Organizations and individuals in any given society are expected to behave or act in certain way that conforms to established societal norms. The actions and behaviors of individuals are judged to be ethically right or wrong according to how the given society defines morality. The extent to which a given course of action comes out as right or wrong is subject to how the respondents action or a behavior is ethically correct can be subjective depending on the opinion and perception of the respondents (Crane and Matten 117). This creates a moral and ethical dilemma for individuals and organizations whose actions receive mixed reactions from respondents, since a well intended course of action may turn out to be utterly immoral and unethical in the eyes of the society.
Such a dilemma is the case with the recent whistle blowing action by Edward Snowden who leaked classified US government information regarding the surveillance being undertaken by the National Security Agency and the CIA on personal communications by Americans and foreign nationals. While it is irregular for the government to spy on people’s private communication without their knowledge, critics are of the view that Snowden’s act of whistle blowing was an unethical exposure of classified information therefore a threat to national security. It creates a paradox where the US government is morally wrong in their illegal surveillance and Snowden is more wrong for the expose.
Edward Snowden’s expose of the US government illegal spying on people’s private communication both domestically and in foreign jurisdictions has received mixed reactions depending on the interest and political affiliations of the respondents. Those who find Snowden’s actions unethical contend that individuals have a duty and an obligation to respect the privacy of the clients or organizations they serve, that this duty has more weight if the employee’s revelations may threaten national security. This viewpoint borrows from deontological ethics theory, which provides that ethical behavior or act is determined by honesty, privacy, and gratitude. Deontology requires an individual to act within the binding and absolute rules in a any given circumstance. The deontology ethics theory does not consider the consequence of the action being right or wrong in determining if the action is morally correct (George 71). In contrast, the morality of an action depends on its wrongness or righteousness under the prevailing rules. Accordingly, the action by Snowden to leak the classified information against the wish of the National Security Agency (NSA), which contracted and trusted him with such classified information, was in violation of honesty, gratitude, and privacy principles set out in deontology ethics theory (Shaw 76). Regardless of how wrong it is for the US government to spy on people’s private communication, Snowden’s action was in violation of the Espionage Act that prohibits persons with access to classified government information from leaking it to unauthorized persons or organs. Still there are supporters of Snowden’s act of whistle blowing, who contend that he acted ethically in protecting the privacy rights of most Americans and foreign nationals.
The proponents of Snowden’s actions are guided by utilitarianism ethics theory, which holds that an ethical action is the one that produces the greatest utility (Singer 182). Utility under the utilitarianism ethics theory implies the well-being of the respondents or the greater good of the society. Snowden’s actions in this view promoted the rights of the individual citizens to privacy, which as being violated by the illegal surveillance. The consequence of the action undertaken by Snowden under the utilitarianism ethics promoted the well-being of the American citizens and those of foreign nationals by exposing the unethical intrusion into private information by the government. Snowden’s supporters also get backing from virtue ethics, which hold that the actions of an individual are the determinant of an ethical action (George 68). In this respect, the action by Snowden is seen as having been motivated by his character of promoting the rights of the citizens against wrongs being committed by the government.
The diverse argument advanced by the various groups demonstrates the controversy surrounding the action by Snowden. If Snowden had failed to reveal the wrongs that the government was engaged in by intruding into the privacy of citizens without their consent, he would be blamed for failing to protect and promote the rights of the private citizens. On the other hand, his action is judged by people and organization opposed to his approach as unethical for compromising the security of the nation. A balanced course of action was necessary for Snowden ensure that his actions were received well and for the intended purpose of advocating individual’s privacy rights.
The alternative action that he should have been employed is seeking a legal approval from a court of law to release the information for public good. The action to seek a legal approval would have been ethical under the deontology, virtue, and the utilitarianism ethics theories. The action would be ethical under the deontology theory because it is provided for under America laws. The revelation of the classified information would not amount to an act in contempt, dishonesty and infringement of the client’s confidentiality if done under the established legal channels. Utilitarianism ethics theory would also find this alternative course of action ethical because it will generate the best result to the country. The court has the potential of giving guideline on the release of the classified information in a way that does not compromise public security while ensuring that the public is adequately informed.
In contrast, the leakage approach employed by Snowden has been cited for compromising the security of the country by exposing the security strategy to the enemies. Furthermore, the extent of seeking a legal approval will demonstrate that Snowden would be ethically oriented under the virtue ethics theory due his character of following the law in promoting the well-being of the people. Snowden would be viewed to acting in good faith by seeking the approval of the court to inform the public on the wrongs being committed by the government against their rights (Henn 17).
An action undertaken by an individual or an entity has the potential of receiving diverse judgment depending on the morality understanding of the respondents. Even though the action could be right, it might be deemed to be unethical due to its consequence to different people in the society. The action by Snowden of whistle blowing the wrongs conducted by the government against its own people is permissible in a society but controversial due to the diverse interpretation of moral values under the various ethical theories. The action is permissible because it ensures the privacy of the citizens is protected. In contrast, the action is viewed to be immoral for been conducted in dishonesty of the government agency that contracted him to formulate a system to check the communication of citizens. The alternative of seeking a legal approval from the court of law would have ensured that the situation is ethically balanced.