Analysis Of The Story Of Edward Snowden In Terms Of Kantian Ethics

The world we live in today is dominated by technology whether it be through our smartphones, through the hundreds of cameras that we are seen on every day, or even our watches that monitor us as we sleep. For the most part, technology has done wonderful things in terms of the advancements in the medical field, the access to millions of databases, and the level of our security as a nation. However, in the wake of technology our right to privacy has vanished, which for the most part we aware of given we freely post to the internet and we freely shop knowing we are being surveilled. Though our privacy is also infringed on in ways that we don't know, and don't we have the right to know? For Edward Snowden, this is exactly how he felt when he decided whistleblow on the most powerful government and intelligence agency in the world. The story of Edward Snowden cannot simply be summarized; however, in order to evaluate his decisions, we need to have a basic understanding of who he was and what he did. In 2006, despite his lack of formal education, Snowden demonstrated an aptitude with computers and was hired by the CIA, Central Intelligence Agency. Eventually, in 2009 he left the CIA and was hired by the NSA, National Security Agency, where he worked as a private contractor for Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton. During this time, Snowden began gathering information on a number of NSA activities-most notably, secret surveillance programs that he believed were overly broad in size and scope. Furthermore, Snowden claimed he raised ethical concerns with the programs he was working on, but they were ignored, which is what brings us to his final decision of whistle blowing. In 2013, Snowden flew to Hong Kong where he conducted a series of interviews where he disclosed the existence of PRISM, a data-mining program that reportedly gave the NSA, the FBI, and the Government Communications Headquarters direct access to the servers of such Internet giants as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. Essentially, the documents he revealed showed the existence of a secret wide-ranging information-gathering program conducted by the NSA, which is why today Snowden is known as an American whistleblower who copied and leaked highly classified information ('Edward Snowden Fast Facts'). What Snowden did was illegal under the 1917 Espionage Act; however, for the purpose of this argument his decision to whistleblow is distinct from its legality and rather considered morally permissible under the moral framework of Kantian ethics.

Kantian Ethics is not the only moral framework that exists; however, it best serves our purpose of defending Snowden's decision to whistleblow. Kant believed that the goodness of an action was not determined by the consequences of an action but rather the intentions behind an action. Furthermore, Kant believes that the motivation for our actions cannot possibly just be pain and pleasure, but rather it must be something more because as humans we have pure reason that go above animal instinct. Therefore, the purpose of our pure reason is not simply pleasure, but instead is to produce a will that is good in itself, which means to act out our duty. Furthermore, our greatest duty as humans is to follow the categorical imperative because not following this supreme principle of morality would mean that one acted merely out of pleasure, hence not using pure reason. Therefore, lets outline the categorical imperative in order to understand what Kant believed to be the standard of rationality. The categorical imperative has three formulations as follows: act only on maxims that you can will to be universal laws of nature, always treat the humanity in a person as an end and never merely as a means, and so act as if you were a member of an ideal kingdom in which you were both subject and sovereign at the same time. The categorical imperative makes it clear that Kantian ethics believes that some actions are completely wrong no matter what the circumstances may be. The reason is because if some maxims are universalized, like lying or murder, it would be absolute chaos or in other terms the world would be completely contradictory. Now that we have a basic understanding of Edward Snowden as well as Kantian ethics, we can now properly evaluate and defend his decision.

In an interview with the Guardian, Snowden justified his actions of whistleblowing by stating that he had a duty to inform the public of the government's violation of our privacy as it was his moral duty that went beyond the legality of the action (Rusbridger, Alan, and Ewen MacAskill). As stated before, the most important layer of Kantian Ethics when evaluating an action is to apply the categorical imperative. Applying the first formulation, act only on maxims that you can will to be universal laws of nature, can be applied to Snowden by determining the maxim behind his actions. In this case, the maxim could be that releasing government secrets is justified, which if applied universally this could be a huge threat to our national security. However, this isn't the best maxim to use because according to the Guardian, Snowden choose to only leak information that he and his connections felt would not be detrimental to the public or government, but would provide enough information that the public becomes knowledgeable enough to start an open debate. Therefore, a better maxim would be that releasing government secrets is justified so long as they are leaked for the good of humanity and not for personal gain. In the case of Snowden, this maxim does pass the universality test and so we can move onto the second formulation, always treat the humanity in a person as an end and never merely as a means. The meaning of this second formulation is that we should treat one another as having intrinsic value rather than simply having instrumental value. For Edward Snowden, his actions are justified by this second formulation because he felt the government was infringing our right to privacy for instrumental value. Furthermore, the purpose of the United States government is to serve the people, and yes that includes national security, but that does not include an abuse of power that breaches on our rights to privacy. Therefore, Snowden's actions pass the second formulation and we can move onto the third and final formulation, so act as if you were a member of an ideal kingdom in which you were both subject and sovereign at the same time. The final formulation of the categorical imperative is in a way a combination of the first two, and that essentially, the action, or maxim, would become a law that applied universally and without exception to every rational being in society, including yourself. Edward Snowden stated, 'I'm willing to sacrifice my life because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building.' For Edward Snowden, he released classified information so that every rational human being would be aware of what they were unknowingly subjecting themselves to; therefore, his maxim passes the final formulation. Overall, Kantian Ethics believes acting out of duty is to act out of freedom, and without freedom we wouldn't have the choice. Edward Snowden gave the people of the United States the freedom to be rational agents rather than to be continuously used as a means to an end, and although we still don't have complete control over our privacy we are better off knowing than being left in the dark.

Edward Snowden is still largely considered a traitor of the United States; however, I believe Kant would defend his actions as morally permissible under the categorical imperative. I had the opportunity to speak with a current contractor of the NSA, and they stated that 'privacy is not the government's responsibility, but it is the individual's responsibility'. Although it may be our responsibility I do not believe it is at the same time the government's responsibility to inherently infringe on our right to privacy. In conclusion, Edward Snowden acted upon his moral duty to protect the privacy of the public rather than the legality of the United States' Government.

Works Cited

  • 'Edward Snowden Fast Facts.' CNN, Cable News Network, 17 Sept. 2019,
  • Gellman, Barton, et al. 'Edward Snowden Comes Forward as Source of NSA Leaks.' The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 June 2013,
  • Rusbridger, Alan, and Ewen MacAskill. 'Edward Snowden Interview - the Edited Transcript.' The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 July 2014,
16 December 2021
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