetime. Is the sum total of actions this person took a net good or a net evil, i.e. does the collective good the spying did make up for this person’s actions? Even in this case, while it’s possible it makes a difference, it’s difficult to see how a marginally less evil act in this one case would really be the deciding factor on a good vs evil scale over the course of a war. And arguably in this case, you’d still have to balance the additional and very real risk of detection (and corresponding harm to the overall war effort) to the marginal reduction in evil done.

ETA: Should add, the idea of a spy is a valid one. But the whole point of undercover operatives is they must sometimes commit questionable acts or crimes for the greater good as above. That doesn’t make the crime itself any less evil but it does provide at least some rational justification in the long run.

It wasn’t a hypothetical for medieval or early modern monarchs. They would regularly decided to commute a sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering to just execution.

And in answer to the OP it’s really not very mitigating at all. It’s a little bit humane to have someone beheaded vs tortured to death, but not much.

The OP’s scenario doesn’t tell us what kind of person the Nazi official is. He might be a genuinely good person trying to do the best he can under severe constraints. Except, if he’s a genuinely good person, how’d he get to be a Nazi official? Maybe your “undercover Jewish spy” scenario is a possibility.

On the other hand, he might be evil. He might be fully on board with exterminating Jews but want to do so as painlessly as possible, kind of like a person who has no problem with slaughtering animals for meat but wants to do so in a humane and cruelty-free manner. He might be making the suggestion on purely pragmatic grounds (“It’d be easier for us,” or “It would make us look better”). Same act, different things going on inside the head of the actor.

The ethical conundrum in the case of a spy in an organization doing heinous things, is less for the spy themselves but the people they work for.

How do you decide what heInous acts you are going to let happen, order to prevent more heinous acts. And what is “more heinous”? Historically intelligence agencies, who run spies, aren’t even in the business of preventing anything. They just report what is happening.

And what about when your spy is no longer a random foot soldier, but a senior member of the Heinous organization, making decisions about what heinous acts to do?

These aren’t hypotheticals they are things that happen regularly. The reason CIA had less human intelligence in the run up to 9/11 is they didn’t want to make calls like this (having made arguably very bad calls during the cold war)

Or cheaper; nitrogen might just have been easier to separate from air than manufacturing pesticide.
I guess it comes down to the motivation- I can imagine a situation where someone might have been a reluctant or pro-forma Nazi, and ended up in a position that normally wouldn’t have had any contact with concentration camps or anything like that, and suddenly ends up having a role- like say some kind of mid-level logistical official for one of the Gaue, who ends up having to source Zyklon-B, despite not having a lot of other involvement, and ends up supplying/recommending nitrogen instead.

If it’s because Zyklon-B is a PITA for him to get/prioritize in light of the other war effort needs, and nitrogen is easier/cheaper with the same effect, then no, not a good or noble choice in any way. The more humane effect is purely secondary to the motivation.

However, if this guy is also a good Catholic, and realizes that while he can’t actually prevent any of the Holocaust from happening, but if he recommends/supplies nitrogen(presumably under the auspices of being cheaper), then he can at least mitigate some of the suffering, then yeah, that’s about as good of an action as can be expected considering the guy’s position and scope of influence. Sure, he could have pitched a fit, and potentially been executed or incur seriously negative effects for his family, and the Holocaust would have gone on anyway.

But we still do the same thing today. We sentence someone to execution and then there is much hand-wringing and rigamarole over how to do it most “humanely,” as if killing someone with anesthetic is somehow ‘better’ than killing them with a gun or a big stick. (In my mind, the decision to kill them in the first place was the moral question… Deciding how to do it is almost irrelevant by comparison.)

Likewise, our laws of armed conflict say we are allowed to kill other human beings but only using certain methods or weapons… Because causing death is okay, but being unnecessarily cruel about it makes you a criminal. And don’t we give out harsher sentences to murderers who use greater brutality or depravity in the course of their murder?

So if we accept the logic behind humane executions and the Geneva Conventions, it follows that any death can be rendered “more moral” or “less cruel” by choosing the fastest and most merciful manner of death. I’d add the caveat that others have observed, in that the idea of “more” or “less” moral is only relative. Murder is still murder, even if we are polite about it.

Yup, there is an ethical consideration there. But compared to the ethical choice of “should I kill this person” the ethical choice of “should I be cruel when I kill this person” is fairly trivial. You don’t get many “ethical brownie points” for being ethical on the latter if you were unethical on the former.

If you’re a member of a group that’s massacring innocent people, you’re fucked up, end of story. At the very minimum, a Nazi who thought that that the activities he was involved with were inhumane would have to flee the country and defect to the Allies in order for me to be able to think of him as being ethical. Ideally he would volunteer to assist the Allied war effort by deliberately sabotage the Nazi regime in some way, but ok, maybe he just wants to put it all behind him and never think about it again. He would definitely have to formally renounce his Nazi membership. As far as I’m concerned anything less than that is still voluntarily being part of a very barbaric group and making the execution method more humane doesn’t change that at all, anymore than a serial killer who killed his victims quickly would be “better” than a serial killer who tortures them to death…they’re both still too fucked up to be part of a civilized society.