You might think we each have a moral duty to expose any serious misconduct, dishonesty, or illegal activity we discover in an organization, especially when such conduct directly threatens the publ
This week we're asking about The Ethics of Whistleblowing -- with Edward Snowden – one of world’s most famous whistleblowers. Mr. Snowden joined us from Moscow in front of a live audience at Stanford University. Not only was the program recorded for radio broadcast, we also made a video of the event, with a lively question and answer period that follows the radio portion of the interview. It takes you even deeper in to Snowden's thought process. Again, this extended discussion cannot be heard on the radio. You can also check out several excerpts from the event here.
There can be no denying that whistleblowers may sometimes have the potential to do us all a great service. Whistleblowers are willing to stand up, sometimes at great cost to themselves, and shine the light of truth into the dark corners where governments and corporations operate in secret. Though they are are often hounded by the law, they often are, I believe, among the true heroes of democracy.
Unfortunately, I do not think it is as morally plain and simple as saying that a would be whistleblower is a clear-cut hero – no ifs, ands or buts. I wouldn’t want to deny that things that governments and corporations do in the shadows deserve to be exposed. Still, I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of solitary individuals deciding for themselves which government secrets to keep and which ones to leak. That’s a recipe for chaos.
But I am also uncomfortable with saying that the government has the right to engage in massive, warrantless, secret surveillance of ordinary citizens, without adequate oversight or input from the public. That’s a recipe for a police state, unchecked by anything except its own whims. We’ve gotten ourselves into something close to that with the Patriot Act and the NSA surveillance programs that it supposedly authorized.
It may be that some semblance of sense and moderation is about to break out, even among once ardent fans of the Patriot Act. Even as I write these words, Congress is hotly debating whether to reauthorize the act, in whole or in part, or to let it expire. But the very reason that we are having this debate at all, I might add, is the courage and self-sacrifice of Edward Snowden. So chalk one up for the benefits of whistleblowing. So chalk another one up for those with the courage to blow the whistle.
Still, as flawed as it may be, there’s one thing that can be said for the Patriot Act. It’s the law -- voted on by both houses of Congress and signed by the President -- who, last time I checked, were all actually empowered by the public through elections to make law on behalf of us all. And as the law, it deserves respect.
I can hear someone object to the this line of reasoning that our duty to respect the law only goes so far. The law doesn’t deserve respect if it is Ill-conceived and unjust or if it’s so opaque that not even supporters know what it really means or if it makes a mockery of the very idea of oversight or if it is cynically used as a pretext for doing things in secret that the people – who are ultimate masters in a democracy -- would never stand for, if they knew what was really up.
But I am genuinely torn on this point. On the one hand, I think it would be hard to estimate the importance of respect for the rule of law. Without that, you don’t have democracy. You’ve got anarchy. But I also don’t want to confuse respect for the law, with a fetish for the law. Sometimes you have to stand up and be counted. You have to challenge the law.
Part of me wants to say that when you do feel compelled to challenge the law, you should always do so through lawful means, when possible. At the same time, I acknowledge that sometimes the law may swear you to secrecy, on pain of prosecution. And that fact alone may cow everybody in the system into silence. In that scenario respect for the law may require too much. It may require of you that you simply shut up and become just another cog in the machine.
It seems to me extraordinarily difficult to strike the right balance here. Nobody wants to be a criminal and stand outside the law. But it takes no moral courage whatsoever to stand by silently, to go along to get along. This is the dilemma that many whistleblowers face. Most whistleblowers are patriots, not radical revolutionaries. That’s why they’re on the inside and in a position to blow the whistle to begin with. Most would love to work within the law, within the system. But sometimes they feel they simply can’t. And I think it takes great moral courage to out the very government whose secrets you have a sworn duty to uphold. But sometimes a higher duty calls.
The whistleblower takes on great risk, though, in responding to the call of what they take to be a higher duty. What if their actions end up doing great damage to the country they claim to love? How can someone be so cock-fired sure they’re doing the right thing – especially when the law forbids it and when peers and superiors working in the trenches refuse to see things the same way? But that’s the risk you take when you decide to blow the whistle. You’re a traitor if you get it wrong. You’re a hero if you get it right.
Bottom line: whistleblowing is not for the faint of heart!