Examining Edward Snowden's Behavior Through the Notion of Immanuel Kant on Ethics and Politics

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What Would Kant Do?

Edward Snowden made waves when he released classified documents from his job with the National Security Agency (NSA), to the media. His actions launched the ongoing debate over privacy into forefront of American political discourse, where it has remained since 2013. As the United States government has sought to indict Snowden, he has seen a massive swell of support world wide, creating a debate over the legality and morality of Snowden’s action. Though many forms of moral judgement have been imagined over time, Immanuel Kant’s ideas of morality and political action create a complex image of Snowden's behavior. If Kant had been alive to judge Snowden by his own standards he would inevitably disapprove, but only after examining him through several different lenses.

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By Kant’s standard Snowden’s actions were a product of good will, Kant’s source of morality. This standard being the Categorical Imperative. Kant’s thesis is, “I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” If Snowden did contemplate Kant’s ideas on morality while releasing the documents, he certainly would have found himself to be moral. He has sought no personal gain from releasing these documents, in fact putting himself in peril at the hands of the United States government, nor was Snowden influence or directed by some additional power or exterior form of judgement. He released them solely because he believed it to be the right thing to do, under the belief that anyone should have done the same thing. To this end, Edward Snowden acted autonomously, and his actions could not be construed as coming from any other source than goodwill. Additionally, Kant says, “The good is already present in the person who acts according to this representation, [good will] and such good need not be awaited merely from the effect.” By this reasoning Snowden’s actions were not only intentionally good, but inherently so. Kant reasons that because good is “already present” in actions taken as the result of good will, those actions are certainly moral. If Snowden is honest about not seeking the notoriety and fame he has received as a result of leaking NSA documents—and he truly did this because it was the right thing to do—then he was obviously moral by Kant’s categorical imperative alone.

While Kant’s most basic moral standards may be used to justify Edward Snowden’s actions, his political ideas complicate Kant’s theoretical opinion of the Snowden Incident. Politically, Kant goes beyond the Categorical Imperative and develops political theory on the assumption that people will act immorally by his own standard. This leads to the creation of moral actions by and in relation to the state rather than solely on an individual level. Kant writes,

“...if it is at least possible for that a people could agree to it, it is our duty to consider the law as just, even if the people is at present is in such a position or attitude of mind that it would probably refuse its consent if consulted. But this restriction obviously only applies to the judgement of the legislator, not that of the subject… Should the people not oppose the measure? The only possible answer is that they can do nothing but obey. For we are not concerned here with any happiness which the subject might expect to derive from the institutions or administrations of the commonwealth, but primarily with the rights which would thereby be secured for everyone.”

Here it is clearly developed that Kant would not stand for Edward Snowden’s actions. Kant views the state as an agency to create security within a society, decrying the any action that would compromise the security of the people as a whole. Any law compromising this security compromises the intentions of the state and any action which breaks a law that upholds this security is immoral. Though the United States is by no means actively seeking peace through peaceful means in a broader sense, the NSA itself is technically a peaceful way of attempting to create peace within American society. Everyone could accept the NSA’s practices is that it does not physically harm or intentionally impair anyone not intending to break some law of the United States. By Kant’s reasoning, because it is possible for the whole of the American public to accept the activities of the NSA, then it must be assumed that the NSA’s actions were just. As a citizen of the commonwealth in question (The United States), Edward Snowden had a duty to obey the law. Clearly, Snowden disobeyed these laws, and would have been immoral in Kant’s eyes after scrutiny under Kant’s ideas on political thought.

Through Kant’s moral gaze, Edward Snowden clearly acted morally in relation to himself and the Categorical Imperative. He did what he believed was the right thing for anyone to do within the context of his situation, obeying Kant’s Categorical Imperative. However, if any law created by the state must be taken to be moral so long as it is possible for everyone to agree to it, then Snowden failed to be moral. Snowden deliberately released classified documents because he personally disagreed with government policy created with the intention of creating peace and security for the American citizenry. According to Immanuel Kant’s ideas on both morality and political discourse, Edward Snowden’s actions were immoral, only because they compromised the security of his state.

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