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Nothing Wrong

Entry 1551, on 2013-07-15 at 21:30:31 (Rating 4, News)

In a recent press conference in Russia Edward Snowden (the American whistleblower who leaked information about American spying activities and has been running from authorities since) told the world that he has done nothing wrong. And yet officials from the US, and a lot of the world's governments, have refused to help him because they believe he has. So has he or has he not done anything wrong?

The problem with this question is that it has an implied initial assumption: that there is an absolute right or wrong. In reality right and wrong always depend on the person's perspective and the exact details of the situation under consideration. So both Snowden and the US authorities pursuing him have no real justification in saying they are right.

Maybe the US has some technical legal entitlement to hold Snowden to account for his actions. And maybe Snowden can reasonably claim to have taken the most moral action according to what the majority of people would see as being the right thing in the circumstances. So they are both right and both wrong... according to how you interpret the facts and what you priorities might be.

Often it is assumed that breaking a law (as Snowden has allegedly done) automatically makes the person wrong, and in most cases this is true. Most laws are reasonable and genuinely designed to try to make society safer, but just assuming that what is legal is also right is a dangerous thing. Laws are ultimately created by politicians and few people have high regard for them, so why should we have high regard for the laws they create?

I'm not saying that we can ignore laws and still claim that have done the right thing, because as I said, most laws are fair. But every situation is different and I think there are situations where it is OK to break almost any law, even laws involving serious actions like murder and treason. And I think Snowden has done the right thing by (allegedly) breaking a law. And according to polls, the majority of people agree.

So if anyone makes a claim involving right or wrong, instead of just accepting the claim at face value we should look at the justification for that claim. And even if someone has broken a law we should never assume what they have done is wrong because there is always the question about whether the law itself is right.

Of course, there is a danger that unscrupulous people could use my cynicism about laws as an excuse to break them, simply for their own benefit. I don't want anarchy, but I don't want excessive state control through laws (either designed for that purpose or manipulated by those in power) either. I guess every example should be looked at on a case by case basis.

In the case of Snowden I think he really has done nothing wrong from my perspective (and, as I said above, the majority of people agree) but from the perspective of those in power who he has embarrassed, he of course has done wrong. But they're wrong (according to me). As I said, it's all relative!

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Comment 4 (3594) by OJB on 2013-07-16 at 13:44:57: (view earlier comments)

I can't see why breaking an oath should have any particular significance. If you needed to make an oath in order to find out what malicious activity an organisation is involved in then I think it's OK to break it in order to reveal that activity to the public.

Given the history of public trials in the US, who would trust the legal system? Also, he might have technically broken a law while still taking the moral action. The legal system is interested in what's legal, not what's moral. How can you trust the legal system when the law itself is wrong?

As far as I know he hasn't released any information which would be genuinely damaging to the people of his county, just stuff which is embarrassing to the politicians. I can't see what's wrong with that: they shouldn't be doing things that the people who elected them would disagree with.

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Comment 5 (3595) by GadgetDon on 2013-07-16 at 14:03:40:

If you consider the breaking of an oath to be of no particular significance, we'll never agree. And he didn't "technically break a law". Certain people are entrusted with secrets that, if revealed, can get people killed. Snowden is one of them. And while the secrets he's released publicly may not fall into that category, his descriptions of other data he has taken with him would fall into that category - and even if he's not revealing it in exchange for protection, he's moved them from their places of protection into a place far easier to get.

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Comment 6 (3596) by OJB on 2013-07-16 at 15:41:57:

I think we would agree that oaths shouldn't be broken without good reason. The point I wanted to make was why that aspect of the story should be particularly important. And the question is, of course, did the situation make breaking the oath, and his other actions, justifiable?

Many people think it did, whether it broke a law or not, and that group would include me and the majority of people in the US (according to a recent survey). So clearly Americans think that the facts being made public outweighs any other possible consequences.

I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that I also support many (but not all) actions of activist groups, such as Anonymous and Wikileaks. I just think we need some balance of power. The government, military, corporations, etc have too much and people like Snowden, Assange, etc, are the only way we can try to control them.

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Comment 7 (3598) by Jim on 2013-07-17 at 23:15:52:

You seem to be confused about whether you want anarchy or not. You don't want anarchy but you think it's OK to break any law. Does this make sense to you?

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Comment 8 (3600) by OJB on 2013-07-18 at 09:38:24:

I do want laws and I know that in most cases they work OK. But I don't want laws to get in the way of doing what's right. I also think laws tend to favour the rich and powerful against the majority. I agree there's no good way to establish when breaking a law is OK. That is the weakness in my ideas on this subject - I need to work on that aspect!

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