Philosophers Interview Edward Snowden


John Perry and Ken Taylor (both Stanford), hosts of the radio program Philosophy Talk, interviewed former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, “the world’s most famous whistleblower” back in May. They just released a series of five video excerpts from the interview.

In one segment, Snowden describes the disillusionment that he and some of his colleagues experienced upon realizing that the NSA was collecting more information on American communications than Russian communications. At the same time, many other agents at the NSA seemed to regard constitutionally guaranteed rights (like privacy and due process) as justifiably suspended under some circumstances. These agents, says Snowden, tend to view themselves as “. . . good people, doing bad things, for good reasons.”

Snowden is pressed on questions regarding where his ethical obligations lay, to expose the agency’s practices. He strenuously justifies his decision to leak classified information to the press, rather than alert government officials to the wrongdoing.  “The system failed comprehensively”, claims Snowden; the classified nature of the shielding of the NSA’s programs from both congressional and judicial oversight left no hope for a neutral investigation into his allegations. 

In the absence of independent, apolitical bodies to which the would-be whistleblower might appeal, there is little chance, says Snowden, that those who are witness to governmental wrongdoing will risk the consequences of exposing such unlawful activity. Consequently, the lack of such independent bodies will continue to hinder government transparency.

Given the lack of protections for government whistleblowers, Snowden elected to work with the press to bring the NSA’s misconduct to light. He says his intention was not necessarily to bring an end to the NSA’s domestic surveillance practices, but instead to open public debate about such surveillance. By working with the media, Snowden says, he sought to emulate the checks-and-balances model integral to American government; the media would inform the public by publishing material they saw as most pertinent and appropriate, and the government would then have an opportunity to provide further clarity and justification for their programs.

Asked why he himself took such grave risks, he replies that “you have to have a greater commitment to justice, than you do a fear of the law.”

The above is from a press release courtesy of Dave Millar.

Here is the first of the videos:

The rest can be found here.

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Tsutomu Ben Yagi
Tsutomu Ben Yagi
6 years ago

Thanks for sharing this! A full video of the talk can be found here:
http://philosophytalk.org/community/video/ethics-whistleblowing-edward-snowdenReport

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

I have not yet viewed the long version, but I think philosophers should grapple with the ending note of the short excerpt: Snowden observes that, to walk away from the cozy niche he was enjoying and assume the risks of repercussion as he has done, you need to have “a real commitment to something” . . . you need to have “a greater commitment to justice than . . . fear of the law.”

How many of us contemporary philosophers have a greater commitment to justice, truth, or moral rightness than to maintaining our safe, secure niches and staying on the sunny side of departmental and institutional politics?

Philosophers could have much to contribute to an analysis of what the “national security state” has become and how good citizens should orient to it, but fear seems to be immobilizing our cognitive processes. But is it fear borne of respect for legitimate “law,” or do some of the laws as recently rewritten simply “lock into our rationality” with a deontological force that is itself unjustified? I sense a great straying from honest apprehension of the truth about our nation’s situation and its current role in the global community.Report

MAStudent
MAStudent
6 years ago

“How many of us contemporary philosophers have a greater commitment to justice, truth, or moral rightness than to maintaining our safe, secure niches and staying on the sunny side of departmental and institutional politics?”

I don’t know, but this certainly doesn’t characterize the situation here. No one’s going to face repercussions within their departments or universities (or even their country here in the United States) for criticizing the modern day practices of first world intelligence communities.

“but fear seems to be immobilizing our cognitive processes.”

Fear of what? There are a number of explanations as to why philosophers haven’t been engaging in this discussion, but fear isn’t one of them.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Apathy, maybe? A belief that things like “truth” (when it comes to real-world issues), “justice” and “democracy” just don’t mean much anymore?Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Pitiful, just pitiful. That so few philosophers seem to be interested in exploring the issues raised by Snowden’s disclosures, or by the principled stand he took in making them. Or in asking even more basic questions. What is the “truth” about what actually happened on 9/11–IS there a truth of the matter, or is it just to be settled by what the majority of people (in “our” language community) want to believe? What sort of role should the United States play in the world now, given what has been done over the last 14 years–what would “justice” consist of? How far should “government” intrude into the lives of its citizens? What IS a nation-state, anyway, and do we, as human beings, really need to defend such “things” at this time in the early 21st century, when we are increasingly connected as a species and increasingly aware of the existential threat we face from the climate change that our activities (many of them directed toward “defending” nation-states) are bringing on? Surely when philosophers defined themselves as seekers of wisdom such issues would have been of some interest. Exactly what sorts of things are occupying, if not inhibiting, our cognitive processes in this regard now is an object of curiosity, at least to me.Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/audio/2015/jul/10/language-algorithms-tech-podcast “To help us decide is Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy who thinks the divide between the human and the algorithm is getting dangerously blurred”Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Maybe philosophers on this list have trouble understanding the difference between the human and the algorithm, but fortunately there does still seem to be a real world out there where people like Edward Snowden care more about things like truth and justice than whether or not one can “conceive of” 2 + 2 = 5 (resisting that conception seems to have been an important issue for the hero of Orwell’s 1984–boy, would he be rolling in his grave if he could see what’s going on now). Sheesh!Report

