Ethics and Law: Edward Snowden, Whistle Blower

To Review the ethical actions of Edward Snowden, all the workable ethical theories need to be reviewed, and then worked in, to grant a wider picture of how the situation was necessary or how unjust the whole thing was. The workable theories included are as follows: Utilitarianism, which is the theory of how beneficial an accomplishment is calculated against what was lost in the process of attaining that state; Social Contract, which is the theory that an invisible law, closely resembling a governing silhouette, looms over each individual; Consequentialism, which is the doctrine that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences; and Kantianism, which is the theory that the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfill our duty.

Delving into the depths of the debate, Edward Snowden’s actions will be brushed with each theory and reviewed to create a conclusion of ethical correctness. In the process of running through different ethical theories certain aspects of the case may become clear from a single perspective whist also hazing other aspects. The main purpose is to ascertain multiple viewpoints and different perspectives; not to clear the situation up entirely, but to provide a greater understanding into each ethical theory and a different standpoint of Snowden’s actions.

Additionally, a professional interview was conducted with an individual to add a professional interpretation on ethical decisions in a more relatable environment. The reasoning for this is to further knowledge related to ethical theories and their place within a working atmosphere and not to support or oppose the Snowden case.


Utilitarianism is the concept of determining the fairness and/or the injustice of an occurrence by weighing up the rewards and losses of the affected parties. Because of this, it is easily thought of as a balancing scale.

Edward Snowden’s action, of leaking internal US activities, caused a global uproar during the end of 2013 to the beginning of 2014. The unveiling of the NSA’s spy activities, both domestic and international, has caused concerns worldwide about privacy issues. Part of the documents he leaked suggested how the “NSA breaks US privacy laws hundreds of times every year” intentionally and even through non-intentional means such as system errors. An example of such is how telephone calls, “in Washington DC”, were intercepted due to a mix-up with area codes. In place of the international area code for Egypt, 20, the domestic code for Washington, “202”, was monitored. So, focusing on Snowden’s actions, the gain vs loss approach of a utilitarian is not simply applicable as it is both detrimental and beneficial. Having their actions exposed the US government’s spy agencies were pressured into tightening their internal security protocols in order to prevent the leakage of spy sources, which may be used against them.

Furthermore, “details regarding internet and phone tapping were leaked to the media” which has raised worldwide awareness of potential spying through various electrical devices. This effect has forced internal teams to improve their spying methods to compensate for the losses caused by one man’s actions. The Breaching of privacy without just cause is considered a criminal act which victims can justly put forth charges against the intruder. With the case of the US government being exposed of breaching privacy, just causes cannot be truly quantified nor explained thoroughly enough despite the lack of deniability. It is evident that the invasion of privacy is without doubt a serious offense towards Americans, both nationals and residents alike. Not only has the US has been conducting surveillance activities within their own country but they have been conducting surveillance in other nations as well. With the UK being one of them, additional harm was caused not only to international relationships but also the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). This reveals the fact that although their spying activities are conducted without perfection for the profession, they have broadened their reach to other territories despite their vulnerable system and lacking perfection for the art of espionage.

Raising awareness of illegal actions within one’s own workplace is the very definition of whistle-blowing. However, in Snowden’s case, not only is he leaking information of the NSA’s activities to the general public for their own benefit, he is also leaking potentially harmful information to countries like Russia, who could hypothetically use the carelessly publicised information to further personal agendas and gain a strategic advantages over the US. To conclude, the detrimental effects of the disclosed information can be viewed as having more of a negative impact than a positive one.

Social Contract

Social Contract is a theory that was made to addresses questionable causes whilst illustrating the divide in power between dominating governing forces and the individually weak general population. It is also the view that a person’s moral and political obligations are dependent on an agreement amongst themselves in order to form a society in which they live. Social Contract collects a general census of popular opinions and social conventions, both conscious and unintentional, to create a fictitious and someone vague societal law which is used to pass judgment in ethically questionable situations all under the weight of the pretext of public safety. This clearly demonstrates how political authorities can rise within a government system. Additionally, this pretext justifies actions to the public that governments have the authority to keep certain secrets from the public regarding their safety.

Edward Snowden’s actions have been debated extensively, to provide an understanding of whether or not he acted ethically or unethically. Edward Snowden is a former working collaborator for the CIA and the USA. During the wake of the scandal he publicized to international media outlets, he deserted the US in order to avoid incarceration and the hammer of the law he was speaking up against. He may have had the public’s best interests at heart but that alone does not make him socially ethical. It was recounted that the US National Security Organization were compiling phone records of a large number of American inhabitants. That was not by any means the only grey area the NSA was dabbling in as they were also tapping into servers belonging to social networks and their affiliated partners. These actions allowed the monitoring of online correspondence in a reconnaissance program known as "Prism".

