Frau Hitler, again

I should first explain the title and purpose of this entry. One of the staples of what’s been called “counterfactual history” is the thought experiment: What would have happened had Adolf Hitler’s mother been killed crossing the road while pregnant with him? The compulsion here is to think through the possible/probable consequences of such an event, and for types such as myself, the potential consequences of policy and management are a big thing to focus on. I want to tweak this counterfactual, however, not for what it may tell us about early 20th century Austria and Germany but for what it implies about contemporary risk analysis.

One obstacle to finding the “root cause” of any event for risk assessment and management is the inability to uncover what counterfactual accidents and disasters (think: contingencies) had been avoided by those accidents and disasters (again, contingencies) that actually did happen. We are talking about the sense in which “always having accidents to live through and by” can’t be pruned away from perceptions of risk, uncertainty and unstudied conditions.

How so? Are these two questions equivalent: (1) “Would one choose to be born if beforehand one were able to see all possible accidents and disasters that could befall one?” and (2) “Would one choose to be unborn if at the end of one’s life, one were able to see all accidents and disasters that would have befallen, had not he or she lived the accidental life lived?”

Both questions make sense against a background where there are no opportunities lost by being unborn. But for me, the questions are not equivalent because the latter (#2) is more about the counterfactual “would” than the former (#1), which is more open to possibilities of “could”.  Would Frau Hitler have chosen to be born had she known beforehand all the possible accidents that could have befallen her, including the possibility of being killed while pregnant with Adolf, or would she have chosen to be unborn had she known at the end of her life all the accidents that would—not could or might—have befallen her instead?

Yet a choice between “would” or “could” is too narrow, isn’t it? Choosing “would” or “could” takes us to what each considers to be indispensable human possibilities. These include, most important, the possibilities that at times would is actually could, and could actually would.

To me, contemporary risk assessment and management are about the “could” of probabilities, uncertainties and unknowns when the “would” of counterfactuals is assumed to be incorrigibly more difficult to ascertain. Even here, though, would and could are conjoined. For these reasons, I should have preferred the preceding thought experiment had been one where Frau Hitler had the opportunity to ask both the would- and could-questions, not one or the other.

For those who worry about consequences of action, contemporary risk assessment spends far too much time on probabilities and not enough time on thought experiments and counterfactuals. (Thought experiments are frequently used in situations of high uncertainty and have one added advantage for policy analysts such as myself: They address the most troublesome part of a policy analysis—identifying the consequences of action.)

Example? It is little recorded that some early English colonists to America either ran away to live with Native Americans or refused to return from captivity when given the chance. As one early writer put it, reluctant colonists enjoyed the “most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail upon us”. Native American practices were also adopted by other colonists who remained firmly in the Western tradition. Famously, an early French Jesuit found Native American customs “afforded me illumination the more easily to understand and explain several matters found in ancient authors”.

Just imagine the entire lot of colonists ran away to live with Native Americans, once realizing both that better practices had already been found and that colonization was altogether a ghastly prospect by comparison. Now that’s a counterfactual!

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