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Wikileaks' problematic moral justification


War Logs, WikileaksThe recent release of documents by Wikileaks on the Iraq war has renewed questions about the ethics of the enterprise.

Wikileaks routinely publishes documents that governments and corporations regard as confidential. The spontaneous responses to Wikileaks are either bolshie pleasure at seeing the powerful embarrassed or serious concern that authority is being flouted. I own to the first. But like any initial response, this is unreliable and needs to be tested.

Two clearly opposed responses to any issue usually suggest that rights are in conflict. That is true also in this case. First, governments need a measure of confidentiality in order to do their work. Much government business demands building relationships and gathering information. In making peace, for example, governments will need to speak secretly with their enemies. They can only do this if the communication remains secret on both sides and respects the safety of the parties to the conversation.

Governments also need people to volunteer the information on which good policy can be based. This can only happen if the government guarantees confidentiality.

On the other hand, citizens also need to be adequately informed of their governments' actions and their consequences. Governments are responsible to their people, who in turn must own their government's actions. So the people must be given an accurate account of what they are asked to own.

These conflicting abstract considerations must be set within the broader context of the ways in which particular governments relate towards their people. Generally modern governments try to portray in a favourable light their policies and their implementation. They do this by concealing unfavourable aspects and by controlling access to information.

In military campaigns like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, they offer simplistic accounts of the reasons for going to war, underestimate the number of people who are killed, injured and otherwise harmed by the war, and exaggerate the differences between the way in which they and their allied forces conduct the war and the way in which the enemy forces behave.

So their citizens receive a sanitised version of the damage done to people, a simplistic and over-optimistic account of its likely result, and a representation of the war as between goodies and baddies. They have no opportunity to take responsibility for the complex reality of the action.

This is the context in which ethical discussion of Wikileaks should be set. The widespread practice of concealment and spin by Government offers a prima facie justification for bringing into the public realm information that offers a broader or more concrete understanding of the Iraq invasion and of the military action in Afganistan. It offers a picture of the messy reality of war and of the human suffering that participants in war cause and tolerate. This is the reality that the people in combatant nations must own.

Whether Wikileaks is justified in leaking material that can endanger lives is a more complex question. It is made more complex by the fact that the charge of endangering lives forms part of governments' attempt to discredit Wikileaks. It should not be accepted (or rejected) uncritically.

It has been argued that even if the leaks do endanger the lives of some allied soldiers and people who have helped them, even more lives have been lost because governments have concealed the reality of the war. This utilitarian argument is crude. It would also undermine Wikileaks' claim to be ethically superior to governments in its handling of information.

In assessing whether it would be right to publish leaked documents despite the risk they posed to human lives, it might be relevant to distinguish between the lives of combatants and those of civilians. A generalised risk to soldiers' lives that arose from the disclosure of military procedures would be different from the risk to the lives of specific civilians who could be targeted after disclosure. Whereas the former have the resources and training to defend themselves against threat, the latter do not.

It might also be important to ask why people will be put at risk. If they are directly and personally put at risk by the fact of being named, that would seem to be unacceptable. If people are put at risk indirectly by the anger that follows the disclosure, say, of brutal and disrespectful interrogation techniques, those responsible for the abuse and not those reporting it would bear primary responsibility for the risk. 

So a favourable ethical judgment on Wikileaks seems to depend first on the judgment that governments are not discharging their duty to inform its citizens of the reality and consequences of their policies, and second, on the judgment that Wikileaks has handled properly the risk that disclosure involves for human lives. At a minimum, documents which could disclose the names of non-combatant individuals should be edited to prevent disclosure. Disclosure would be ethical only if both conditions were satisfied. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Wikileaks, Iraq war log



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Existing comments

I take issue with one statement: "...citizens also need to be adequately informed of their governments' actions ..." That does not come from the original Greek idea of rule by an elite.

Truth is that the majority of people are stupid (as defined, say, by the three Rs), lazy and self-centred (cf North Adelaide, Murray Darling, turn-back-the-boats). Such people do not deserve to be consulted about public policy.

The counter, of course, is that this leaves the field open for Bush/Chaney, Howard/Reith and those who react to loud shouting or whispered entreaties.

Frank | 28 October 2010  

A beautifully structured presentation of the moral complexities of the issue, Andrew. This is casuistry in the true sense of the word, clear and enlightening.

Joe Castley | 28 October 2010  

The moral responsibility lies squarely with the US military for failing to use pseudonyms for the names of its informants in any written communications. This is standard practice among intelligence agencies to protect the identity of sources. This precaution protects names (and locations) even if encrypted material in decoded.

b toohey | 28 October 2010  

The core issue is the morality of war - willfully and methodically taking lives to achieve advantage. The state authorizing an individual to kill is essentially an individuals moral/ethical choice to accept such authority. Utah Phillips described it as surrendering moral autonomy to political authority.

If you do not accept the concept of political authority, the right to define morality or force decisions and actions according to another's perception of morals/ethics, then you base your decisions on your own sense of morals and accept the consequences of decisions based on those morals. In accepting agency in your own life you hope to learn and grow, missing the mark less often as the years pass.
In this regard wikileaks is important in a world obsessed with controlling and editing information. If people are forced to confront the reality of war, assess the impact on other people and then ask themselves if they are achieving the advantage they seek, the opportunity for gnosis is created.
Julian Assange describes it as being our world, we have a right to know what we are doing through the mechanism of government.

Governments have assumed too much, deliberately deceiving and obscuring so much of what they do. The context that gives rise to need for a group like wikileaks needs to be examined before an ethical judgment is made of their actions.

Jonah Bones | 28 October 2010  

No Australian can stand on any moral high ground on the issue. The pope, our earthly representative of the Prince of peace made a micro effort to remind us of the ill justification of that war. Secular priorities, which require only maths, overshadowed the sacred ones by a country mile.

ken mckay | 28 October 2010  

Ah, cogent, nuanced opinion! Thank you again, Andrew. Ad multos annos!!

Patrick Jurd | 29 October 2010  

The files are about slaughter, we need to know the truth, full stop. The notion that the plebs knowing the truth and people maybe getting justice is bad, is a sick joke.

Marilyn Shepherd | 30 October 2010  

Interesting that Andrew chooses to write on the 'ethics' of disclosing state secrets where those secrets impact on the colonization of an entire nation yet has nothing to say about the process of subjugation - systematic suppression of towns, bombing people, people Andrew, in their homes, offices, as they shop for bananas, etc. And so the subsequent discussion.

To even think that you can mount a case for hiding this information from citizens speaks volumes for the nature of white middle class 'ethics'. Truly the product of the idle chattering class...

bobo | 04 November 2010