The lengths in which the NSA went to in order to monitor individuals indicates their lack of consideration for the general population’s privacy whilst on their mission to protect that same population’s well-being. Like the U. S, England was also eavesdropping on the online organizations through Prism. The British Counterpart was branded as the GCHQ (Government Communication Headquarters). During the unveiling of the operations actions, it came to light that the GCHQ was tapping into fiber-optic cables which were carrying sensitive data for the NSA, its U. S counterpart. The actions of a single agency spread like wildfire and thus caused what could be perceived as a domino effect, normalising eavesdropping. Edward Snowden quoted the theory of submittance to governing powers saying, “If we can’t understand the policies and the programs of our government, we cannot grant our consent. ” Now, what is the concept of consent? There are three variables of consent, which are tacit, express, and majority. One of the most common ones is express consent, where the government has authority over those who agree to relinquish their rights.

Where on the other hand, there is majority consent, which is known to be more realistic. In this case, the majority decides if the government stays in authority. However in 2013, the majority of the population did not even know of the NSA, and therefore consent couldn’t occur. There is a discussion that “we as a society have already given consent tacitly. ” In this case, the society must consider the benefits and advantages of safety and security they would receive from the government in order to replace their freedoms. The NSA has protected the United States from a lot of potential harm that could have been even worse. They often use the case of 9/11 in the argument of attacks prevented. Nevertheless, the information of these prevented attacks is kept as ‘classified’. Reveling policies, the NSA compromised the protection that will or could be provided to the American citizens. Therefore, it is said for the public’s best interest is to stay out of it as much as possible, especially when referring to exact procedures.


Consequentialism is the workable theory which relies heavily on the outcome and consequences that an action results in. The theory is also relatable to Utilitarianism, as Utilitarianism is a smaller sub example of Consequentialism, which reflects on consequences of majority parties involved in a case. We know that Snowden’s actions caused several major consequences that can lead to the discussion of whether they created more damage or benefit. The three major consequential points that we will discuss are: Snowden’s actions caused several consequences; the first being that he ultimately broke a very severe law which landed him a very harsh sentence leading to his flee from the United States. Another consequence of his actions is that he caused serious damage to national security thus from “whistle blowing. ” Snowden’s actions also led to the exposition of knowledge to public citizens that their rights were being disregarded and thus gave public citizens critical knowledge on what governments were up to. Analysing the case with Consequentialism, we find that there are multiple ways to look at the consequences of Snowden’s action with ideas that can justify it both rightfully and wrongfully. Furthermore, since it has been years after his actions, we can give a more accurate view on what his actions truly resulted in.

The first consequence is an obvious statement. Snowden broke the law by whistle blowing and thus landed himself in a serious situation with grave ramifications. The actions he took that led to this consequence are unjustifiable and there isn’t an avenue to be explored where he should be pardoned for what he did. The irreversible damages he did to national security is up for discussion as there are multiple ways to view this consequence. What he did, he did because he himself thought it was right to let the world know what was going on in his governing country. He may have caused damage to national security but in the end, governments are generally prepared for situations like these and can sustain damages from whistle blowers like Snowden.

We know that nothing else bad happened to the United States after Snowden’s actions with the absence of terrorism derived from Snowden’s actions being the biggest evidence of this. Finally, with the public now abreast of government operations, the world knows that their rights are being violated by the ones they place their trust and security in. This is one of the major consequences that can hold Snowden’s actions completely justifiable and morally correct. Looking back at Utilitarianism, as a sub category of Consequentialism, we know that the actions of Snowden resulted in the benefit of knowledge for the world as he had shed light on the wrong doings of citizen’s very own governments.

To conclude this workable theory, the situation completely depends on how people value their rights. Some may be willing to trade their rights for overall protection from their governments; whereas some believe that with government overlook and control they are safer from acts of terrorism and other attacks alike. Many view Snowden as a hero but many also view him as a traitor to his country with these opinions stemming from the consequences of his actions. KantianismLooking at Edward Snowden, through an Immanuel Kant perspective; we must first consider looking into Kant’s theory and Edward Snowden’s history. The ethical theory devised by Immanuel Kant is built on absolute wrong and absolute right. This model is called Kantianism which can be used to analyze many different cases. It can also be used in correlation with other ethical models. For example, one may use the Kantianism model to support contracted ethics (If one breaks the rules, one must face the consequences. . . etc. . . )

The Kantian view is built upon different factors, these factors are all philosophical and it must be stated that there is no real way (good or bad) to live life; however, to strive as a society these models must be enforced as it is collectively considered an ideal mindset to have “rational beings have dignity and should be respected”. Through this ethical model, we evaluate the decisions of Edward Snowden to achieve a proper unbiased result. After evaluating the case study from three different perspectives, including Snowden’s, General population and government’s perspectives, we can create a better understanding of the correctness or wrongfulness of the event.

