Moral Dilemma

It seems to me…

“The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher plain.”  ~ George McGovern.

There shouldn’t be any doubt that anyone, regardless of motivation, who publicly releases information a nation considers vital to its security without permission is guilty of a crime and should expect the maximum punishment permitted under the laws of that nation.  This is not judgmental of the merits of that release or as to whether it was warranted or not.  A government enacts policies in the belief, right or wrong, that it is acting in the best interests of that nation.  The citizens of that nation have the responsibility to judge whether the information to which they now have access was sufficiently worthwhile to demand changes in national policies.  Regardless of how beneficial release of information is later determined to have been, the person who released it remains guilt of having broken the law.

We accept employment agreeing to not release any sensitive information to which we have access.  No one is coerced into accepting that agreement.  If we learn something while in that employment with which we have a basic difference in belief, we then are forced to accept the moral dilemma of terminating our role in the enactment of that policy or action or challenging it in the hope that it can be changed.  Those choosing to release national security-related information without authorization must accept that historically anyone attempting to challenge that system invariably eventually will lose and face life in prison.  While there are situations in which release of that information might be the only remaining alternative, it never is advisable to bet against the house – the house almost always wins.  That is the nature of this type of moral dilemma.

Knowing this, those facing this dilemma and making the decision to challenge it normally are idealists acting with moral conviction in the belief of individual sovereignty and freedom from tyranny.  In their idealistic beliefs, they see themselves as acting in the interests of their country; as fighting for what they believe to be imperatively correct and necessary.  While there is some precedence in considering their actions to be that of whistle-blowers, this rarely is the outcome of legal judgment.

Apparently many people, at least in the latest case of government surveillance, agree.  In a recent survey, 63 percent of those responding indicated they were concerned the government will misuse information collected to “snoop” into people’s personal lives[i].

Some people, either in ignorance or ideological arrogance, choose to label those who release material related to national security as traitors.  While those choosing to release that information should not be considered patriots, anyone motivated by strong convictions and what they consider to be the best interests of their country definitely are not traitors.  They have betrayed trust or confidence extended to them but they have not conspired or attempted to overthrow their government or to harm or kill its sovereign.  They most frequently are acting in response to a strong moral imperative of belief in their country and the desire to change what they do not believe represents the principles and ideals to which they expect their country to aspire.

Release of this type of information has previously occurred relatively frequently.  An important constitutional precedent was established by judicial rulings regarding release of the so-called Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg in February 1971[ii] proving four administrations of Presidents, from Truman to Johnson, had intentionally misled the public.  While the case against Ellsberg eventually was dismissed, the Supreme Court decision did not void the Espionage Act or give the press unlimited freedom to publish classified documents.

In the late 1960 – early 1970s, many young men of draft age opposed to the Vietnam War refused involuntary conscription preferring either temporary residence in Canada or imprisonment.  Others participated in antiwar demonstrations accepting the probability of jail, tear gas, and use of excessive force by police.  Though I was an honorably discharge veteran, we were cursed at, spit upon, subjected to intimidation, and physically assaulted.  All of this was motivated by a love of country and the belief it was not adhering to the moral principles which we expected.  We honestly believed we could change our nation for the better and return to the righteousness, trustworthiness, and morality to which we aspired.  History has proven we were not successful.

I will neither condemn nor condone what has been done.  That is a decision everyone must make for themselves.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[i] Scherer, Michael.  The Geeks Who Leak, Time, 24 June 2013, pp22-29.

[ii] Pentagon Papers, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentagon_Papers.

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About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Daniel Ellsberg, Dilemma, Government, Idealism, Moral, National, Patriot, Pentagon Papers, Security, Surveillance, Traitor, Vietnam, War, Whistle-blower and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Moral Dilemma

  1. auntyuta says:

    You are right in calling it a Moral Dilemma. Thanks for this very thought provoking blog which gives a lot of explanations. I think laws can’t always cover everything. There are a lot of grey areas..A lot of wars for instance are unjust. But if your government is determined to go into war and the majority of the population is not willing to protest against it, what can the objectors achieve?

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  3. Addison says:

    Iran developed a chemical weapons capability and announced it on national radio.

    • lewbornmann says:

      There is no confirmed evidence that Iran has developed a chemical warfare (CW) capability. Iran is one of the few countries in the world that has encountered CW when Iranian troops and civilians suffered tens of thousands of casualties from Iraqi chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988. As a result of this experience, Iran has strongly opposed the use and possession of chemical weapons.

      Iran ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997 and none of the allegations made regarding the stockpiling of CW agents have been verified. Various U.S. intelligence assessments currently suggest that while Iran may have dual-use chemical capabilities, it is uncertain whether the country has actively developed a CW stockpile.

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  5. silver price says:

    There was a considerable backlash in the journalistic community against Martin-Clark’s decision to betray his source. John Coulter of the Irish Daily Star argued, “the fundamental ethical principle of journalism is that we have a moral imperative to give a guarantee of anonymity to genuine confidential sources providing bona fide information.” (2005) However, as journalist and academic Michael Foley pointed out, determining the veracity of an anonymous source is often difficult, and perhaps journalists should adopt a general policy of using anonymous sources as sparingly as possible. He suggests that journalists ask themselves, “Are my actions or decisions likely to increase the trust between me and my readers, viewers, or listeners?” (2004, “Absolutism and the Confidential Controversy”) Views from all points on the spectrum from confidentiality as an absolute duty to a strictly utilitarian viewpoint abound, highlighting the ambiguity of this type of ethical dilemma.

    • lewbornmann says:

      Agree. Anonymous sources does present a journalistic dilemma. There however is a slight conundrum in that sources upon which journalists frequently depend speak only with the condition of anonymity though the journalist obviously is able to determine veracity. The journalist is then placed in the position of protecting that source from disclosure when threatened with prosecution.

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