When I first heard about Wikileaks, I felt that possibly they were providing a much needed ‘heads up’ to the public on important International concerns such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I heard about the recent cable releases, I thought they caught the United States in some particularly heinous territory with their International Policy — something that represented a serious shift from the norms of behavior that the country’s citizens would expect from the people who represent them abroad.
Instead, it’s just a leak of cables. Stories of Omar Khadaffi oogling voluptuous Ukranian blonds. CSIS members complaining about lawyers. Frank opinions about Russian dignitaries. All great stuff to sell newspapers and boost the ego of the ‘leakers’ but nothing representing an international emergency. Given this lack of urgency, it is my opinion that Wikileaks did the wrong thing when they leaked this information. There is no ethical standard that I can apply that justifies their actions here. Let’s go over some of the tests.
Let’s start with Emmanuel Kant’s ‘categorial imperative,’ act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. I do not accept left-wing minds ought to be allowed to leak private documents to undermine aggressive international policy because I know that right-wing minds would more than enjoy the opportunity to leak medical documents and doctor reports to undermine expensive public health care.
Now, I do not accept Kant wholeheartedly. I do believe we should make room for exceptions in cases where the action provides a benefit, or prevents a negative that greatly outweighs the negatives that come from the action. A deontological (Kantian) mind must have a utilitarian conscience. So, taking the Trolley problem example, I do think there is some justification for pulling the switch that kills one person when it means saving the lives of thousands. With some clear (and very important) caveats:
- there is clear evidence of public benefit
- there is no apparent self-interest in pulling the switch
- the one person is not known to be vulnerable within the society (see Rawls)
Clearly, I do not see a clear public benefit to the leaks. I do, however, see plenty of self-interest as media outlet after media outlet uses the juiciest elements of the cables to sell their papers. The damage that this leak causes, however, will never be quantified. Government Services will be regulated and secured to the point that they are no longer services in any sense of the word. Foreign Affairs agents will always be thinking about their (needed) frank opinions in the context of these leaks. In the best case scenario, this means embarrassment for public officials. In the worst case scenario, this means a disconnect between diplomacy and policy – which is a euphemistic way of saying “stupid Wars caused by miscommunication.”
The final test is one of my favorites, put out by John Rawls — the ‘original position’ test. This test would offer that people should act as if they came into society with no understanding of its norms or structure. The person in this position would want the society that protected its most vulnerable members (because, given no prior understanding of status, someone would want to ensure that they had a decent lifestyle no matter their status). The so-called transparent society that so many internet lovers desire is not to the advantage of the most disadvantaged. For one, the most disadvantaged likely have no clue whatsoever that this whole Wikileaks thing ever happened. All they’ll know is that some authority figure in their country will put two and two together (correctly or incorrectly) and accuse them (correctly or incorrectly) of treason based on pieces of evidence found in these documents.
In short, there is no real ethical justification in my mind for leaking these documents to the public, only a half-baked and obnoxious internet ideology. It was a wrong-minded action and it should be punished in my view. Fortunately for the people involved — people who are by no means the vulnerable people John Rawls wanted us to consider — they will be punished in a country that believes in ethical treatment of their citizens and fair trials.