The Ethics of Wikileaking, Revisited

Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

I’m at the start of finals week, so I’ve been a bit remiss in posting and commenting. However, here is something of an update on Wikileaks and its ethics.

My ethical principle regarding leaks is based mainly on the principle of utility: a leak is morally justified when it will bring about more happiness for humanity and wrong when it will bring about more unhappiness. Naturally, this general principle might need to be tweaked in specific circumstances.

In the case of leaking information to the world, the main avenue of moral justification seems to be that the leak reveals misdeeds or illegalities. People who commit misdeeds would seem to have little moral claim to secrecy and the rest of the world would seem to have the right to know about so injustices so that they might be rectified or, at the very least, exposed to the light of day.

If Wikileaks had merely leaked information relating to morally questionable acts or illegalities, then I would have regarded such leaks as morally acceptable and even laudable. However, the folks at Wikileaks have crossed a moral line by publishing a cable providing a list of  resources and assets “whose loss could critically impact the public health, economic security, and/or national and homeland security of the United States.”

While some of the potential targets are obvious (dams, telecommunication systems, strategic areas, etc.), the leaked information provides rather specific details that would be rather useful to anyone interested in attacking the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries where these potential targets are located.

This information does not, obviously enough, seem to reveal to the world misdeeds, illegalities or injustices that need to be exposed to the light of day. As such, this leak cannot be morally justified on these grounds.

The leak does, however, provide useful information to those who might wish to attack democratic countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

It might be argued that the leak is acceptable because the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies do bad things. As such, they are being justly punished by revealing critical information to their enemies and potential enemies.

However, this is easy enough to counter.

The main opponents of the West include various terrorists groups as well as rather undemocratic countries such as North Korea and Iran. As such, Wikileaks would seem to be aiding organizations and countries that seem to be morally inferior to the West. Obviously, the Western nations are not moral angels, but they seem to be objectively better than Al Qaeda and North Korea, for example. Compare, to use a specific example, the rights of women in the West with the treatment of women by groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As another example, consider the individual liberties in the United Kingdom versus those in North Korea.  As a final example, compare the relative openness of the United States with the secrecy of China. Making attacks on the West easier does not aid a morally superior side (which could justify the leak). Rather, it aids a morally worse side. As such, the leak is morally unacceptable.

In a previous post, I noted that I had questions about the wisdom and moral authority of the folks at Wikleak. This latest release has answered those questions. I no longer have any doubts about their lack of wisdom and moral authority.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Leave a comment ?


  1. Mike: ‘In a previous post, I noted that I had questions about the wisdom and moral authority of the folks at Wikleak. This latest release has answered those questions. I no longer have any doubts about their lack of wisdom and moral authority.’

    I think it has been obvious for some time that Wikileaks lacks moral authority. (Whether or not they lack wisdom might depend upon the interpretation of what they are trying to accomplish.)

  2. I think this is an overreaction, both on your part and by CNN. While the cable does exist, it doesn’t give any more information than that things that exist do in fact exist.

    Here’s (what I believe to be) the cable in question:

    Towards the bottom is a mass of text which I think is the “critical information” the article speaks of. Note that it’s nearly difficult to parse the data. And even when you do, it’s next to useless.

    Let’s look at some examples:

    “Chikura, Japan C2C Cable Network undersea cable landing”

    That’s nice, so there’s an undersea cable landing somewhere in Chikura, Japan that might be a safety risk. Now show me on the map where it is.

    Really, it’s hurting my eyes to try and parse this and really all the arguments are there same.

    The knowledge that there might be a Cobalt mine in the Congo that’s vital is about as useful as that there might be a nuclear plant in Nebraska. It’s a bunch of ado about nothing to try and smear Wikileaks as dangerous.

  3. [I am going to rehash my arguments from a twitter discussion with Jeremy (@PhilosophyExp)]

    Mike, I disagree with you on so many levels. Thought I should come clean before I begin.

    You say that “a leak is morally justified when it will bring about more happiness for humanity and wrong when it will bring about more unhappiness” which sounds very reasonable, but as soon as you launch into argument, you drop the equally important “Naturally, this general principle might need to be tweaked in specific circumstances”. As far as I can tell, or differences stem from the fact that I ‘see’, or at least try to see WikiLeaks in the very long-term, thus tweaking the circumstances. You are doing something similiar (after all, we both are judging the moral merit of WikiLeaks based on some future events), but your long-term is like a week.

    Now I do agree with you that this leak might result into something horrible in the very near future (I am trying really hard to spin this in a way that does not make me appear as someone who condones violence or terrorism), but we can be quite certain that in the long run this leak will show itself to be morally right. Since you don’t seem to see those long-term benefits, let me sketch a few I whipped up in about a minute.

