I read this blog recently and felt that I might weigh in with an opinion. I don’t know what agenda the author has, or even if he has one. I only know the words he wrote, the ideas he expressed, and that he teaches philosophy at Northwestern.
I’m not interested in breaking his argument into pieces and agreeing or disagreeing. I’m not interested in changing minds with a rebuttal. I think I would simply like to opine and if my arguments resonant then all is good.
The first serious book that I read as a young adult was Walden. The whole issue of civil disobedience had a seductive quality that found a willing audience in the 1960s. I recommend Thoreau as foundational to many of the issues of whistle blowing, corporate lockstep, head-in-the-sand, and the mindless following of orders.
I must admit that fifty years later the only vivid imagery I have of the book is the battle between the two ant colonies. Stark writing about some gruesome realities. Something about a victorious ant walking about with a decapitated head on each antenna. Ugh!
The discourse on disobedience speaks to the true responsibility of being an effective citizen. To turn the cheek and follow an unethical path for the sake of civil unity, actually creates a cognitive dissonance that eats away at the ability to be a fair and right acting citizen. A classic!
So this website reviews the current crop of civil disobedient folks like Snowden, Manning and Schwarz. Are they heros, traitors, or just misguided souls? Clearly, in the minds of many, they are all of those labels, and a few more.
What do I think?
First, we are to be moral people, but in order to be effective we must be as consistent as possible. In the extreme, you can’t be a conscientious objector in the army, and then also have a position as a hit-man for the mob. I’m sure most people see the sense in this, this is an extreme example. Real life situations are far more subtle, but what is true is that consistency of thought is important. The famous argument is being against the killing of animals, but enjoying a good leather boot and a giant cheeseburger. Let someone else do the killing and tanning.
Now I have heard the arguments where people still hold that both positions could be true, but to me they sound contrived. Like making use of a cow that died a natural death. Really? Your lack of shoes is due to following a longlived cow?
There are vegetarians that only eat fruit because pulling out carrots from the ground causes thousands of tiny screams as the fibers break. In fact, there is a whole subset of fruitarians that only eat fruit that have fallen to the ground, instead of being picked. I’m wondering if it is allowed to shake the tree?
So back to the point, we are to be a moral people that hold to a consistent standard on a personal, as well as a cultural, basis. The cultural standard should be built on the consensus of the individual standards that make up the cultural. This does open a hole in the philosophical door. What if the majority of the individuals of particular culture believe in the eating of the hearts of conquered enemies? One would suspect that the cultural standard that is consistent is the agreement that heart eating is a good thing. And if a leader then independently decides that heart eating is bad, then it is the right of individuals to be a civil disobedient citizen and eat hearts. I had to reread this twice and I wrote it!
The real question is the definition of “moral”. The declaration of independence speaks of the innate, God given right to the pursuit of happiness. It isn’t a right given by Man, so it can’t be taken away by men. And if you don’t believe in God then what? Still, most atheists still believe in a moral standard that looks very similar to some religious standards, things like the Golden Rule, and others.
Again, we are to be a moral people with standards of morality that are consistent with the average morals of the citizens. If the individual strays from that standard but does not infringe upon the rights of the rest of our citizens then there is no need for disobedience. No harm, no foul.
If the civil standards begins to stray because of the impact of civil leadership, natural causes, or simple transitory fads, then there is an immediate need of civil disobedience. And the full power of the culture will be against the individual. There will be a price, it may not be fair, but fairness was never the issue. We can’t have leaders suddenly encouraging people to kill everyone who is left-handed. We can’t have a culture that demands that we grow tulips. We must stand and then face the consequences.
There are other circumstances that must be addressed. What about the soldier whistle-blower? Pfc Bradley Manning has recently been convicted to a life sentence for leaking information on a website. He states his motivation was the realization that the army was directly supporting a corrupt foreign government. The government was using army intel to suppress, jail, and possibly kill the government opposition in that country. It has to be obvious that he needed to report this to his chain of command. When the chain of command did nothing then Manning felt obligated to leak the information on the Internet.
The article I read addressed Manning as Chelsea because since his arrest he has made it known that he would like to have a sex change. To me this is a huge distraction from the point, and not relevant. The initially difficulty, and the leaking, occurred while he was Pfc Bradley Manning, important to note the military connection.
First, when signing the oath to be in the military service you are removing yourself from one way of life and entering another. It is not a social club, you no longer have rights under the US constitution, you are under the
Uniform Code of Military Justice. You can be executed for not following legal orders! It is not democratic or republican, it is a completely different system.
An order may be give to occupy a heavily fortified position. Even by conservative standards, there may be 40% casualties, killed or wounded. You don’t have the legal option to ‘opt out’ because you don’t like the odds, or that you have a better plan as a private first class. You may die or be maimed, but you will follow orders, or be arrested. And the kicker is that you could also be executed immediately upon courts martial. So, what if you are ordered to partake in a crime against humanity, or other illegal order? If you go ahead and follow an illegal order you can be arrested and possibly pay the highest price.
What soldiers are trained to do is to follow legal orders, and if there is something about the order that doesn’t seem right, you are expected to report this to your commanders, and then await further orders. It is not that you have pushed the responsibility to someone else. It will still feel the same way to you, but you have done what is required, and indeed, the only thing you can do as a soldier under command, you have made the report. You are not your own agent.
On the combat line during basic training, my drill Sargent approached me and said, “I bet you’re from California, I bet you are one of those peace freaks, one of those Make Love Not War people”. Then he got real close and whispered, ” I bet you have decided to shoot above the heads of the enemy as they charge up this hill. I bet you think that it is responding to a higher calling by letting them shoot you, instead of you shooting them. Yeah, I think you would rather die than kill. But you know, your buddy behind you wants to live, and go home to his wife after he has done his duty. And the same goes for your friends to the left and the right. Because you choose to follow your own personal code, there are generations that will not be born, hell, there might even be a battle lost, a war lost, and your entire family killed or enslaved because you plan to shoot to miss. Son, you are going to have to sacrifice your life by living, and then killing the enemy when they come at you. Can you do that?”
It doesn’t get any simpler than that. Soldiers live and die under different rules.
What about Snowden? He was a civilian contractor, working for the government. He signed an oath. Was he forced to do an illegal order? No he just felt that according to the information he saw things need to change. He reported it to his supervisors and they did nothing, so he took it upon himself to act. An oath is a heavy thing, not lightly given. You are not breaking the oath by reporting abuse, but taking things on your own responsibility is onerous. Particularly when you are unaware of all the consequences, saving thousands of dollars, but losing the lives of dozens? Nope, I think the civilian contractor has the option to quit and report the problem to a higher authority until someone in the chain listens, and then if that doesn’t work, walk away.
What about corporate workers that shield things from their boss, afraid for their positions if anyone complains. You must tell if the thing you see is illegal or dangerous to life and limb. You may be fired, but you could be fired for dozens of reasons. Unless you are under some contractual obligation, you must follow your ethical standard even in the face of being fired. The job will suck your soul if you don’t.
How is this any different than the first two examples? Because you are a free agent under your own personal standard. You have the choice to be disobedient, but there will be a consequence, and that is the price of your character.