Spying, Ethics & Prudence

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

All up in your biz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was recently revealed that the NSA had been tapping the phones of world leaders, such as Germany’s Chancellor Merkel. Naturally enough, these leaders expressed shock and outrage at this practice. Equally naturally, experts on espionage have tended to note that this shock and outrage is mere theater—such leaders surely knew that they were being spied on. After all, they themselves head up countries with robust espionage systems that no doubt spy on everything they can spy on.

While not an expert on espionage, I have noted the various revelations over the years involving close allies spying on and stealing secrets from each other. As such, I was not shocked by the fact that the NSA had been spying on everyone they could spy on. In addition to having learned the lesson of history, I also accept the reality of the principle of Totally in Everyone’s Business. This is the principle that all states endeavor to get totally into everyone’s business to the degree that their capabilities allow. Or, put another way, states endeavor to spy as much as they possibly can. The main limiting factors on the totality include such factors as technology, competence, money, and human resources. Ethics and law are generally not limiting factors—as history clearly shows. Since I was aware that the NSA had the capacity to spy on American citizens and world leaders alike, I inferred that they were doing so.

There is also the fact that snooping, like cocaine, is addictive and it requires ever more to satisfy that desire. In general, people do like to snoop and once they get a taste of snooping, they often want more. As with any addiction, people can quickly become reckless and a bit irrational. This could be called the principle of addictive snooping. So, once the NSA snoops got to snooping, they really wanted to expand that snooping.

Another factor is the fact that folks in power tend to be a bit paranoid. Since they are usually up to something, they tend to believe that other people are also up to something. Hence, they tend to believe they need to keep an eye on these people—be they fellow citizens, foreign citizens or allied leaders.

As noted above, such espionage is generally not limited by ethics or law (although countries like the United States will go through the most insane legal gymnastics to give such things a coat of legal paint). Recently I was listening to bit on NPR about the spying and one of the commentators noted that in espionage it is a matter of prudence rather than morality. This stuck with me because I had recently been teaching Kant’s ethics and Kant makes a clear distinction between acting from prudence (what is “smart”) and acting from duty (what is right). In the case of espionage, the idea is the usual consequentialist calculation: is the potential for gain worth the risk? In the case of spying on allies, it is a matter of sorting out the likely damage from the revelation and the potential gains from such spying. In the case of established allies like Germany, it seems reasonable to take the harm to exceed the potential for gain. Then again, given the history of Germany perhaps keeping a close eye on everything might not be such a bad idea.

The notion that espionage is about prudence rather than ethics is part of a common notion that ethics is a luxury that cannot be afforded in the context of matters of great importance. This seems to rest on the assumption that ethics is for easy and safe matters. This is, of course, somewhat ironic given that it is in the hard and unsafe matters that ethics is most needed. It is rather like saying that safety gear is for the safe climbing situations and one should just go naked when the climbing gets really dangerous.

Of course, it can be countered that such matters as international espionage deal with things that are so serious and that the stakes are so high that one cannot be handcuffed by the restraints of ethics. By analogy, this would be like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back. People also make the same argument when it comes to things like torture and assassination: we have to do these things to be safe and ethics must be set aside so we can preserve what is of value.

There are two obvious problems here. One is the usual concern that if we set aside our ethical values, then we have already destroyed what is of value. The second is the fact that judging what is of value and what should be done in its defense are matters of ethics. As such, this would be like saying that one must throw away his tape measure so that he might properly measure the board he is about to cut. However, his tape measure is just what he needs in order to make the proper cut. Likewise, to make decisions about such things as spying, torture and assassination we need our ethical values. To say they must be set aside is itself a moral judgment: it is the judgment that we should do wrong to achieve some end and pretend that we are not really doing what is wrong—just what is in our interest or expedient.

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  1. I think this example highlights the problem with a traditional view of ethics.

    The question is should ethics be applied to espionage? The general form of this question then is: when is it ethical to be ethical?