    1. [The leak is morally good because..] it makes us take note of decentralization. Now this is quite far-fetched, but I do think that the countries that will survive the “twitter-age” (or whatever you choose to call this weird century) will be the ones that are the most fit, most able to adapt and change in step with people and technology. Putting your eggs into a couple baskets (assets) still beats putting them in one, but nothing beats a proper “controlled chaos”, or “the cloud” as techies and marketers now call it. Instead of having 200 or so essential locations, a country of the United States caliber should have 2-gazillion of them, so that it could withstand pretty much any attack or cataclysm. If the leaked list truly is -all- of America’s backbone, you guys are screwed. A country should resemble the Internet or MRSA (sorry for the analogy, it is pretty late and I tried really hard) in terms of resistance and ability to survive. Countries should be much more decentralized, transparent and open to change than now, countries should consist of an uncountable number of interacting agencies/services/whatever which still manage to keep each other in check (rather than the classic three), so that no one person, group or act can shut it all down. Failed attempts on taking down WikiLeaks are a great example of how a decentralized system (not completely, but still) can withstand serious shocks. Let me illustrate on a smaller scale with an imagined monologue by Mr. Strawman:

    A very venomous snake bit me. I would certainly be dead in a couple of hours if it weren’t for that one place in Iceland where they make antidotes. Thank god science invented those quick-flying airplanes that will bring me the cure in no time.
    [A minute passes]
    Wait, what exactly do you mean by ‘all flights canceled due to a volcano eruption’?

    What you are trying to do, Mike, is kill Mr. Strawman.

    2. Let me argue against what I just said. It is quite unrealistic to think that a country could be decentralized without some uncool chaos ensuing, which is why I would never argue for a completely anarchist state. A country serves some purpose, or at least it should, not to mention it should be a morally good one. We can’t just go all libertarian, privatize whatever and hope that the invisible hand of the market will make it all good. No-one in their right mind, except for tons of upper-middle-class businessmen and thinkers, could claim that doing so will make the World a better place. Then again, they could, since I didn’t add the very important “.. for the most of us”. What I’m trying to say (and what I’ve just realized to be completely irrelevant to the point I’m making) is that although libertarians do have good-sounding rhetoric (actually cheap sound-bites) going for them, it is the only thing they’ve got. (Used to be a libertarian, hope that gives me some street-cred. Also, terribly sorry for the interlude, had to get it out of my system. My point follows.)

    So a country should be somewhat centralized. Let’s say that those 200 ‘assets’ are the really important ones, what to do now, when they’ve gone public? Well, first of all, they never should have been secret in the first place. Does having White House in the open really make Obama less safe and more vulnerable to terrorism in a substantial way? The best thing to come out of this in the near future will be the tightened security for the places listed. But since they are so important, shouldn’t they be protected very damn well at all times? Thinking that “we must be really safe since we made that Important List” gives a sense of false confidence, maybe even hubris, which this leak will plug (pardon the pun). If the assets are truly essential, they should be protected well at all times, so that the mere fact of the public finding out where they are, could in no way harm the operations of it. Besides, the leak should make those in power a wee bit smarter (hey, one can hope). Compiling the list was an epically dumb idea in the first place, I can’t imagine the short-sightedness of some suit going “okay guys, let’s make a list of our weakest spots and then not tell anyone about it, except like 2 million totally trustworthy people”. (I can’t find the source, but I remember reading it somewhere that the original cable could be accessed by ~2 million officials). It probably got sold to the ‘axis of evil’ the minute it went live (trust the government much I don’t (meant to be spoken in a Yoda voice)).

    You also mention that some “rather specific details” have been released. Went through the list again, didn’t see any that in my mind could give a committed terrorist organization an ‘eureka moment’. If they can learn how to fly planes, I’m pretty sure they can figure out that dams are pretty neat for their dastardly deeds. Can you give me some more details on which assets you find the most troubling? Do take note that some of them are outdated and wrong ( (Could it be that the U.S. are playing a double game by including some ‘honey-pots’ to see if their correspondence is being leaked? Just sayin’)

    If the list indeed does somehow aid the morally inferior enemies (ooh I can see in my mind’s eye an Iranian philosopher complaining about those morally inferior countries, where women can go out with an uncovered head (and a well educated Westerner nodding in the background, claiming all indeed is relative)), that still does not make the leak morally bad, since it could be the case that it aids enemies a little and UK/US a lot, which I believe is exactly what will turn out to be the case. I’ll let you check the numbers and do the moral calculus, since my instrument has been broken for ages.

