Friday, May 21, 2010

Conflict of Values: Traitor, Patriot or Scoundrel?

Some things we learn early in childhood. Tell the truth. Keep your word. Don't betray your friends. Don't tell secrets. Sometimes we struggled with telling the truth over a broken window or whether to tell on our brother for some misdeed. For a child, morality is simple and straight-forward.


Then we grew up and moral values such as loyalty and truth, integrity and honesty, reliability and patriotism, became a lot more complicated. It is not always clear that keeping secrets, or loyalty to a friend or an employer, is the right thing to do. It is no longer obvious that keeping silent about a friend's crime or misconduct, or a government official's duplicity or conflict of interest, or a corporation's reckless endangerment, fraud or betrayal of our national values should be protected out of loyalty.

Most people respect the values of honesty, integrity, loyalty, reliability and patriotism. The issue for the ethically mature person is that values are often in conflict in real world situations and we have to work our way through the conflicts to reach the position that best reflects our core moral values. The conflict of these values creates much of the tension surrounding arguments over the right thing to do in particular situations.

That point should be obvious, but it is lost in most discussions amidst loud and angry arguments in which the combatants fail to see the moral complexity of the underlying issues and consequently question the integrity or judgment of the other side. This came clearly into focus for me yesterday when I read an article in the Washington Post about the controversy generated by WikiLeaks, a website on which leaked corporate and government documents are posted anonymously by concerned citizens who are either patriots or traitors depending on your values.

One recent disclosure in particular generated a lot of press coverage—a video from the cockpit gun camera on a US military Apache gunship in Iraq that fired into a group of civilians, killing 12 to 15 Iraqis including two reporters for Reuters and wounding several children. The video seems to show a different version of events than the account released by the Pentagon following the shooting. The point here is not to discuss that event or whether the US covered up an embarrassing incident, but rather the issues related to the fact that WikiLeaks posted the video, which the Defense Department considered “classified” information. Critics of WikiLeaks (mostly in the government) were furious about the leak. Some supporters of the Pentagon went so far as to call releasing the video to the public an act of treason and suggested the CIA shut it down by “black ops” if necessary. Proponents of truth and government in the sunshine lavished praise on WikiLeaks for its patriotic courage in upholding our national values of truth and honor and keeping the public informed about events that the government wanted to conceal.

Moving past the hysterics, the release of that footage was certainly not "treason" (which requires intent to harm the country) and clearly no harm to the nation was intended or resulted. To the contrary, the intent was to tell the truth about the event. The video was embarrassing and made more so by the Pentagon's attempt to cover up what happened, but no information was released about any vital national interest and the security of the country was not harmed. Some idiot will of course argue that anything that puts the US in an embarrassing situation could lead to spiteful acts of revenge, but that does not come close to the concept of treason. It is hard to make a convincing argument that preventing embarrassment is sufficient grounds to justify a coverup, or to classify information “top secret,” or to pursue those who leak information as if they had done something disloyal. The controversy here is between those who believe that preserving government secrets is more important than disclosure, against those who believe that the real patriotic duty lies in protecting and preserving the honor of the US by telling the truth whether or not it is embarrassing to government officials.

Our government at all levels, Federal, state and local, has a bias toward secrecy and a desire to keep actions of government officials behind closed doors and in locked file cabinets. Attempts to create laws to compel “government in the sunshine” and to provide for “freedom of information” are fought by bureaucrats and legislators. Releasing information to the public that some bureaucrat doesn't want released is treated as disloyalty and grounds for termination of employment or prosecution for violating disclosure laws. The same is true in corporate America. Corporations conceal vital information that the public needs to know, whether that is safety information or evidence of fraud or contract irregularities involving public funds. The government bureaucrat and the corporate executive attack employees who release information to the public with accusations of disloyalty or of bad motives.

An example of corporate attempts to conceal damaging information from the public occurred while I was writing this article. A CBS news crew attempted to film oil spill damage on a Louisiana beach when they were approached by a boat operated by BP contractors with two Coast Guard officers on board who refused to let them film oil on the beach and ordered them to leave the area under threat of arrest. The Coast Guard said those were BP rules, not theirs. [We will not get into the issue of how BP, a private corporation, can issue rules that prohibit a news crew from filming on a public beach, with enforcement of corporate rules by the Coast Guard. We wish that CBS had pressed the issue to see if the Coast Guard would attempt an arrest on behalf of BP.]

The ethical issue faced now by CBS is whether its journalistic integrity requires making an issue of the public's “right to know” and its right to film oil damage on a public beach at the risk of angering BP and losing access to information, or whether CBS will quietly let BP get away with using government intimidation to conceal damaging information and thereby preserve its access to whatever news BP is willing to let CBS cover.

There are only three types of information that should not be released to the public: [a] information that would jeopardize specific operations and methods in national security or law enforcement activities, [b] legitimate commercial trade secrets of corporations, and [c] personal information about individuals where that information may be damaging with no redeeming public interest at stake. Most everything else that governments and corporations try to protect are things they don't want the public to know about, and that is why we need WikiLeaks and other media outlets, why we must protect the press' right to publish, why we must ensure the public nature of government activities, why we must insist that government operate under the disinfecting qualities of sunshine, and why we must vigilantly guard against government interference in the public's right to know.

This essay is not about WikiLeaks, at least not directly. It is about the conflict of moral and ethical values that we face daily and a reminder that we need to be careful that we do not get so concerned about one value that we forgot other values that may be in play in any given situation. Our argument with someone else may result from the other party ranking values differently than we do in a particular context. That does not necessarily make them wrong and us right. An argument that one person sees as an issue of loyalty to country may be seen by another as an issue of integrity, and the disagreement arises because the parties rank these issues in different priority order in a given situation, or are not contemplating that there is one than one value in play.

Loyalty, integrity, honor and truth are often competing values in the real situations we face daily. Our job, as ethical human beings, is to work our way through the values that are in conflict in any given situation and make the best judgment we can about what our duty is in that context.

For a broader discussion of ethics and duty, in the context of a Humanist and a Christian, see this discussion.

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