    This is asking for a normative answer, up front, before we consider what normative values we want. There is an inherent presupposition to ethics that presumes that we want to be ethical (i.e. good, usually) in the first place, in order to care about being ethical.

    Traditional ethics is a mess. No wonder the trolley problem does no better than tell us what a mess ethics is in.

  2. Ron Murphy:

    I think that ethics presuppose, not that we want to be ethical, but that we should be ethical.

    Now, why should we be ethical?

    I have no good answer, except in the cases when we want to be ethical or when God or Big Brother or our superego is watching and will punish us for not being ethical. It’s the ring of Gyges problem, which, as well as the Trolley problem shows us what a mess ethics is in.

  3. Ethics should be applied to espionage. It is always ethical to be ethical-although I’m sure that a clever philosopher has a cleverly crafted clever counterexample. Perhaps involving a trolley. 🙂

    I don’t think the mess is as big as one might think. I would say that a great deal of dispute has been generated by cleverly crafted counterexamples, but that seems distinct from ethics itself being in a mess.

  4. Americans have always been untrustworthy; less so among themselves, more so with allies and most untrustworthy when dealing with potential foes. The lack of American ethics in Asia, the Middle East and Africa has contributed greatly to fanaticism. The moniker ‘the ugly American’ was well-earned. Except for one thing, the British are not much better. The one thing is that the Brits are really good at the art of diplomacy.

    But y’all must know that there’s a tinge of Paleo-Platonism in American foreign policy and practices: Might is right.

  5. Boreas,

    “The one thing is that the Brits are really good at the art of diplomacy.”

    The Brits invented gun boat diplomacy. That’s where you take a big boat with guns, rock it up into the port of an uncooperative city, and shell it until the natives come around to the British way of thinking.

    The European powers weakened each other through two internecine world wars. And America, by default, inherited the European empires. The American imperial policy is not direct colonial governance but alignment. And of course there isn’t a coherency – Iraq being an attempt at direct governance. Vietnam is another. The French appealed to America to help them reclaim Vietnam, they still had ambitions (The French are very ambitious people). America said no, but strangely found themselves walking backwards into a war they neither wanted or had a desire to win (the prize would have been direct rule of Vietnam).

    Generalisations aren’t really the rule. British diplomacy is incredibly patchy. Margret Thatcher was spectacularly bad at it. In the Anglo-Irish agreement meetings, Irish politicians would meet her, they couldn’t get through to her, or understand her. It’s only when she was replaced by John Major, and Major explains her crazy thinking to the Irish that things could get moving, and they did move very fast.

    Thatcher had very strange ideas about the world. She believed the Irish were untrustworthy, and had betrayed Britain during the second world war.

    During the second world war, Ireland was neutral, more or less, more less than more, more or less. Ireland was in no position to declare war or take sides with anyone. When the British had left, they took all their guns with them, and the island is indefensible from a sea invasion – which is also true of the western flank of Britain, if you launch an invasion from Ireland. Ireland secretly aided Britain, but declaring war on Germany would have meant a German invasion of Ireland and then Britain would have been in big trouble. This is obvious if you look at a map. But Thatcher had the fantasy view of the world. Whereas John Major was firmly rooted in the reality based community. The Irish politicians were stunned when he explained Thatcher to them.

    The British have a spy agency like the NSA. All they may have been doing was feeding Thatcher’s paranoia and general madness. The Irish embassy in London were pretty sure their phones were being tapped. One of the diplomats, at the end of phone calls back to Ireland would conspiratorially recite children’s poems in Gaelic. To give her majesty’s secret service something to do with their time.

    The moral here is you can spend billions on surveillance of foreign governments but if you have someone like Thatcher, you may as well be micturating it up against a wall. The British had a spy in Argentina before the Falklands war broke out. He was reporting back to deaf ears in Britain that the Argentines were talking up an invasion of the Malvinas. How he learned this was not through tapping phones, but by reading the Argentinian newspapers.

    Really, maybe all these agencies do; the NSA, GCHQ, the old East German Stasi, is to make the politicians and administrators who direct them feel more powerful and in control than they really are.

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