Edward Snowden

The Individual's Moral Code vs. the Bureaucracy's Moral Code

The necessity of civil disobedience.


Peter Ludlow has a fine essay in The New York Times about whistleblowing, civil disobedience, the logic of large bureaucracies, and what he calls "attempts to condemn, support, demonize, psychoanalyze and in some cases canonize figures like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden." You should read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt:

He dares call it treason. But he's a bit of a nut.
Gage Skidmore

In a June Op-Ed in The Times, David Brooks made a case for why he thought Snowden was wrong to leak information about the Prism surveillance program. His reasoning cleanly framed the alternative to the moral code endorsed by Swartz, Manning and Snowden. "For society to function well," he wrote, "there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things."…The former United States ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, argued that Snowden "thinks he's smarter and has a higher morality than the rest of us…that he can see clearer than other 299,999,999 of us, and therefore he can do what he wants. I say that is the worst form of treason."

For the leaker and whistleblower the answer to Bolton is that there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord. Systems are optimized for their own survival and preventing the system from doing evil may well require breaking with organizational niceties, protocols or laws. It requires stepping outside of one's assigned organizational role. The chief executive is not in a better position to recognize systemic evil than is a middle level manager or, for that matter, an IT contractor. Recognizing systemic evil does not require rank or intelligence, just honesty of vision.

Bonus link: Ludlow starred in this old Reason story.