From the government’s perspective, Edward Snowden has breached the confidentiality agreement with the NSA. This brings in an aspect of contracted ethics, which stems through Kantianism, that you are wrong for breaking agreements. This is due to the Kantian view that if one person is able to do it, than everyone should be able to do this. If everyone was able to breach a contract, it would undermine the purpose of an agreement making it ethically unjust. The purpose of the NSA is to help the government spy or gather information on people with the rationalisation that if it is for the greater good then it must be good. Due to this, by having the public’s best interests at heart the NSA can, through Kantianism and only to a certain extent, justify their actions. From the general population’s perspective, when the information by Snowden was provided to the public, everyone was outraged at the government. This was due to the fact that information had been withheld from the public.

In other words, people felt like they were lied to and massively deceived. In Kantianism, lying is considered an absolute wrong as if one person lies, everyone should be able to lie; making the government wrong to lie to the public about something that deeply affects their privacy. From Snowden’s perspective, he was faced with a dilemma where Kantianism no longer becomes a workable ethical model as Snowden is wrong in all lights. No matter what he did, he had to choose between lying to the public or keeping his agreement with his workplace and contracted ethics. The only thing he could have done was avoid a situation where he would have been forced to talk about the delicate topic. Other than the example provided, Edward Snowden was stuck in a moral trap through Kantianism where no matter what he did, due to the situation, he was wrong.


What are some of the ethical quandaries that plague your daily job?

Recently, there was a new iPhone launch. iPhone launches always cause a massive disruption to our business practices due to their high demand. Also, we were rolling out a new system at the time which we had, majoritively, tested and bug checked. There was a debate amongst those involved in the roll out as to whether we should use the new system to process the iPhone orders or if we should continue using the old, and quite frankly unreliable, system. We had a discussion in full detail about the implications of using it and not and in the end we chose to forego the roll out and push back its business inception to focus on servicing the current system requirements.

Personally, what side of the debate were you on?

Definitely the postponing side; although, I could see the benefits of the early launch and had confidence there wouldn’t be any issues. Then why did you vote against the implementation if you had confidence?It wasn’t the right thing to do at the time and it would have been a rash decision. Had we rolled out the new system, we would have had to have had a training course to train all our acquisition and retention staff on how to use the system correctly and effectively, all during a narrowing time frame. The final goal we were setting out to achieve was to replace our old system with a new, more reliable and efficient system to make all customer interactions quicker and more customers friendly. If we had rushed to implement a system that was not fully prepared and had staff use it use were not fully competent at using the system, then it would have caused nothing but problems for our staff, company and more importantly our customers would have been effected greatly.

What was the worst case scenario predicted?

The worst case scenario was that we would have to cease business practices during one of the biggest events of the year. We would have lost millions all because of a single decision. Yet, the other side of the decision with the best case scenario could have resulted in more sales, better customer call handling times and a better working environment for our staff.

What did happen with the old system during the launch?

Even after all our preparation the system, like we knew it would, failed and we were forced onto a back-up system, which involves recording customers’ details onto a spreadsheet, submitting the form into a general database where the orders are processed and then after close of business staff stay until 2am at the latest on overtime hours processing thousands of customer orders which were unable to be processed during the day. However, this was the reason that we invested in a new system and now with its near completed state, next year we will be fully prepared and ready.


The workable theories that have been reviewed give a clearer appreciativeness of each individual’s involvement and their views. With a Utilitarian theory in mind and balancing the scales of righteousness in favour of the government, they may have had their operation’s secrecy uncovered; yet, they received no loss in term of tangible assets as no complications transpired following the leak. From the view of Social Contract theory and the stigma of personal privacy confidence which was broken by the government, society did not welcome the news that they were under surveillance with open arms and quickly forgot the sacrifice they may need to make in order for the government to maintain their safety.

Consequentialism illustrates the absence of attack caused due to the leak. This means that the actions of Snowden did not cause an attack, or worse. However, it is also put forth that these results do not validate Snowden’s actions. Finally, Kantianism covers the fact that Snowden was placed in an impossible situation before he could make an ethical decision to maintain his integrity. Reviewing the different standpoints of each theory and party makes it clear that depending on which theory you use, it is possible to defend multiple avenues with a righteous conviction depending on how the theories are used, missed and bent. Whether Snowden was ethical or not it will be left up to the chosen theory.

13 January 2020
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