By James F. Drane
Edward Snowden released classified U.S. government information about the National Intelligence Surveillance Program for protecting the American population from terrorist attacks. Some liberal groups call him a hero for protecting the privacy of citizens. Politicians, both liberal and conservative, accuse him of treason for endangering the whole American population.
Was the National Security Agency’s surveillance system an essential system for protection of innocent life or was it an unnecessary violation of the privacy of many? Let’s try to put these questions in an historical and philosophical perspective.
Every respected philosophy has a theory of human existence and a built-in ethics or theory of right and wrong. Classical western philosophies linked both theories with an understanding of nature as a divine creation. Created nature explained the sanctity of human life and served as a guide for distinguishing right from wrong acts.
Modern philosophies, of the 18th and 19th century Enlightenment period, shift thinking away from a background theory of creation. Nature in modern era thinking is the reality accessed by scientific methodology and expressed in scientific laws. Measurable regularities of the physical world become the modern meaning of nature. Theology is dropped in favor of physical sciences: explanations based only on material reality and efficient causes.
The term Natural Law traditionally referred to moral principles rooted in divine creation, which govern human behavior. Now, Natural Law refers to predictable properties of things. Nature moved from being a divine creation and a norm for human behavior to being a reality able to be measured and predicted by the use of scientific methodologies.
Even in modern times, however, for some thinkers Natural Law retained a moral sense. It referred to the self evident moral rules and principles of moral behavior. Principles of Natural Law became Natural Rights, i.e. moral directives that were unarguable; that were valid independent of religion or theology. This was an Enlightenment or modern meaning of Natural Law. It was a minimalistic theory of nature and law.
Some Enlightenment period thinkers, however, retained a more traditional theological perspective. We see this expressed in The American Declaration of Independence. The opening paragraph spoke of “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The next paragraph declared that “these truths are self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The natural rights of life, liberty and happiness today are all threatened by terrorists. The U.S. government’s different responses to these threats are reflections of government’s primary obligations. To threaten the human life of citizens is the greatest threat to the most basic right of all citizens.
In modern Enlightenment thinking, however, besides the government’s obligation to protect the right to life, there is also the obligation to protect liberty and the freedom of citizens. Human beings in more modern thinking are defined essentially by an ability to choose. Free choice or autonomy became the defining human characteristic that had to be protected by government.
Now, a government obligation to protect human life is joined with a government obligation to protect individual freedom. Privacy enters the scene and becomes important because it is a condition for the exercise of individual freedom and not being treated as an object.
Instead of dividing the U.S. population into opposing camps over Snowden’s destruction of a surveillance system used by National Security Agency, the issue needs to be seen in a more historical and philosophical perspective. On one side are those focused on every citizen’s right to life and the government’s obligation to protect that right. On the other side are those offended by a government surveillance system because it is seen as a violation of privacy.
Seen in historical perspective, there is reason for compromise between the opposing camps. The most reasonable response is not to defame those holding a different opinion but rather to look for compromise and reconciliation based on the American Declaration of Independence and broadly recognized rights to both life and liberty.
The American population today has to be protected against terrorism. The first obligation of government is protection of innocent life. If this can be done without intrusion into privacy or any limitation of individual freedom, this would be ideal. In the real world today, however, citizens who value life and want human life to be protected have to be willing to accept some limits on their privacy and their individual freedom.
Snowden claims that his individual liberty and the freedom of all others trumps the value of human life and government obligation to protect the right to life of citizens. He even claims that his preferred right to privacy and freedom extends to terrorists and therefore protects their opportunity to do terrible evil to innocent others. Digital sophistication does not guarantee even the most basic moral development.
Drane, Ph.D., is the Russell Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.