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Ethics and Snowden

When I was taking my business ethics class, I was often surprised to hear others mention that it must be easy.  After all, ethics has to be easy, it’s just about choosing right over wrong!  Even more oddly, many of these same people harbor ideas that business people tend to be a certain sort of evil; corrupt, money grabbing, dishonest, etc.Edward Snowden on Ethics and Snowden
Well, unfortunately, ethics isn’t always easy.  As such, many people end up in situations that cause them to do things that look like corruption or intentional dishonesty.  Really, lots of people that end up making unethical decisions didn’t intentionally head down an unethical path.

This whole case with Edward Snowden provides a good example for how ethics can get complicated.  What happens if we evaluate his case, as well as the case of the government, with some of the ethical tools and frameworks we have? Here I present Ethics and Snowden.

Three Grand Frameworks

There are three major frameworks we can use to try to evaluate ethical (or non-ethical) behavior:

1. Utilitarianism
2. Deontology
3. Virtue

Calvin and Hobbes learn MAD

This framework is essentially a cost/benefit analysis of potential outcomes.  It seeks the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people.  This is pretty hard to measure of course.  First, we don’t have great measure for “happiness,” at least none we can apply quickly and universally to a population, and nothing quite so robust as to track and measurable change in happiness as a result of an isolated incident.  What I’m saying is, to use this framework, you have to do some guessing.  So let’s do some guessing!

Snowden.  When Snowden made the decision to leak the information, he could have looked at the possible benefits to society.  This could include a possible strengthening of American democracy, an increase in privacy for the general populace, and a reduction in the ability for people at the top to control the people on the bottom.

He may have also considered the costs, such as the incredible personal risk for being the revelator (his own happiness gets included in the equation too,) possible terrorist attacks slipping through in the future, as well as the high costs of changing the government programs.

To really apply this well, though, he would have to go further.  Would this make the Chinese happier?  Probably, and that’s a lot of people to make happier.  But would enough of them be sufficiently happier to justify how incredibly unhappy the American officials would be (and, at the last poll I saw, 54% of American citizens)?  And what about the effect on the businesses that had to give information, they would probably be hurt, but maybe the users of the business would be sufficiently better off to offset that damage.

Utilitarianism is useful, but it gets messy.  So let’s take that mess to another mess: the government.

Government.  I guess it was in the Bush era that government officials decided that the ethical action would be to do the secret monitoring in order to keep the citizens safe.  A cost/benefit analysis should be simple enough.  After all, safety from terrorist attacks is a pretty big plus, especially in the wake of 9/11.  I wonder if they also considered the added control they could have over citizens and non-citizens.  Knowledge is power, and they have a great way to get a lot of knowledge about a lot of people.

But there are costs.  It does mean sacrificing freedoms, and as Snowden felt, violating the constitution.  It also requires money to be spent on this project that may otherwise have been used on another project that could have been more useful to the populace.

As a parallel to benefits, there are the costs of not doing it.  Terrorist attacks slipping through is bad, but there’s also the issue of other countries getting a leg-up on information gathering and analysis which could weaken American safety in the future.

Of course, we could go on, but this post will be long enough without me doing so.  Let’s go to deontology.


2 wrongs make a right from the far sideThis framework is most easily understood like this: “something that is ok for one person to do must be ok for everyone to do in all circumstances.”  Here’s an example: if you followed this ethic, and a person came up to you, expressing his intent to kill another man and asks you where he is hiding, and you knew where the other man was hiding, you would not lie.  If it’s ok to lie in this circumstance, it must be ok to lie in all other circumstances.  You might find another way out of the situation besides revealing the position of your friend, but you wouldn’t tell a lie.

With this framework, ethics is the ends, not the means.  Indeed, it always should be, or ethics are not ethics at all.

Snowden.  Snowden may have thought about the secrets that the government was holding.  If it’s ok for the government to hold secrets in this circumstance, is it ok to hold everything it does in secret in all circumstances?  Evidently, he would have decided “no.”  But what about Snowden’s dilemma, is it always ok for a government contracted employee to reveal sensitive information?  He definitely broke a contract, is it ok for everyone everywhere to always break their contracts?

Yup, messy again.  Let’s keep it rolling.

Government.  The government kept secrets, is it ok for all governments to keep secrets?  Should all governments track their citizen’s communications?  If the government can keep these secrets, secret keeping must be ethical, so shouldn’t it be able to keep everything a secret?

One more.

Calvin and Hobbes and the ends justify the meansVirtue

This branch of ethics is just as concerned with the motivation behind the action as with the action itself.  It’s all about the identity; one must be ethical, not simply do ethical things.

