Case Study 19

Edward Snowden, a computer expert and former CIA administrator, released confidential Government documents to the press about the existence of Government surveillance programs. According to many legal experts and the US Government, his action violated the Espionage Act of 1971, which identified the leak of State secrets as an act of treason. Yet even though he broke the law, Snowden argued that he had a moral obligation to act. He gave a justification for his “whistle blowing” by stating that he had a duty “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

According to Snowden, the Government’s violation of privacy had to be exposed regardless of legality since more substantive issues of social action and public morality were involved here. Many agreed with Snowden. Few argued that he broke the law and compromised national security, for which he should be held accountable.

Do you agree that Snowden’s actions were ethically justified even if legally prohibited? Why or why not? Make an argument by weighing the competing values in this case (250 words)  


Laws are part of ethics and the purpose of making any law is the enforcement of societal morality. But sometimes laws may come in conflict with the prevailing morality, and this creates an ethical dilemma.

If Edward Snowden followed the Espionage Act of 1971 and did not leak state secrets, then –

  1. He would have followed professional ethics and contract. He would be loyal to his organisation, the CIA.
  2. He would have not allegedly put national security in jeopardy.
  3. The international reputation of his government would not have been marred.

However, a stand of Snowden can be justified based on the following ethical principles –

  1. Gandhiji advocated for breaking the unjust law. He said, “An unjust law is itself a species of violence”.
  2. As per Rousseau’s social contract theory, people give up some of their rights to the sovereign power to protect the rest. However, how much right has to be given up will be decided by people. In this case, permission for surveillance will have to be taken by the government; otherwise, social contact will be broken.
  3. Socrates also advocated for “speaking truth to power” if sovereign authority uses power unjustly.
  4. As per the third Principle of Kant’s categorical imperative, one has to behave like a “creature of the kingdom of ends”. This means that one has to impose moral principles on oneself.
  5. This will also enable the value of transparency and accountability in administration.

Based on the above analysis I agree that Snowden’s actions were ethically justified even if legally prohibited. Government cannot break the trust reposed by the people. Even Chanakya mentioned ‘Spy System’ in ‘Arthashastra’, but it was declared state policy.

If such surveillance is in the national interest, then government must pass a law on it and inform people. This will ensure apolitical use of it, only for national interest. 

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