    In our short twitter-feud, Jeremy mentioned a “cautionary” principle, which I took as “better safe than sorry”. Don’t really see i in your argument, but you surely (what an old trick) must agree that “better safe than sorry” is not necessarily true at all.

    To add insult to injury, who are we as philosophers (or philosophers-to-be) anyway to say what is or isn’t morally right? Your article makes me think of a philosopher-king, puffing a pipe in a comfy armchair, neatly placed on top of an ivory tower, explaining (all-knowingly too): “Stop press. It’s morally wrong.”
    (I kid, I kid, but I do quite like Sam Harris’ hands-on approach. Hopefully will be doing my BA thesis on it).

    Also, please note that CNN are very far from neutral on this issue, and mostly spend their time hosting a huge smear campaign, probably as a retaliation (at least partly or unconsciously (know your Freud)) for Assange walking out on their reporter

    Don’t give up on WikiLeaks just yet, there is so much more to come. At least I hope so.

    Armands Leimanis

  4. Julian (not that one)

    Where is the evidence that terrorists have ever attacked anything of strategic or military importance that was not also well known (e.g. the Pentagon)? Do you think they have difficulty identifying targets? Don’t you think enemies that are states (e.g. N Korea) know this information already?

    It’s might be helpful to read Julian Assange’s essay about the philosophy behind Wikileaks

  5. I wonder if we’re not asking the right questions – where does terrorism come from (psychological, sociological) in the first place and then think about if our ruling classes aren’t in fact perpetuating the situation by all this secrecy. The brouhaha about wikileaks makes me think that there’s a little too much protesting going one on the side of the Governments and we’re all being taken for a ride. Oh George Orwell you were so right!

  6. Actually, this “leak” was a warning shot that shows WL COULD release sensitive information IF he gets put away or gets disappeared. They made sure that this leak was all readily available on the internet.

  7. I agree with your focus on utility, Mike. But I think you get into a bit of a morass when you try to characterise the US as more ‘moral’ hence more in need of protection. A fuller response here:

  8. Josh’s theory about the warning shot rings true to me.

  9. Hmmm, seems to me that your utilitarian/consequentialist analysis is overly pragmatic here. For a wider (still basically consequentialist) take, see this:

  10. This isn’t the time or place for a manifesto about this issue.

    The government should be accountable to the people (American, British, or wherever), but it is not beyond using guise of “security” to skirt that responsibility. To characterize America as being involved in a “war on terror” seems to me to be a thinly veiled equivocation aimed at granting governments more authority. Viva la Wikileaks.

    (Hoping this doesn’t cause my website to get shut down.)

  11. Well, if anyone had any doubt about Mike’s right to pose as a philosopher, this post settles the question.
    That the cable published by Wikileaks puts the United States and its allies in any danger can only be believed by very ignorant and gullible people. Check it out for yourself. And if one is going to condemn the people at Wikileaks for that then I suppose you have to admit first that the US and British governments are run by the devil. But it seems that Mike is willing to cut those two some slack, even if they lied and manipulated whole nations into a murderous war with no redeeming qualities (if war can have redeeming qualities)at all.

  12. Constantine,

    If the leaked information is too vague to be useful, then this would change the ethics of the situation. To use an analogy, if someone just leaked all my financial information (stocks I own, the credit cards I have, and so on) but did not leak details that would be really useful (such as my PIN numbers), then the harm done to me would be very minor. Sure, leaking that wasn’t really nice, but it didn’t really hurt me.

    Now, if the information is useful (going back to the analogy, like leaking my credit card numbers), then the argument would seem to stand.

  13. John,

    My argument does not seem to be an ad homimen. I’m arguing that revealing information that harms the United States in this way helps countries that are worse than the United States. As such, this sort of harmful leaking would be wrong on those grounds. I am, as I have argued before, fine with leaking misdeeds and wrongdoings . But, the recent leaks do not seem to reveal misdeeds or wrong acts, but merely seem to do harm to diplomatic relations and so on.

    Now, it could be argued that the United States, the United Kingdom and so on are bad and hence it is good and right to dump such information in the name of openness, transparency and so on. However, the question then arises as to what is being exposed and what good comes of it.

    In any case, I appreciate the criticism and response- I should always be called to task for my flaws or errors.

  14. Timothy,

    Well, terrorism does not arise from nothing and governments often do bad things. I do agree that governments need to watched and that their misdeeds should not be concealed. However, I would not place the lion’s share of blame for the existence of terrorist groups at the door of “ruling class” secrecy.

    There are important concerns, however, about how much of a role states play in creating the very problems they face (such as terrorism). However, the terrorists also need to be held accountable as well. While, for example, the United States might have done things that provoked ire, this hardly seemed to justify flying two planes full of people into two buildings full of civilians of various nationalities and faiths.

