Ethics Theories of Intelligence for Media Practitioners

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Moral rights theory.

Moral rights are a political and ethics theory that is rooted in John Locke’s account of the law of nature in his Second Treatise on Government. That law, known as reason, dictates that individuals have the natural right to self-preservation. From this natural right all others flow, as does arguably the legitimacy of government and any supranational power, for example, the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights. Without a source of validation for such rights, human affairs would become a “state of nature” or war, according to Locke.

The oft-cited universality of moral rights upon which the right of a free press depends cannot exist without a source of validation. In other words, in a state of war of all against all, a free press doesn’t exist, because all are belligerents.

Yet, “while newspapers cannot appoint themselves as arbiters of national security,” writes Washington Post journalist Bart Gellman, “[p]olitical leaders…cannot be allowed to decide for us what we need to know about their performance,” Gellman opines. Gellman also notes: “In practice today, the flow of information is regulated by a process of struggle. The government tries to keep its secrets, and people like me try to find them out. Intermediaries, with a variety of motives, perform the arbitrage. No one effectively exerts coercive authority at the boundary.”

Gellman also argues that the government may possess “no private claim to secrecy; its secrets are held on our behalf.” One could argue, however, that the theory of sovereignty, however, rests in part on the “reason of state,” which may legitimate actions on behalf of the state that would be immoral for private individuals. In this manner, the “reason of state” may not be reduced to ordinary moral deliberation. This dilemma of state secrecy presents perennial issues and challenges to both security and consent of the governed.

Bellaby’s ethics of intelligence.

“Democratic theory and democratic accounts of justice underpin the sovereign authority assumed under Just War Theory,” write Michael Falgoust and Brian Roux. Under a “justice and fairness” theory of ethics, which influences Just War Theory and its principles, harm to the legitimate authority of democratic societies–which is the rule of law–must be weighed against individual moral rights claims.

In his Ethics of Intelligence: A New Framework, Ross Bellaby employs moral rights theory to articulate harm to the physical integrity, mental integrity, autonomy, liberty, amour-propre, and privacy of individuals and democratic societies by a government that is too aggressive or passive in its intelligence collection activities. Moral rights theory, as employed by Bellaby, is a natural fit for an ethics framework for the collection and dissemination of intelligence by media practitioners. Media professionals must weigh the benefits of their own collection and dissemination activities against harm that may befall themselves, their outlets, their sources, and the public interest including public safety and national security.

Yet, Bellaby also bases his ethics framework for intelligence practitioners in Just War Theory and principles that is, lawful authority, right intention, just cause, proportionality, discrimination, and last resort.

Most important to note, however, is unlike Bellaby’s intelligence practitioners, journalism does not exist in a special or exigent condition even when media professionals are covering military conflicts. Journalists are neither combatants, nor spies. They are civilian non-combatants undertaking a profession with a social context.

Perpetual war and perpetual peace.

So, how does society or the international community move from a war of all against all or a band of clever thieves to a more perfect state?

Immanuel Kant proposes that such a state of law or “perpetual peace” depends on human kinds intention to act in accordance with universal moral laws or categorical imperatives, which are “not merely hypothetical or with a view to certain circumstances,” as Pierre Hassner notes, but rather universal ethical duties– a theory that, like Locke and Hobbes before him, depends on human capacity to reason.

Kant’s “[d]uty [to the moral law] is nothing less than the practical necessity of acting according to the principle of reciprocity,” notes Hassner–a requirement of law and peace, upon which the protection of property and true liberty from the tyranny of nature depend. Progress towards the rule of law, peace, as well as the political and international community, for Kant, cannot be demonstrated by an “appeal to experience” of history, which evidences more often the opposite, note scholars of political philosophy. Instead, it must be willed to be by the ethical acts of rational agents, who intend to respect that others are ends in themselves.

Kant, therefore, considered spying and covert action or the instigation of treason in a hostile state as “infernal arts” that “once encouraged, cannot in the nature of things be stamped out and would be carried over into a state of peace and utterly destructive to it.” Spying and covert action are unethical, writes Kant, because they promote dishonesty.