The trick with this framework is defining virtue.  Virtuous things are ethical, but ethics are now defined by virtue.  Dang.

Fortunately, there have been other thought leaders to help define virtue, in addition to whatever religious training one might receive.  The Institute for Global Ethics has managed to pin down 5 “virtues” universal to all societies in one form or another.  They are:

1. Honesty
2. Responsibility
3. Respect
4. Fairness
5. Compassion

So, to use the Virtue framework, we need to look at the motives of the acting entities and ensure they are inline with virtues.

Snowden.  Did he act out of a desire to increase honesty in the world?  Has he been honest with his motives?  Was this out of respect for the American people, or spite for his employer?  Did he think the American people needed a fair chance to know what was going on?  The trouble here is that we can’t really know.  We can just hope that Snowden was doing good.

Government.  Did the government really have nothing but responsibility for American safety on its mind when it instituted the surveillance programs?  Did it operate the programs in a respectful way to the privacy of everyone involved?  Was it as honest as it could be with the stakeholders in this endeavor?


All of this might seem like a bit of a mess, but I’m not really trying to solve the issue here, just point out how complicated this issue really is.  For these frameworks to really be useful, it helps to use them together; use multiple frameworks to triangulate yourself to an answer.  Very rarely will one framework come to a different conclusion than another, so if you find that your analysis gives you a rub, rub it back until you figure out where you went wrong.

But there’s more to this ethics stuff that we can use with this Snowden case.

Thinking Stages

Ethicists have outlined 6 stages of ethical thought processing.  Each progressing stage is considered more advanced in the sense that it includes a greater spectrum of issues and ideas at hand.  Thinking at a higher stage does not guarantee making a better ethical choice than at a lower stage, but it does increase the probability.

Stage 1: Punishment

This is the stage that children first understand.  Good behavior is not punished.  Bad behavior is punished.  To avoid punishment, don’t do bad behavior.  I am fairly certain that Snowden was not thinking at this level because his actions were sure to bring down some serious punishment.  This stage would have said “don’t you dare reveal those secrets!”

Stage 2: Exchange

This is the idea that ethical behavior is little more than a fair trade.  I’ll be good for a reward.  If Snowden is secretly getting paid off from China or Russia or something, this might be his thought level.  We’ll have to wait to see if anything comes out about that.

Stage 3: Conformity

Most of us are stuck in this stage in most situations.  This is the idea that what most people do is probably ethical, so just do what most people do.  It’s peer pressure into ethics.  I’m pretty sure Snowden wasn’t using this level of thinking since he acted independent of any of his peers, and did what no one had done before.  Unless he had been hanging out with a bunch of ex-spies or espionage peoples, I don’t think he was conforming to his peer group.

Monkey see monkey do

Stage 3 thinking

Stage 4: Social Accord

This is sort of like a grander type of peer pressure.  This is about what “society” thinks one should do instead of just one’s close peers.  This level often gets tied into law, since the law, more or less, defines what society expects out of its citizens.  Snowden clearly broke the law, but he invoked the Constitution in doing so, which is supposed to be the ultimate law of the country.  He may have also been thinking about the societal virtues of transparency, honesty, and integrity, and felt that he was in a unique position to uphold those values through his revelatory act.  This is the level where I think Snowden was most likely operating.

Stage 5: Social Contract

This stage isn’t just about keeping the rules, but about making the rules better.  In this stage, one might intentionally break the law to make a more ethical choice.  Decisions here promote society, seeking to reduce the negative effects of nature.  It’s a step above having one’s ethical thought determined by already established society.  Perhaps Snowden touched this plane, but I’m not sure he was pushing this hard into the ethical sphere.

Stage 6: Universal Principles

No one operates at stage 6.  Here, ethical behavior is independent, and right.  Society and outcomes no longer matter, only the rationally right choice.  If anyone were to operate at this level on any decision, not only would they utilize the most complex and strong ethical framework available, but they would also always make the right ethical choice.  Snowden was not operating at this level with his decision.

Important Note

Just to reiterate, thinking at a higher level does not guarantee better ethical decision making.  For example, Hitler was a level 5 thinker.  He pushed boundaries, created a new social contract, broke laws in the name of a higher ideal, but pushed a system that few would defend as ethical today (or even then.)  We still need to strive to be better ethical thinkers, just not like Hitler.