MAStudent
MAStudent
6 years ago

” than whether or not one can “conceive of” 2 + 2 = 5″

Yeah, God forbid philosophers do the work they’re interested in. While we’re at it, why not start attacking historians and other academics who are doing what they’re interested in and not what Ronnie Hawkins is interested in?Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

How about issues that the vast majority of living human beings are interested in?

Hey, no problem, if a small group wants to spend all its time floating around in its own self-enclosed bubble of complete conceptual detachment, but please don’t think you can appropriate subdisciplines like metaphysics/ontology entirely for your own use and squeeze all the life out of concepts like truth and reality.Report

MAStudent
MAStudent
6 years ago

“How about issues that the vast majority of living human beings are interested in?”

How about an individual’s freedom? You remind me of people who view the humanities as a waste of time because such efforts can be put into more productive results. “Who needs mathematicians figuring out Fermat’s Last Theorem? We should instead have them working for the government to do budgetary analysis or doing theoretical economic work since these are the issues that the vast majority of living human being are interested in: that is, a healthy economy that everyone benefits from.”Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Actually, I would suggest quite the reverse. I think the vast majority of human beings are interested in issues of truth and justice, even if they do not conceptualize these in the same way that philosophers do–they are “interested” insofar as their interests are at stake in whether or not justice and a respect for truth generally prevail in their societies. But more importantly, they must be interested in existential issues, issues that have to do with their own continued existence and that of their children and grandchildren, even if they may not be aware of what these existential issues are at the present time.

I think philosophy, or at least a major trend in the philosophy we need to forge for the future, ought to reclaim its “queen of the sciences” status and work at integrating the basic things we now know about the world that we have learned from the various sciences, so that we can make some sound decisions about what trajectory our human project should pursue in the years ahead. We don’t live in an infinite variety of as many “possible worlds” as our (clearly culturally narrowed, given some of the other discussions on the Daily Nous) imaginations can “conceive of,” we live in a single actual world, which works in certain ways that have been fairly well characterized by the physical and biological sciences. If we utilize our current best science to articulate an ontology of this actual world, we will see that we are more than 7 billion human primates who are now consuming almost half of the primary productivity of the biosphere and whose collective activities are increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere at a rate that puts us on an ecocidal path. And a major, perhaps the major, reason why we’re doing this is that most of us are so fixated on amassing quantities of tokens of that abstract symbol, money, that our attention is diverted from what we’re doing to the real world that actually sustains our lives. “Theoretical economic work” is exactly what we don’t need; rather, philosophers and other academics need to be helping people wake up to the fact that the subject of economics is a set of abstractions that simply bottom out in our human belief systems, not in the physical/biological world, and that the latter is what we need to be paying attention to if we want human life to continue to exist on this planet. A way of getting at this stark ontological contrast is by conceiving of the “carbon bubble,” the 2800 gigatons of carbon in fossil fuel reserves of which 2240 gigatons need to stay in the ground unburned in order for us to have a reasonable chance of maintaining the Earth system within its current basin of attraction, thereby making us “write-off” $28 trillion of these conceptual “dollars”–tokens of an abstract symbol that will cease to exist anyway if human life itself ceases to exist on planet Earth (for a quick video on this see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCkCVFI3934).

Moreover–given that this discussion started with an interview with Edward Snowden–another way philosophy could help integrate what we–humanity–“really knows” about the world it lives in concerns the truth about what really happened on 9/11. Anyone with a little knowledge of Newtonian physics (as philosophers of science surely must have), or even just a practical grasp of how the physical world behaves, should be able to tell that the way those three Trade Center buildings came down does not fit with what we have been told to believe. I know this has been made a “taboo” topic for academicians across the board, but it’s time to get over the social processes that enforce such “taboos” and have a little straight talk among ourselves while we can. If, as you said earlier, “No one’s going to face repercussions within their departments or universities (or even their country here in the United States) for criticizing the modern day practices of first world intelligence communities,” then we ought to feel free to employ our ability to “detach” from immediate context and consider what this simple truth means about the nation-state that is the current global hegemon, and perhaps what its implications are for the existence of nation-states based on centralized hierarchical power structures generally. If we are indeed facing an existential crisis as a species–and current Earth Systems science says that we are–then the continued existence–since its kind of “existence” is entirely dependent upon our continued willingness to believe in it–of even so sacrosanct an entity as the nation-state must be called into question.Report