The Banality of Systemic Evil – The Stone

Are leakers/whistleblowers such as Snowden, Hammond, Swartz, and Manning heroes or traitors?  The NYT Philosophy blog weighs in with John Bolton, former US Amb to the UN and David Brooks, Op Ed columnist on the other side of the table.  Citing the lessons of Hannah Arendt and “systemic evil”, Peter Ludlow asks the hard questions.

A good illustration of this phenomenon appears in “Moral Mazes,” a book by the sociologist Robert Jackall that explored the ethics of decision making within several corporate bureaucracies. In it, Jackall made several observations that dovetailed with those of Arendt. The mid-level managers that he spoke with were not “evil” people in their everyday lives, but in the context of their jobs, they had a separate moral code altogether, what Jackall calls the “fundamental rules of corporate life”:

(1) You never go around your boss. (2) You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. (3) If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as a boss. (5) Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do your job and you keep your mouth shut.

Jackall went through case after case in which managers violated this code and were drummed out of a business (for example, for reporting wrongdoing in the cleanup at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant).

via The Banality of Systemic Evil –


7 thoughts on “The Banality of Systemic Evil – The Stone”

  1. This is one of the best arguments I’ve heard in favor of whistleblowing that I’ve yet heard. One of the common arguments I’ve heard against Snowden is that he ignored the procedures given to agency members to protest actions or policies that he feels are against his own moral code. However; I personally understand why whistleblowers feel such a need to get “outside” the system. Having worked for a company that systemically worked against the best interests of the customer by providing misinformation and then making it very difficult for customers to cancel their contracts, it’s hard to see how an individual’s complaints could cause any change from within the system. When an organization’s abuses become systemic individuals are left with a “take it or leave it” attitude from their supervisors, and it can become very frustrating.

    Yes; on a practical level, Snowden’s leaks have caused a lot of damage to the U.S. image abroad. That betrayal is felt deeply by those in the defence community, and their united front against a lone whistle blower has allowed them to successfully label him a traitor in the main stream media. However, Snowden is also representing a constituency often overlooked in the intelligence community; the society they represent. How often it is that intelligence agencies feel that the ends justify the means as long as their means remain secret! I believe it is healthy for the system as a whole to deal with these breaches so that the people may have at least a glimpse into what their government is doing in their behalf. Whistle-blowers are the only way the public can hold accountable our security agencies; and until that situation changes whistle-blowers will continue to emerge.

  2. Honestly, individuals who leak information like Snowden are more traitors than heroes. I find that they have a lack of respect for their country by not working within the system that they promised to work in. I also believe that as individuals, our views can be quite limited and that we can’t see the the big picture when it comes to why we know or do not know some actions of the government as citizens. Not to mention that it is the press’ responsibility to hold accountable all aspects of our government responsible, not individuals who are looking to be displayed as heroes by destroying our country’s credibility and endangering national security.

  3. I mostly agree with Cassidy here. These whistle blowers have caused a lot of damage for what is ultimately no good reason, mostly. However we do need to look at the situations individually , with motives in mind, before declaring people heroes and traitors.

    If I remember right, Swartz was releasing articles that were largely funded by the NIH, which means that they probably should have been released for free to the public. Not only that, but the public could actually use and benefit from open access to academic articles. So I say in all he is not a traitor, though his “martyrdom” should not be worshiped as it seems some people do. Also, Swartz really shouldn’t be discussed with these others as his leaking is related to the academic/private sphere, not the intelligence/public sphere.

    I don’t know enough about Hammond to make an educated comment about his leaking.

    Manning seemed to have had the right intentions, at least for the leaking of the war crimes videos, but the diplomatic cables leak really only hurt people (namely US contacts) while doing nothing for the American public. So my verdit is person turned traitor, possibly because of hubris.

    Speaking of hubris, that seems to be Snowden’s primary motivation, that he is knows better and is more morally correct than everyone else. Which is wrong. His leaks have severly hurt not just the US’s image (not as much as it may seem since a lot of countries were already in on these secrets, such as the very “anti-NSA” Germany for instance) but more importantly have hurt intelligence operations, that do in fact protect citizens and not just ones from the US. He is definitely the most traitorous of the lot.