  15. Armands,

    Thanks for the lengthy reply.
    As you noted, I do take a utilitarian approach to leaks (in general). As such, if the leaks turn out to create more good than harm in the long run, then I would concede that the leaks were morally acceptable.
    I’m in finals week, so unfortunately I can’t give a full reply. But, I will try to respond to some of your main points.
    The decentralization argument does have considerable appeal. As you point out, having essential locations makes a country vulnerable. To use the example of our grid, a huge chunk can be taken out (as has been shown) by a failure in one area. So, if this causes the US to realize that we need to lower our vulnerability, then it could be ultimately a good thing, despite seeming bad. To use an analogy, my falling off a roof and tearing my quadriceps tendon apart seemed bad, but it had good consequences: I had a chance to rest, I learned a lot about medicine and anatomy, and I revised my training for running so that I am actually faster now.
    Of course, there does seem to be some grounds to be concerned about this sort of argument. For example, suppose that a person is robbed and beaten in his/her own home. So, s/he gets better home security and trains to become a master of armed and unarmed combat. This confidence leads him/her to be a great success in life. As such, the robbery and beating would thus seem morally correct.

    In regards to “To add insult to injury, who are we as philosophers (or philosophers-to-be) anyway to say what is or isn’t morally right?”
    Well, that is our job-at least the ethicists. Saying this is analogous to saying “who are we as doctors anyway to say what is or isn’t healthy?”
    Now, relativism (or subjectivism or nihilism) might be correct, in which case we are not to say. But that has to be shown first.
    No pipe for me. Smoking interferes too much with running. 🙂

  16. Joshua,

    I agree that the state should be accountable to the people (or rather that the people who make up the state should be accountable). I also agree that “security” can be misused. However, there do seem to be legitimate areas of secrecy. To use an obvious example, releasing lists of undercover police and their operations would generally be a bad idea. Of course, exposing corrupt undercover cops would be (in general) the right thing to do.

  17. Well, I am all about the posing.

    To pose some more, it does not seem clear that one has to admit that the US and the UK are run by the devil in order to condemn Wikileaks. Perhaps you could spell out how the one is necessary condition for the other.

    I do agree that the US and the UK have done bad things. However, this does not generate a universal moral license to leak information from these states.

    I am willing to cut the US and the UK some slack. Once again, they have done bad things. The folks in the government that do bad things should be held accountable. But, the United States and the UK have a great deal going for them: rights, a reasonable attempt at rule of law, freedoms, and so on.

    Leaking information can have a role in improving governments. But, my view is that we do not right the wrongs of governments or improve them by simply leaking information. How does, for example, releasing information about important resources make the UK or US behave better? If the information is useless (as some have claimed), then it really does nothing and I suppose that I would have to change my view about the ethics of this specific leak. However, if it is useful to terrorists or others, how will assisting them (even if very slightly) make the UK and US act better? What rights will be wronged, what injustices corrected?

    My principle is that such leaks are morally acceptable when they help expose wrongdoing and thus improve the behavior of the folks in power. However, leaking information that can cause harm and that does not seem to do any good seems morally questionable.

  18. As other posters have noted, it seems as though this post is predicated on a lot of factual assumptions that aren’t true. So none of the ethical argument follows.

    To be clear, Wikileaks is threatening to use what they call “the nuclear option” in the event that Assange is killed or arrested. This would involve the release of truly harmful information that would potentially put individual agents into the spotlight. Think “Valerie Plame” to the nth power.

    Few people want that to happen. I certainly don’t want that to happen, and I would have to think twice about my support for the organization in the event that it did happen. But at this stage, it hasn’t been done.

  19. Mike,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. As it happens, I agree with your overall position — some leaking justifiable, diplomatic cables not justified. And now that you restate your point about ‘worse nations’ I see you are thinking of consequences, not just ‘my enemy’s friend is my enemy’. I guess the notion of ranking states set alarm bells ringing. I think you can question the ethics of the leaks without making the ‘don’t help bad people’ point. Anyway, this point is weak, given what others have said about the trivial nature of the leak.

    Hope the finals process wraps up well.

  20. This is beginning to sound like a John Le Carré novel, in which the CIA is trying to protect Assange from unknown killers (possibly Russian, possibly Chinese, possibly ultra-rightwing U.S. military who hate Obama), who want him dead, since if Assange is killed, CIA agents worldwide will automatically be outted by Assange’s people.

  21. Amos,

    Somehow I see a movie about this coming to a theater near you. 🙂

  22. John,

    If the leak is trivial and has done no harm, then my argument would fail. Quite right.