Yet, intelligence activities have arguably ensured peace and prevented wars too. As previously discussed, secrecy or willful concealment and transparency both protect and destroy human beings and political communities. Without the power to control information or to self-preserve, human beings and societies would never be sane or free. Both are neutral and require moral choice. For example, some credited Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, who spied for the U.S. against the Soviet Union, with enabling President John F. Kennedy’s ability to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. That said, U.S. entry into World War II, Vietnam War, and the Iraq War, have also been cited as the results in part of intelligence failures.

Yet, like an 18th Century version of the publicly test of former Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, who stated that “the ethics of human intelligence activities…is whether those approving them feel they could defend their decision before the public if the actions became public”– Kant theorized that “[a]ll actions relating to the right of other [human beings] are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.”

Here Kant is referring to the normative standard of the rule of law itself. Reason, according to Kant’s moral and political philosophy, “establishes a priori precisely what has been called public diplomacy, which is the diplomacy of open covenants, openly arrived at,” notes Hassner citing the former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Publicity, for Kant, was the demonstration of the legitimacy of the law or the resolution of contentious issues by means of informed public consent.

For journalists, as self-designated acquirers and reporters of information in the public’s interest to know, Kant is a natural ally. Kant’s ethical theory prescribes a deontological code (duty) to tell the truth, do no harm, and respect others autonomy and inherent dignity. Perhaps more importantly, Kant defines the pathway to the formulation and preservation of society, the rule of law, and the ethics of professions with social roles that is, journalism ethics, because their process is arrived at socially and not in isolation or secrecy.

Duty to care.

As previously mentioned, sovereignty is based partly on the “reason of state,” which does not equate to ordinary moral deliberation that apply to individuals. In a critique of moral rights theory as the limit for intelligence practitioners, Jill Hernandez illuminates that “there are no actual deontic constraints [duty] on the consequential interests of the state in using extraordinary measures to procure intelligence of high national security value.” Presumably, the same rationale applies to organizations, like WikiLeaks, that employ cryptography to collect and publish secret or censored information beyond the bounds of legitimate authority.

Hernandez argues, however, that “the value of ethical caring functions as a morally necessary deontic [or ethically obligatory] check against the use of any-and-all means to gather intelligence and arguably, its dissemination.” This ethical limit on any and all means of collection, analysis, or dissemination of both secret intelligence or private information arises from the “epistemic indeterminacy” or the uncertainty of knowledge itself.

Moreover, it reflects a kind of Socratic yardstick not only towards one’s own ignorance about the most important things, but also regarding the required social role of philosophy itself. In this way, Hernandez theory or ethical care seems to combine the posture of Plato’s Socrates in the Crito, who upholds the laws and gods of Athens, even though he has been found guilty in the Apology of dishonoring both by his own curiosity and philosophical inquiry. For, philosophy needs the city or a society of friends to survive.

This ethical limit on the pursuit of truth and responsibility towards society, therefore, applies to both intelligence practitioners and journalists alike. In this respect, Hernandez’s theory acts as the theoretical bridge between Bellaby’s Just War Theory for intelligence practitioners, and civilian non-combatant journalists, who practice intelligence disciplines by collecting, analyzing, and disseminating secret intelligence or confidential information.

The “duty to care” approach is both agent-centered and consequentialist. For the moral agents, it already resides in an existing framework of relationships and social context familiar to both intelligence practitioners and to journalists. It does what moral rights theory does not (i.e. because the latter offers the misleading proposition that relationships and the social contract are entered into voluntarily), as Hernandez aptly notes.

By acknowledging epistemic indeterminacy (limits of human knowledge), Hernandez approach for the journalist or intelligence officer, offers a “code of ethics that is rigorous, demanding and unwavering in its demand for truth.” By admitting the limits on human knowledge and information, and therefore focusing on the care of one’s sources, subjects, and society, the journalist can also rigorously report on that which is in the public interest, while establishing and preserving free society.

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