    To cap this all off, the code is there for a reason, especially when it comes to security. We may idealize people for being rebellious, but deep understanding of context is needed before we hail these people as heroes. Just because it doesn’t seem right on first glance doesn’t mean it in the long run it isn’t.

  4. Snowden did what he felt was right. He decider to break the norms and paradigms. Many called him a traitor of his own nation for jumping out of the box and taking a controversial decision. Loyalty is a principle of honor. But to whom should he owe his loyalty? Who speaks for the country anyways? Democracy can’t happen in its fullness because of population size. It would be unthinkable to have everyone voting and participating in every decision the nation has to make. That’s why we have representatives that take those decisions for us. However, it is part of our rights and responsibilities as citizens to stand and act for what we believe. Only a small share of the population knew about the government’s programs. Snowden happened to be one of them and decided to do something about it. It was not a matter of he “knowing more than everyone else”, but simply of acting on the feelings that many had shared but were too scared to do something about.

  5. I am going to take a “depends” approach on this issue because that is how this works it simply depends on the information that was leaked, why it was leaked, and who had access to that information. Overall though, the leaks of the NSA archives seem more like a jeopardize for this agency rather than national security. It is good that the public finds out what the government is doing, this country was not founded with totalitarian principles. If you look around today, ever since 9/11 the government has taken extensive measures towards “increasing our security”, mostly internal security. Now security agencies have been granted access to people’s privacy. They have created “lists” of potential terrorists in which innocent people have been included. They listen to our phone calls, look at our internet history, set vigilance cameras, and other things that invade our privacy. Therefore, leaking information or simply leaking what these agencies are doing, give power or at least the option to the public to protest or not against these acts. After all, I thought we lived in democracy.

  6. As the original article points out; if the whistle-blowers believed that their voices would be heard by reporting to their superiors, they likely wouldn’t blow the public whistle in the first place. Whistle-blowers don’t blow because of “hubris”. I can’t imagine that an employee with a secure job in a wealthy country would sacrifice literally everything he or she knows in order to leak something just because they “can”. People like that don’t make it into the intelligence community in the first place. Look at past whistle-blowers; life’s hardly been a cake walk for those responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Anyone considering a whistle-blow must also be thinking about the repercussions they would face. Leakers leak when they feel their core values are being compromised, and they feel that their dissent is not being taken seriously. The collateral damage that follows public leaking is very damaging, but these are the consequences of not having serious dissent channels already institutionalized.

    We don’t need to decide whether or not to worship or hate individuals who leak sensitive issues in the media; the attitudes and personalities of each leaker is immaterial, and a psychological examination of each one will bring us no closer to stopping future leaks. We need to recognize that whistle-blowers are symptoms of a systemic problem, and that it is in our own best interest to examine security Institutions and revise their structure as needed to allow employees to make their voices heard internally. Failure to do so will lead to more leaks in the future.

  7. Whistle-blowers go on and on about how the government has no right to keep information from the public and yet these people assume they have the right to share it. My issue with people like Snowden is that they may feel they were in the “right” to share that information, that it was for a good purpose, but just because that is how he felt about it doesn’t make it so. He may be facing repercussions from his actions but there are lives out there that have been devastated from the information he’s leaked. What right does he have to do that? Snowden claims that he’s been careful and using discretion when choosing what information to release but he can’t possibly have any real idea about how his actions are going to effect the lives of others. But then again, I guess for him that it’s just one of those prices that has to be paid for the cause. The ends justify the means and doesn’t that make what he’s doing the exact thing that the government was doing? The government felt keeping certain things classified was okay if in the end it did good. I don’t think what he did was revolutionary. I don’t think he cares about what his actions may have cost others. I think it was rash and impulsive. I’m all for transparency of government but I don’t believe that someone who sneaks out information with so little regard has the right to share it, nor do I believe they should be dubbed a hero.

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