The Ethical Slope
With the raging WikiLeaks controversy, the media refrain in the United States has been critical of the organization and its notorious founder, Julian Assange. In most of the media rhetoric, there has been little substantial engagement with Assange’s philosophy, a gap that has been filled by some particularly insightful bloggers. The attempt in the mainstream media has been to prove that Assange is reckless, unethical and a criminal who ought to be in jail for his actions. One wonders if this rage is meant to support the mood in political circles or is more due to being upstaged on what is supposed to be the job of the fourth estate. Be that as it may, the ethical issues that Assange has raised in his writing have gone unnoticed.
The key philosophical ground on which Assange stands is that governments subscribe to a conspiratorial strategy, keeping their methods and information secret under the garb of national security. The authoritarianism of governments induces resistance if known by people, and hence, governments strive to keep their philosophy and strategy cloaked in secrecy. It is therefore necessary, according to Assange, to find ways in which the conspiratorial mechanism of the government is rendered ineffective. That there is more than a shred of truth to the desire of governments to live in secrecy can be seen by various efforts around the world to gain more government transparency being stalled or limited. India, for instance, with great difficulty, managed to pass a landmark legislation titled the “Right to Information Act” in 2005 which allows any citizen to ask for information held by the government or its agencies. The government is required by the act to respond within 30 days or face penalties. While passing this act, the government was careful to include several exceptions that do not allow matters of national security to be revealed to the public, and in practice, find some excuse or the other to withhold information from the public.
Assange, when asked whether his actions amounted to civil disobedience, gave a remarkable answer (source: Time Magazine). He said, “Not at all. This organization practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction.” Critics have pointed to WikiLeaks’ callousness of putting government officials at risk and jeopardizing military operations. However, nothing in the WikiLeaks cables reveals the identity of operatives, and as noted by other bloggers, has to do mostly with gossip between diplomats and capturing of well-known “secrets.” So, the charge of endangering the lives of soldiers or operatives stands unsubstantiated. It is notable that Assange himself has been committed to transparency. In the same Time Magazine interview mentioned above, Assange stated that WikiLeaks had formally asked the US State Department to help redact the cables, which the State Department formally rejected. Even so, the cables were released to news organizations in advance to help them redact. Each day, WikiLeaks has been releasing around 80 cables, that have been carefully reviewed.
Assange’s actions however raise an important ethical question for us. He has induced people working in governments to steal information and presumably lie to those around them when acting as “whistleblowers.” So, the question for us is, “Am I ok with lying to liars, or stealing from robbers? Am I ok with inducing other people to lie to liars, or to steal from robbers?” The answer to this question has many implications. If we find ourselves saying “no,” then it would be inconsistent for us to support “whistleblower” protection laws, or undercover police operations to catch wrongdoers. Indeed, the question goes all the way back to Krishna in the Mahabharat war, where, when asked by Arjuna about the ethics of killing his grandfather Bheeshma when the latter would not bear arms, Krishna gave a remarkable answer, the gist of which was that Bheeshma had, with his past actions, seriously violated the code of ethics that the warriors had signed up for, and therefore, the code would no longer apply to him. A crude summary of this idea is captured by the ancient aphorism in Sanskrit, “Dharmo rakshati rakshitaha” or “The (ethical) code protects those who protect it,” and as a corollary, the code stops protecting those who don’t protect it. While this is a lofty, poetic statement of what we have seen in our world where the law of karma holds supreme, and helps us understand why other people (like Arjuna) would break the code to take on code-breakers (like Bheeshma), the question on how we should act still remains.
This controversy comes at a time when we find India’s leading journalists exposed for lying to someone who acted as a source of information for them. The justification for their act is not all that different – they were playing by the rules of their game, where many were out to exploit them by feeding them untruths, and therefore, they were not obligated to be truthful to their sources. The journalists asked to be judged by their actions and not by their words. The problem with adopting this philosophy of telling the truth to only those we consider truthful is that we undertake too much hard work in deciding whether we can trust someone to be truthful, and if we are not careful, sooner or later, we will find ourselves making a habit of lying. The test I have found helpful in my interactions with others is whether I’d be fine with whatever I’ve said appearing on the front page of the national newspaper, or whether I’m fine with the people I’m talking about behind their backs finding out about it. If I’m not, then there’s a reason to pause.
The way forward lies not in making moralistic judgments about others, but in forming an ethical code for oneself. If I am comfortable considering myself an instrument of justice for public good, in a manner that may involve breaking my ethical code when dealing with other code-breakers, then I need to do a lot of ethical heavy lifting to achieve clarity on where and when I will stop my code-breaking action, to prevent it from becoming a mindless habit. However, if I am uncomfortable lying, no matter what story I have to justify it, then I would need to think pretty hard about the profession I get into, in order to avoid getting into situations where I would face ethical dilemmas. Given what I know, the foreign service would be out. I could only be a cop as long as I’m not assigned to undercover operations. If political journalism involved lying on a daily basis to get information, then I would have to exclude that profession from my career choices. In summary, the former path of allowing the consequences of my actions (typically argued to be for the greater good) to shift my ethics is a dangerous practice – for I am opening the door to my own stories that can justify what might be otherwise unjustifiable. It is much easier to follow the latter path by developing principles that are aligned with my values, which no story can break.