Cognitive Bias

It turns out, there’s no shortage of cognitive bias to go around when it comes to decision making.  As humans, we use lots of heuristics.  Isn’t that a fun word?  “Heuristic.”  I had never heard it until I took an ethics class.  Heuristics are shortcuts or prescribed pathways that we use to save mental energy.  They’re extremely useful, but when we’re not aware of them, can cause us to make some incorrect decisions.  Here are some common “cognitive biases” that throw wrenches in our ethical reasoning, and some possible ways that Snowden may have gotten it wrong by falling prey to wiles.

Availability Heuristic

We tend to think that information we have immediately available is more valuable than information we might have to go searching for.  For example, Snowden had the secrets of the American government readily available, but did he also have all the details of the effects and successes of the program?  He also knew that he could reveal them, but did he know all of what would happen after he did so?  That sort of information takes a decent bit more processing power.

Representative Heuristic

Demotivational ConspiracyWe tend to make judgments based on how well the information presented fits the perceived norm.  For the last umpteen years, the American government has often been portrayed in books, films, theater, TV, and whatever else as being secretive, evil, dark, underhanded, nasty, and full of conspiracies.  When Snowden found himself with oodles of secret government information, it certainly would have fit the norm of being part of an evil government in need of a good kick to the face.  This may have caused a sort of overreaction on his part.

Framing and Anchoring

We’re very influenced by the context or packaging of how information is given.  I don’t really know how the information Snowden received was presented at his work, but I imagine it required a great deal of secrecy and lots of people or systems reminding him that all the information was to be kept secret.  With all the secrecy required of the employees, it probably created a context where, no matter what was going on, it would feel shady or dark.

Demotivational OverconfidenceOverconfidence

Pretty much everyone has this problem, even the humble.  Snowden may have been particularly subject to this heuristic as some of the reports from people that knew him described him as being very sure in what he thinks is right or wrong.  He may have decided that he found a wrong where one didn’t exist, or at least thought he would have been able to do more harm to the government than he did.

Endowment Effect and Loss Aversion

We tend to prefer things we already own and control.  That’s why everyone selling a house overprices it and everyone buying a house thinks people are crazy.  I’m not gonna lie, I’m having a hard time applying Snowden to this heuristic.  If you have a thought, email me or add it in the comments and I’ll update the blog with you credited.


We tend to use a sense of fairness when making decisions, even though it doesn’t always lead us to the best outcomes.  Perhaps Snowden had the sentiment that what the government was doing wasn’t fair to its citizens and needed to be justly dealt with.  He certainly tried.

Methods of Dissent

The above section required assuming that Snowden did not make an ethical choice.  If, on the other hand, we assume that Snowden did make the ethical choice in challenging the goodness of the program, we might be able to look at other ways of dissenting.

Appeal For More Information

This is a method of dissent that involved a question.  In Snowden’s case, he may have asked a superior something like “help me understand why we need to track so many of our own citizens without their knowledge or consent.”  Ok, that question stank, but here’s where ethics gets hard again.  Even when you know what the right choice is, how to make it isn’t necessarily a walk in the park.  What this method does do is offer the responsible parties a way out while saving face.

Invoke Organization Values

In this case, the organization is the United States Government, and its values are outlined in the constitution.  He might have said to his superiors “how does this fit with our commitment to our constitutional right against unwarranted search and seizure?”  I’m not sure that much would have changed except maybe they would have fired him and he wouldn’t be on the run right now.

Suggest Another Alternative

Don’t ever believe that there’s only one option, or even just two options.  Your options are limited only by your own creativity.  Though, I’m not sure Snowden would have been able to single handedly come up with an equally effective alternative method at finding and catching terrorists.  But, maybe by suggesting the importance of finding another way, someone up top would have listened.  I dunno.

Indirect Dissent

This is basically mitigated speech to provide a way out.  “I wonder if there’s a better way to protect our citizens.”  “Maybe tracking our citizens like this isn’t such a good idea.”  Yeah, I still don’t see it working, but again, fired might have been a better fate for Snowden.

Direct Dissent

This is the action that Snowden took, and as he has learned (and knew beforehand) the most costly.  This should always be a last resort since it pretty much always ends up badly for the dissenter, even if the problem creator goes down as well.  This really was probably the only real option that Snowden had to dissent, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have tried others first.

This raises an interesting issue though.  If low-level government workers or contracted employees have no way to challenge the ethics of the organization except through direct dissent, that means undue pressure is placed on them to make unethical decisions.  The system could benefit from a redesign to help avoid problems like this in the future.  Ethical decisions can be made difficult by context, and Snowden was certainly placed in a context where, whatever decision he took, was going to be difficult.