  23. Benjamin,

    I agree that if my factual assumptions are mistaken, then the argument falters. However, the leaks seem to have done some harm. Richard Haass argues about the harm done by the leaks over at Newsweek. Also, the United States government and the British government have condemned the leaks, alleging that they are harmful. Of course, the governments’ claims could be dismissed on the grounds that they are biased in the matter.

    I certainly do not agree with the extreme claims that the release was a terrorist act and that it was a diplomatic 9/11. However, it does seem that the release was not harmless. Now, it could be argued that the harm was not terribly serious and it could even be argued that the US, the UK and so on deserved this (in the moral sense).

    I can understand why the folks at Wikileaks made the threat-they want to protect Assange and have little else in the way of leverage. Of course, threatening this seems to raise ethical concerns and going through with it raises even more. As has been pointed out, this certainly gives some folks an incentive to see to it that something bad happens to Assange-thus provoking the release of truly harmful information.

    Some see this as on par with a criminal trying to blackmail the victim of a crime to protect himself from just punishment. No doubt others see it is a legitimate maneuver.

    If Wikileaks does go nuclear, then my argument would seem to be on the mark. Naturally, it could be argued that the folks at WikiLeaks were pushed to this retaliation (“look what you made me do”) and that the US, UK and so on morally deserve this “punishment.”

    Based on what I have read, the nuclear option is that the file is already distributed, but is encrypted. So, the password would be released in the event of a triggering action. The file is supposed to be unbreakable, so the odds of someone being able to crack it are incredibly low. As such, if the file is not a bluff, this is a bit like handing out bombs, but having a supposedly unbreakable combination lock on them.

    As a final point, this does raise the old question of whether it is ethical to threaten to do what would be unethical to do.

  24. May I raise an ethical issue which puzzles me?

    Why is everyone so concerned about Julian Assange being imprisoned and in contrast, unconcerned about Private Manning being jailed in a military prison where he faces a 50 year sentence?

    Some people are destined for stardom, I know, and some people for secondary roles, but still one could get the impression that Manning was used and abandoned to his fate by Wikileaks.

  25. “Also, the United States government and the British government have condemned the leaks, alleging that they are harmful.”

    they said the exact same thing about the military leaks, but it’s just a knee-jerk reaction, and the Pentagon later contradicted it by stating that there’s no proof of any actual harm to informants, because wikileaks is diligent in redacting out sensitive parts like names. the hypocrisy on part of the government is also almost tangible, like in the case of hillary clinton who condemns wikileaks yet is implicated by the leaks as ordering diplomats to spy on UN officials, collect their dna samples and so on.

    “Some see this as on par with” etc.

    the weasel words you use to make it seem like a balanced treatment of arguments just make you look like a weasel, since it’s a shallow analysis, yet it can be seen which way you lean. for instance, in this case you don’t mention that it’s both strange to single out wikileaks if other outlets like guardian and der spiegel are doing the releasing too, and to forget that they’re just a middle man between the actual source and the public, and so are basically acting like journalists, which is legal. that the organization has “leaks” in its name doesn’t mean that it’s doing the leaking itself. if you think it’s confusing, I’d tend to agree, but your post and comment lack adequate mention of this fact.

  26. How does one know when making a leak whether there will be more happiness for humanity (and by this, I assume you mean more people are happy with it than those unhappy)? Shouldn’t WikiLeaks be allowed to make the leak? – only after that can we measure more or less happiness.

  27. Amos,

    Good point about Manning and stardom. It might be suspected that Assange’s fame is a major factor here: people “care” more about celebrities than about non-celebrities. This fame also seems to afford Assange a degree of protection that Manning lacks.

    However, there are some important relevant differences: Manning is a member of the military and presumably agreed to act in accordance with the rules and regulations of his job. Assange leaked what had been given to him, which could be regarded as far less bad.

    But, I do share your concern about how WikiLeaks seems to have more or less just discarded Manning. While I will not defend Manning, WikiLeaks seems remiss in this regard. But, I could be mistaken-maybe they are putting together a crack team of lawyers to assist him in his defense and working hard to bring his situation to the public eye.

  28. Rengis,

    It could be a knee jerk reaction-perhaps they just say that. But to simply dismiss the claims because the government said it would be moving towards an ad hominem.

    The point that the Pentagon says no harm was done is relevant. I have been hearing various views ranging from “it is a 9/11” to “the leaks are harmless” to “the leaks are revealing important information that the world needs to know.” I’m willing to consider the various views and accept or reject them on their merits. My commitment is, or so I hope, to getting things right. So, if I erred in my post, then let it be corrected.

    There is, as you point out, a certain hypocrisy in spying on others while crying foul when one’s own information is released.

