The ethics of spying


A handshake, but in the background a silhouette of one person stabbing the other in the backA minor diversion in the disruption of Australia's relations with Indonesia has been the entanglement of political commentators. Many have wriggled on the hook of their conviction that international relations are an ethics free zone in which the only guiding star is national self interest. But that does not stop them from launching a raft of ethical judgments.

Many assert, for example, that because everyone spies on everyone else in their national self interest, it is all right for Australia to do so. And because everybody knows that everyone spies on everyone else, it is not all right for those spied upon to be upset. about it. But they admit that it may be in the national interest, and so all right, to profess anger when it becomes known that you are spied on.

Most assert that it would not be in the national interest, and so would be wrong, for government leaders caught out spying to admit it, to apologise, or to promise not to do it again. (Why apologising and promising would be wrong is a little puzzling. If international relations are an ethics free zone, it would surely be okay in the national interest to make an apology you don't mean and promises you don't intend to keep.)

Almost all commentators agree that it is all right for governments to conceal from their people and parliaments the fact that they are spying on them and on world leaders. This is in the national interest. But it is wrong, treacherous and roguish for people in the know, like Edward Snowden, to let other people know that the government is spying on them. This is not in the national interest. Just why Snowden can be blamed for not acting in the Australian national interest when he is from the United States and living in Russia is left unclear.

All this diverse moralising comment on an ethics free zone sounds gloriously muddled. But it is coherent if you assume that the security state and its disciples create and enforce its own ethics. That position is a little totalitarian, of course, and its weaknesses in practice can be seen in the current spying affair. So it is worth asking whether we might do better to name ethical principles on which international and national politics can rest. Ethics free zones are sown with landmines.

An ethical approach to spying, lying and handling secrets should begin by reflecting on communication. In order to flourish we need to communicate with other human beings to develop relationships, do business, form groups and develop our world. And effective communication depends on a level of trust between the conversation partners.

Lying erodes trust. When someone tells us things they know to be untrue or makes promises they have no intention to keep we do not trust them. When such behaviour is pervasive in society people withdraw from commerce and society suffers.

Our trust in others is also eroded if they do not trust us. In our business and personal relationships we have no difficulty with people being interested enough in us to learn more by talking about us with mutual friends or by googling and reading about us. But our relationship would end in acrimony if they hired a private detective, bugged our bedroom and rifled our wallet. It would certainly demand an apology. Spying, too, has its ethical boundaries. There is a great difference between listening to and putting together what we hear and see publicly, and tapping government leaders' private phones.

The trust and mutual respect that are essential for communication sometimes demand that we keep what we know and do secret. Sometimes they demand disclosure. If we respect people we do not disclose things they would rather keep hidden, provided that our secrecy does not risk hurt to others. In international relationships, too, negotiations between sworn enemies usually demand secrecy in their early stages. Premature disclosure will destroy the negotiations.

In relationships between the state and the people in a democratic society open and transparent communication is privileged over secrecy. Because the government rules for and represents the people, they must know in general terms what the government is doing in their name. So transparency is in the national interest.

When governments conceal such ethically questionable practices, which neither the people nor parliament have debated or approved, as surveillance of citizens and of foreign leaders, it is the right of a person who knows about these practices to disclose publicly to the people what is being done in their name. So governments should not attribute the harm that follows disclosure to the person who made public the information but to their own betrayal of the trust placed in them by the people.

The ethical conclusions I have reached are open to debate of course, but these ethical questions are ignored by politicians and governments at their peril. President SBY's response to the revelation that he and his wife had been bugged and to the refusal of an apology, after all, were those of a man who believed he had been doubly wronged as a human being. The restoration of relationships broken in this way will not come if other national leaders ask only what is in the national interest. They must also ask whether their initial action was ethically right, and what is the right human response to the person they have wronged.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Handshake image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Indonesia, Tony Abbott, spies, Edward Snowdon



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Existing comments

As Andrew states, lying erodes trust. Unfortunately, we all lie, we all do the wrong thing sometimes. And yet, often, relationships survive. If love is strong enough, if people want to work things out, a way will be found. Australia and Indonesia will, with time, rebuild. As for spying, I wouldn't be James Bond for quids.
Pam | 22 November 2013

Spying on the wife of the president of any country is criminally insane. Blaming whistle blowers for telling the truth is just insane.
Marilyn | 23 November 2013

I think Andrew's article is spot on. However, if "international relations are an ethics free zone in which the only guiding star is national self interest", I'm confused: we appear to have lost any chance of Indonesia helping us to "send back the boats"; the live beef trade had been put at risk. If we ignore the ethics of these two issues, how does the outcome serve our national self interest?
Simon Crase | 25 November 2013