Leadership and Power

Demotivational LeadersEthical expectations are set from the top down.  As such, leaders need to be ethical.  As soon as the people below feel they can’t trust their leaders, they stop acting ethically as well.  I see a bit of that as I’m out here in Peru, where people don’t trust or respect the government, and by extension, any of the laws that it can’t enforce.  It’s easy to skirt the laws of an entity that you don’t respect.

Governments need to keep power over its people through its leadership.  There are several “bases” of power, channels through which influence and ability to make things happen flow.  Leadership in any entity must learn to expand and use these bases.  Episodes like these can diminish an entity’s ability to operate powerfully.  How might this Snowden episode affect the U.S.’s bases of power?


Obviously, coercive power is the ability to control by force, often violent force.  The US is still credited as having one of the strongest military powers in the world, and I don’t think that really changed with the Snowden thing.


This is power through good friends, being connected to powerful entities.  Our allies aren’t going to abandon us over this, but will trust between us weaken?  Probably not, since they all probably do similar things and I don’t think this whole episode really surprised anyone.


This is power that comes from wide recognition, generally based on some sort of title or position of authority.  Not a lot of that exists for a nation on an international level, except maybe the fact that the US has prominent positions in the UN and other international institutions.  Yeah, I’m not sure that’s an operating power here.


This can also be described as “charisma.”  It’s sort of like, when people find out you’re on their team, do they say “hooray!” or “shucks!”  I’m not sure this power changed drastically, but I think it does depreciate our cool factor in the world.  After all, the whole episode has been a bit embarrassing for the US government who had been keeping major secrets, then found itself unable to get reasonable cooperation from China or Russia to bring the suspect into custody.


This power is obviously, the power from having information.  This base has slipped a bit for the US, though it’s hard to say how much.  The US will probably continue to be able to run this program, but it was probably mots effective when kept under wraps.  Still, I’m sure the government has plenty of other secretive and powerful ways of gathering and using information.


Dexter's Laboratory
Super genius

This is power from having unique or exceptional talents or expertise in something.  The Snowden episode hasn’t necessarily changed our talent pool, but will it in the future?  Could this make other tech savvy people more hesitant to enter into government jobs?  Will super-geniuses chose countries they feel they can trust more as a result of the Snowden case?  We’ll see.

Ethical or Not

I enlisted some help from my former ethics teacher, Professor Miller, to get some additional thoughts on the subject.  With his help, you can at least leave this enormous blog post with a clearer understanding as to whether or not Snowden’s actions were ethical or not.

He gave a list of 4 things that do a good job of tagging positive civil disobedience.  I quote from him (color added):

1. It is nonviolent.  The disobedient should not deliberately harm others, even those asserting power immorally
2. It is a last resort, only taken when legal avenues have been exhausted
3. It is particular and proportional, responding only to the specific unjust law with disobedience to that law
4. It is submissive to the penalties of breaking the law, recognizing the underlying importance of the rule of law”

My professor pointed out that Snowden probably complied with 1 & 3, but may have blown it on 2, and certainly violated 4.

2.  It’s always hard to judge when you’ve reached a “last resort,” but there’s not a ton of evidence that Snowden tried many other routes to solving the problem (such as those mentioned in the “methods of decent” section above), nor gave other preexisting court cases time to work their way through the legal process.  As my professor said, “Snowden may reasonably argue that expediency demanded action now, but he’d need to show why.”

4.  I love the way my professor put this point:

“As for being submissive to the penalties, well, he ran.  This is important not just because he’s actively avoiding the consequence of his choices.  He’s also relieving the government from the burden of punishing him.  Part of what made Gandhi and MLK so successful was that the government was loathe to punish them, knowing that doing so only cast a harsher light on the laws they maintained.  If Snowden turned himself in, he would further legitimize his case and respect the rule of law at the same time.”

So, were Snowden’s actions ethical?  Not all the way.  There are almost certainly other things he should have tried first, and he’s not quite walking in the footsteps of the great freedom fighters.  But hopefully some good comes out of all this anyway.

Good Gravy

Well, hopefully this is the longest blog post I ever write.  If you get to the bottom, and you actually read the whole thing, you should send me an email at, and I’ll send you a picture of an award.  Not a real award, just a picture of one.  Because you’re special.

Keep seeking truth.

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  1. Hank 22 September, 2016 at 21:03 Reply

    Endowment effect / loss aversion hueristics applied to Snowden:
    Americans have and value privacy, so Snowden may have seen surveillance as a slippery slope leading to the complete loss of American privacy. In the same vein, Snowden could recognize that the Government had now been endowed with massive surveillance powers which, given this heuristic, they will be unwilling to give it up even if it’s no longer needed.

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