    I don’t think I’m weaseling. But, I do admit that a short blog does not provide an in depth analysis.

    As far as the other organizations leaking the leaks, it seems (but I could be wrong) that they are reporting on what has already been leaked. This seems different from being the “first leaker”, so to speak.

    Interestingly, on my personal blog, I have been accused of being too easy with WikiLeaks and also as being a hypercritical leftist when it comes to America. I sometimes suspect that I must surely be in the middle, since I catch hell from both sides. Or maybe I am just really wrong. 🙂

  29. David,

    Mill and other utilitarians address that: we can go with our past experience and history. As far as letting something be done and then seeing what happens, that could be a bit of a problem. After all, taking that approach to something like releasing a new vaccine without testing would seem like a bad idea.

    I do, of course, admit that I do not know for sure what the results will be. Maybe the leak will amount to nothing. Maybe it will actually result in meaningful changes for the better. Maybe it will lead to greater harm.

    The main positions now seem to be that it is harmful (a view most often held by interested parties in government) and the view that nothing harmful has been leaked (yet). I was inclined to think it would cause more harm than good, but if the cries of harm turn out to be mere government rhetoric, then I need to change my view.

  30. I’m not defending Manning either.

    I just wonder what’s going through Manning’s head as he sits in prison and watches (if they give him access to the media) Assange
    being billed by many as the hero of the decade, surely with a billion dollar contract for the best-selling book and movie already in his hand, while Manning, having run the real risks, is ignored by everyone.

    I googled Manning and there is a website dedicated to his defense, but it is so primitive and badly-made that it looks like his mother is behind it.

    Manning, from what I read, is a guy who joined the military because he couldn’t find a decent job as a civilian. The type of person who always gets screwed in this world, even by and at times especially by those who claim to dedicate their lives to defending the weak and the oppressed against the evils of the powerful.

  31. Benjamin S Nelson

    Mike, thanks for your reply.

    The principle of harm is hard to apply, and is not as straight-forward as it might seem initially. In order to get the most normative bang for your buck, you need to distinguish between harms that follow from the act of speech, and harms that follow from the facts of speech. And then you have to assign each of these considerations some weight, as appropriate to the case.

    This distinction is brought out most forcefully when it comes to false allegations of libel. The act of saying something damaging to someone’s reputation is surely a harm. However, the harm of the act is completely mitigated by the truth of the facts: as the old adage goes, truth-telling is absolute protection against libel.

    Another important point. The harm of the act has to be measured against the duties of the target.

    Hence it has to be mitigated by the voluntary publicity of the actor. As you put it 53 weeks ago: “By entering into such a relationship based on trust, [so-and-so] thus gave the public a right to know about what lies behind that carefully crafted image. After all, he was using his image and reputation to sell products and the public would thus have a right to know whether the image and reputation were legitimate or not.” Now, admittedly, I didn’t think it was a very good argument back then, because you were talking about a famous private citizen, and the infringement of trust was a hard sell. But I’d be glad to admit that your principle does apply when the act infringes upon certain duties of trust. And in the Wikileaks case, duties of trust are a thousand billion times more potent than in the case of Tiger Woods’s erectile indiscretions. For the affected actors, in this matter, are not mere private citizens, but multiplicity of democratic political institutions. Their duties of trust are overwhelmingly onerous.

    It is interesting to apply this approach to cases of blackmail. Just like cases of false libel, blackmail involves the telling of unfortunate truths. But we probably don’t think that blackmail gets a blank check. So what’s the difference? Here it is: the purpose of truth-telling is to do harm up and beyond the act of truth-telling. The harm of the act outstrips the harm of the facts.


    This is, I think, the start of a responsible analysis. But it surely can’t be the end of it. The number of conflicting duties in the situation is pretty overwhelming, and we all need to look at it with fresh eyes. So I’ll just end with an analogy, and wonder what your reaction is.

    Suppose the two of us worked at an insurance company. I am your boss, and I know that you were always spreading false gossip about me to other staff members. Suppose, also, that I suspected that you were lying to me about the results on an important spreadsheet — though I could see that you thought you were lying for good reasons. That is, you’re hiding a spreadsheet that shows some details about the company that would cause it to go bankrupt next year if they went public. If I exposed your lies, we would both be out of a job. If you keep spreading false gossip, then only I will be out of a job. I say to you: stop telling lies about me, or else I will show everyone that you are also lying about the company. That’s blackmail.

    On first blush, I am inclined to think that there’s a powerful sense in which you, the liar, have orchastrated the entire dysfunctional situation. At least on first glance, my blackmail seems to be a proportional response to your lies. It seems as though the reason that I have this intuition is that the threat involves the threat of a no-win scenario; also, I have been thrust into this situation through no fault of my own; and finally, because I have a right to make the best of whatever situation I am in.