I cannot agree with Dr Hamilton's opening statement. As I argue in a response to another of today's essays, I believe that Australian racism lies behind the government's expectation that Indonesia will comply with our wishes or requirements. But why should they; our insistence isn't enough unless there's another attitude lurking? And if the Indonesians recognise that truth -- and why wouldn't they -- that the situation of FAR more serious than "a minor diversion". It is all the more dangerous, I believe, in having a serious fault on our part finally made public. The image of "genii" and "bottles" comes immediately to mind.
John CARMODY | 25 November 2013

Pause before immersion into smoking room armchair espionage ethics [versus realpolitik]:
#By the astute ethical use of intelligence gathering and counterinteligence, the Vatican faced down naziism,as in 1942 The New York Times lionised, “This Christmas more than ever Pope Pius XII is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent. The pulpit whence he speaks is more than ever like the Rock on which the Church was founded, a tiny island lashed and surrounded by a sea of war"
#The same vatican astute use of intelligence and counter intelligence facilitated the Soviet downfall:
Gorbachev once said "The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II".[
#The Schwarze Kapelle (German for Black Orchestra) was a term used by the Gestapo to refer to a group of conspirators within the German military who plotted to overthrow Adolf Hitler. It included many senior officers within the Wehrmacht. [and. en passent, the overt support of pius xii in ethical conspiracy against a dictator.]
Father John George | 25 November 2013

"The truth shall set you free." Often times Tony Abbott prefers posturing as expected of a politician and leader of his party. Sad that he cannot be a statesman and rise above politics. Did he know that Australia had spied (and still spying) on Indonesia when he was there recently? From observations, it appears that Tony Abbott does not have the skills and knowledge for foreign policy. I wish he could speak with more authority and conviction rather than be a stuttering politician and drags out his responses. Tony Abbott is all about posturing and lacking in substance and respect human rights and values.
Jan | 25 November 2013

Spying on a known and proved enemy threatening to wreak havoc on a country is sensible, necessary and perhaps obligatory on a responsible government. However, to spy on a friendly neighbour behind the extended hand of friendship is a deceitful lie and, by definition, unethical. Tony Abbott, within days of becoming prime minister made perhaps the most significant advance in the Australia/Indonesia relationship that we have seen to date (acknowledged soon thereafter in ES by a regular contibuting writer). How sad to see that he now has to wear the flak that has arisen through the wanton disregard for this country shown by the ABC and The Guardian in their release of information in their possession, according to their own admission, well before Abbott's appointment. If this matter is to be the subject of a critique on unethical, nationally damaging behaviour, ES need look no farther afield than the ABC, the Guardian, the ALP and the Gillard/Rudd debacle for meaningful commentary. Indonesia deserves an apology and this should come not from Abbott but, at his insistence and that of the Australian people, from the above mentioned conglomerate of bastardry.
john frawley | 25 November 2013

I know I'd feel quite outraged if I found out that my 'phone has been 'bugged'. And I can well understand how President SBY must feel to discover that others have been listening in to conversations over his 'phone and his wife's.
fred | 25 November 2013

call me naive, but I still go by the dictum that 'a gentleman does not read other people's mail.'
And also Cardinal Newman's definition of a gentleman as one who does not cause another person pain.
Walter P Komarnicki | 25 November 2013

Not all countries engage in electronic espionage. True, many can bug individual phones or hack particular computers. None outside the so called Five Eyes club (the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) can achieve the vast extent and intrusive depth of its bulk collection activities. Those who sneer at the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s for being naïve in claiming she felt a violation of trust after revelations the US had monitored her mobile phone, ignore her experience of growing up under the East German government’s oppressive spying network. The Five Eyes’ state surveillance system, if misused, would surpass anything East Germany did.
brian toohey | 25 November 2013

If Indonesia is hard to get on with, we could retaliate by withdrawing our (immoral) recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua. The Papuans never wanted it, the only justification for it is the fact that Indonesia and West Papua were lumped together as the Dutch East Indies. As long as the Indonesians rule WP they are still under colonialism. It is cruel for a people for whom pigs are an important part of their economy and culture to be ruled by Moslems who regard pigs as unclean and those who value them as not worthy of respect.
Gavan Breen | 25 November 2013

Meanwhile back in realpolitik: "INDONESIA'S military intelligence agency is using sophisticated Chinese surveillance equipment to target Australian officials, companies and individuals. And Jakarta and Beijing are conducting a growing number of combined spying operations against Australia, according to well-placed sources"[]
Father John George | 26 November 2013


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