The recent case of Edward Snowden and his leaking of top-secret government information relating to NSA snooping project, PRISM, has come at an interesting time for me, since the collision of ethics and morality is becoming an important topic for a new novel I am writing.
There are no doubt many important questions raised by this case, but I’m going to focus on just two:
- Under what circumstances, if any, is it ever right to whistle-blow?
- Was Snowden right in this particular case?
Most of us try to live according to certain moral principles and the philosophy of how we do this is referred to as ethics. The two terms, while closely related, have subtly different meanings: morality usually referring to an individual’s fundamental sense of right and wrong, whereas ethics are rules of conduct defined by an organisation or society. In my opinion, the dilemma of whistle-blowing occurs when ethics and morality collide.
As an employee, we are bound by codes of ethics which forbid the leaking of confidential information. Yet sometimes our own moral compass may lead us to believe that the violation of such codes may be justified. But how can we reliably know when this is the case? For every whistle-blower, there are inevitably, many more employees who remain loyal to their employer. Now we could argue that such loyalty is misplaced, or that it’s fear of consequences rather than loyalty that keeps them quiet, but there must also certainly be a number for whom whistle-blowing appears not only unethical, but immoral.
The problem is that morals are not universally agreed. Part and parcel with the cultural diversity which so enriches humanity, are widely differing views on what is right and wrong. Some of these are the product of cultural traditions and of course many derive from religion. Furthermore, our moral values change over time – attitudes to slavery or racial and sexual equality showing perhaps the most dramatic shift in recent times. (Incidentally, the biggest problem, in my view, with deriving our morals from ancient religious texts, is that it anchors our thinking to the era in which those texts were written, isolating it from the advance of knowledge and reason.)
So does this mean there is no “right answer” to questions of moral significance? I believe it does not. As Sam Harris articulates so well in his book, The Moral Landscape, while such answers may for the time being remain unknowable, there is always one or more paths which lead to better answers than others. The basic principle by which Harris suggests we attempt to select these paths is whether or not they lead to a change which has increased the net well-being (or reduced the net suffering) of sentient beings. This of course is easier said than done, but as a guiding principle, it seems to me a better and simpler place to start than any other I’ve heard so far. So can this be applied to the decision of whether or not to blow the whistle on your employer? I think so. Let’s now look at the specific case of Edward Snowden.
The basic facts appear to be that the US National Security Agency had recently been granted greater powers of snooping, than many (but not all) consider necessary and proper. Snowden therefore made a moral judgement that this constituted an unreasonable breach of people’s right to privacy and so concluded that leaking its details would be in the public interest. But was he right?
There are clearly some people who consider almost any surveillance of private citizens by the government to be sinister and potentially dangerous. This is based on a legitimate fear that with unregulated access to information about our private lives, governments will inevitably abuse such knowledge, with the consequence of even more basic human rights becoming compromised. In a nutshell, they fear the “Big Brother” society of Orwell’s 1984 becoming a reality. But is such fear justified in this case?
Most people in the “free” west would agree that some limited and carefully regulated powers of governmental surveillance are necessary in order to protect us from criminals and terrorists, because such individuals represent a greater threat to our human rights than the government. There was, for example, strong opposition at the start, to the UK’s extensive network of public CCTV cameras, and yet over time, as this network’s role in reducing crime has become apparent, that opposition has largely disappeared. So the question becomes one of degree – not whether the government should have powers to invade our privacy, but how far-reaching those powers should be, and what controls are in place to minimise the likelihood of abuse.
So has Snowden’s whistle-blowing resulted in a net increase in our well-being? On this question, only time will tell. If it serves to warn governments that our right to privacy is not a matter to be taken lightly, and therefore prevents future abuses of power that would otherwise lead to increased suffering, then perhaps yes, he was right. If however, the government finds its ability to fight terror compromised to the point of unwittingly allowing another 911 atrocity to occur, then quite clearly he was wrong. Privacy is generally a good thing, but placing it on a pedestal above civilian well-being makes no sense. Apart perhaps from the negative psychological impact of extreme paranoia, I see no reduction of well-being nor increase in suffering resulting from losing a little privacy in the interests of safety.
My personal guess is that Snowden’s actions will change almost nothing in the way the NSA operates, except perhaps in the way it protects itself from future whistle-blowers, and in the vast resources that will now be diverted from matters of national security to the task of chasing this guy around the world.