  32. Heretofore I have not given much thought to Wikileaks. Having now rectified this omission somewhat, I just cannot be bothered to go into details to establish my position, which is that I am very uncomfortable by the existence of this self appointed, irresponsible, untrustworthy, self-serving organisation. I feel on balance little good will come of it. It is, or will be at some time, knowingly or unknowingly, in the position of embracing a terrible accident just waiting to happen.

  33. Don — so what you’re saying is that you have a gut feeling, but you are only sort of informed, and don’t feel like talking about it, but bad things might happen.

    Well hey now! Take that, “philosophy”!

  34. Maybe I’m just too cynical, but I hardly trust my government at all. As an American citizen, I enjoy countless, truly wonderful rights and privileges. But those rights and privileges have been fought for and hard won over the years by people who have been constantly getting screwed by those with more power. Most of those rights and privileges sometimes feel like they’re only tentative, anyway. I understand that undercover cops, and maybe a few more analogous situations could justify policies of secrecy, but not many more. And it seems that policies of secrecy are far to rampant. I can’t help but be all for any group of people trying to tear away at that, knowing that there will be some pain, but hoping that it will help curb many more years of unjust special interest rule in developed nations. Notice I say “help curb” and not cure. I don’t want to say that everything Wikileaks does could be easily justified, but I’m really glad there’s one more organization putting some tension on people and political institutions that just plain don’t have enough tension on them already.

  35. Benjamin:
    I agree that I have not gone to the length of establishing my viewpoint in accordance with the usual philosophical rigour, which should be expected here. Yes it is a gut feeling but I suggest many Philosophical viewpoints have their origin thus. If I remember rightly we were asked to consider the ethics of leaking by way of Wikileaks. I do not feel this organisation is structured on the soundest ethical principles and whilst I am not against leaks which uncover evil practices I do not feel Wikileaks is the organisation sensitively to embrace this practice. It is huge power in the hands of goodness knows whom, “but bad things might happen” well yes overnight they have, Visa and Mastercard have been hacked into by supporters of Wikileaks as some sort of revenge for the action taken against that organisation by Visa and Mastercard. As a holder of both these cards I am now concerned as to my financial security. I know most of this this is based on how I feel rather than supported by hard facts, which at this moment, I do not have time to assemble; I thus resort to my intuition and Horatio’s advice to Hamlet “If your mind dislike any thing, obey it:”
    I shall in future make an attempt to be guided by the crystal clear, concise, and exact reasoning, which you continue to display here.

  36. I wouldn’t say my reasoning is crystal-clear or exact. My last post leaves on a tentative note, and effectively is just a request for comment. But at least I gave it a try.

    It’s true that intuitions have some role to play, but they’re not persuasive on their own. If I tell people that “my gut feeling is x”, it’s just autobiographical. The force comes from the reasons we have and use.

    I’m not sure what the vigilante group Anonymous is getting itself into, but they’re not the same as Wikileaks, so I don’t want to defend them. I have credit cards too (in fact, 24 hours ago I donated to Wikileaks using one), so I’m just as much under threat. Doesn’t change anything as far as I can see.

  37. Amos,

    Although Manning elected to do what he did, this is something that the security system should have prevented. For a private to have access to such material and be able to simply take it shows that there were some problems.

    This is not to say that this excuses Manning. After all, stealing $50 from my locked desk is just as bad as stealing $50 from my unlocked desk.

  38. Michael F.,

    I do agree that it is good to have people outside of the government serving as watchdogs. After all, the protection of office provides an excellent place for misdeeds to thrive.

    That said, there does seem to be a distinction between legitimately exposing misdeeds and merely exposing information. I’m all for the former, but the latter doesn’t get my universal approval.

  39. Benjamin,

    True, sorting out harms in this situation is challenging.
    I think the trust principle does apply to the Woods situation. He was, after all, selling a commodity (his fame and image) to those who hired him. As such, they (like any buyer) would seem to have a right to know if the goods are as advertised or not. In the case of the public, he was cashing in on his image and using it to sell products. As such, people would seem to have a right to know if that image was accurate or not. Of course, people really should not be buying products on the basis of celebrity endorsements, so perhaps that provides a handy out. But, anyway, back to the main point.
    In the case of WikiLeaks, Manning clearly violated the trust placed in him. As such, he seems to have acted wrongly in that regard. Naturally, this can be argued against. Assange, of course, did not violate trust in this way.
    Interesting analysis of libel vs. blackmail and it is certainly plausible. However, it might be argued that it is not the degree of harm but rather the intent of the truth telling that makes the key difference.
    Turning to the insurance story, are the details that would bankrupt the company if they went public morally significant or not? That would impact the ethics of your role in keeping the secret.
    Now, if it is just a case in which the company is acting above board morally and will come out okay if the information is concealed, then threatening the person would seem to also be putting the company and everyone else who works for it at risk based on your desire to stop the lying. If the lies are causing you serious damage, then perhaps the threat could thus be justified (for example, the lies about you could get you fired or cause the company to fail). However, it does seem like a morally questionable risk.

  40. So just to be clear — we agree that Assange didn’t violate trust. But the governments certainly did violate their duties of trust, and now we’re learning about it. This is important, because governments have duties of trust that are more onerous than any other institution known to humanity (with the possible exception of the duties of caregivers to children). Here’s a sample of two recent headlines that paint Anglo-American governments in a bad light:

    – WikiLeaks: Texas Company Helped Pimp Little Boys To Stoned Afghan Cops (
    – WikiLeaks climate change cables: the unanswered questions (

    But there are a great many other cables that portray foreign governments in a bad light. (For example,

    So those trust-violations are going to be a pivotal aspect of how I would defend Wikileaks at this time.

    On the blackmail/false libel contrast. We actually agree; for when I said “the purpose of truth-telling is to do harm up and beyond the act of truth-telling”, I meant “purpose” as in “intent”. I mean for us to talk about perceived, intended, or foreseeable consequences, not consequences proper.

    On the insurance story. I intentionally kept the details behind the potential bankruptcy morally neutral for the sake of simplicity. It’s true that the details could potentially make a major difference to our intuitions. But for the sake of neutrality, just say that it’s the sort of thing that would probably not be uncovered if it were not revealed, and which is not morally salient. Suppose somebody accidentally misplaced a decimal point on the spreadsheet, over-reporting during a lean year so that it appears that they broke even, though knowing that the accident could be fixed by diligently under-reporting for the next fiscal year. And suppose that it could be predicted with certainty that the next year and all subsequent years would be fine — unless the secret were revealed, at which point you can (again with certainty) predict that it would cause a loss of trust in the business during a time of economic pessimism, and then to a crippling loss of capital investments. Something of that nature.

    It’s true that this is a morally questionable risk. But is it the kind of blackmail that slums the depths of the moral spectrum? When I consult my sympathies and resentments and try to imagine myself in the situation, I think the answer is quite obviously that it is not a case of villainy. The main character is an anti-hero, of sorts.

  41. Mike,
    Thanks for your response way up there. I suppose my position is simple. Lets say that the identites of undercover cops were leaked and say a newspaper published the information. I would hold the police department liable for not handling the information properly, not the newspaper. Apologies if the argument has been made before. No time to read entire thread.

  42. If one takes a position of considering WikiLeaks by ignoring the territorial perspectives some interesting viewpoints can emerge and wonder how you would feel in that circumstance Mike.

    Presenting one thread using WikiLeaks as an example to illustrate that: –

    The UK reports of parliamentary proceedings (Hansard) originally could not be reported in public and it was a criminal offence to do so.
    To report the discussions held in parliament to the public, a privacy mechanism was engaged by which the information was reported as fictional accounts of other things. Hence the information was reported whilst a protection was enabled against any criminal charges effectively denying responsibility for the criminal act.

    By openly reporting the information it possesses WikiLeaks does not enable such a defence and so is unable to deny what it is doing.

    This leads to the questions: –

    Is WikiLeaks more moral/ethical than the people who enabled the free and open reporting of the workings of a democratic parliament to the people who that parliament allegedly represents?

    Progressing one line of argument from there then opens up the question: –

    Is it more moral/ethical to follow a strictly scientific approach to these matters by searching for all the different answers available, or accept that a more dogmatic approach of believing what is immediately presented or may be perceived? That seems to reveal connections with the religious/scientific cultural clashes of old.

    Finally – should philosophy look for or believe only what is politically acceptable, or should considerations like the territorial imperative be removed to reveal wider options?


    N.B. I agree there is an importance in the territorial imperative to the political sphere in binding disparate peoples together.

  43. Mike:
    This is the sort of obscure knowledge that is only useful to the waging of country scale war and it is significant that no terrorist group has up to this moment in time struck against condom factories and chewing gum institutes. Strike terror where the terror is felt. Simples. I am struck by the absolute demonstration that for Americans war is Xbox by another means. It will be interesting to see whether the wikleaks ‘folks’ are flexible enough to deal with the arm twisting of banks etc that is sponsored by the Obama ‘no change’ administration.

  44. Wikileaks : Kennith B. Inge - pingback on September 12, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: