Wikileaks Rights and Wrongs
Would it be a good thing if, far from crushing Wikileaks, governments were required to post their entire correspondence on Wikileaks? In principle, this would appear to be highly desirable. A legitimate ruler over us it might justifiably keep secrets from us—but there is no such thing, neither leviathan nor the general will nor the people. Government is merely a mechanism we employ to protect our rights and resolve certain coordination problems. The government is therefore our agent and agents have no ground for withholding information from principals. The enormous power accumulated by the state should not be wielded in secrecy. Furthermore, when we give up democratic and political romanticism the attractions of openness only increase: we realise that anyone putting themselves forward to have power over us (always for our own good, of course) thereby raises a doubt over whether they should have it, and that politicians are not and never will be especially wise or good and will do what they think is required to hang onto power.
(update: see also my discussion of Wikileaks on Guardian Comment is Free)
There are, however, some complications that bear on the purity of principle. Government secrecy in home affairs is defensible insofar as the government is entrusted with private information about individuals. On general matters of policy and the conduct of government it is not defensible. When, however, we get to foreign affairs, the responsibility of government is to protect our interests in a hostile world. Much as we would like peaceable relations, you don’t get much say in whether you have an enemy. Being friendly or reasonable is no protection. You have an enemy when someone decides you are their enemy. Plunder has been a successful strategy throughout history, whether pursued straightforwardly or under the guise of ideology, and if we do not wish to be looted we have to be able to defend ourselves. Information that bears on our defence is an aid to those who choose plunder over trade, and consequently in foreign affairs secrecy is justifiable.
Given the many gradations of friendship and hostility between countries the diplomatic relations by which we pursue foreign affairs are complex. Among the objects of that endeavour is to detect dangerous possibilities and to head them off where possible. It seems that this is something we are getting better at. Despite the availability to a western audience of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars making it appear otherwise, globally the decrease in proportional war causalities continued during the last ten years at a similar rate to earlier decades.
Governments and diplomats manage international dangers in part by forging complexes of threats and promises towards enemies and allies, complexes that are perhaps not wholly consistent and therefore not likely to survive the light of full exposure. Diplomacy is in this way often dishonest. Is that dishonesty immoral? Between individuals dishonesty is wrong but governments are not persons but instruments, and their entire morality is therefore serving the end to which they are instrumental. To the extent that such diplomacy maintains a moral end it is therefore moral, and to the extent that such diplomacy maintains an immoral end it is not.
Once we have granted that foreign affairs requires secrecy, and that that secrecy is justified so far as it maintains defence and the moral ends of diplomacy, we have identified correspondence that should not be published on Wikileaks. My earlier remarks imply that insofar as secrecy in foreign affairs serves no other end than protecting politicians from their accountability to us, it would not be justified.
What then of the morality of the leaking and publication of US diplomatic cables? In this case we have the indiscriminate leaking and publishing of an entire body of correspondence. I think the indiscriminateness matters.
It would be wrong to leak correspondence that maintains defence and the moral ends of diplomacy. The general requirement of discretion and humility would imply that it would be wrong to leak any such correspondence that was not plainly and significantly maintaining immoral ends of diplomacy. It would also be wrong to leak correspondence that will result in harm to named individuals unless some much greater good is served by the leak. It might be right to leak such correspondence that maintains highly immoral ends of diplomacy. For indiscriminate leaking to be permissible would, to my mind, require that the overwhelming majority of the correspondence was maintaining non-trivial immoral ends, a significant fraction maintaining highly immoral ends and no or proportionately very little harm to named individuals.
The person who leaked the cables had made a promise to his fellow countrymen that they may rely on him on a very grave matter over an extended period of time, namely, to defend them. Breaking such a promise impermissibly is a very grave wrong: furnishing secrets to the enemy is treachery. My impression is that the condition for permissible leaking was not met in this case, and hence the promise was broken impermissibly.
When it comes to Wikileaks, the matter is more complex. Assange himself is not a citizen of the USA and is therefore bound by no special duties to Americans.
Assange has held out indiscriminate publication as a virtue of Wikileaks but for reasons similar to those mentioned with respect to leaking, to me it looks like a fault. Governments and diplomacy are flawed instruments, but they are the only instruments we have. The bravery of Afghans and Iraqis taking risks against the terrorists among them should be respected and their lives should not be put at greater risk. Indiscriminate publication undermines the goods achieved now and reduces the chances of achieving them in the future. That is a very bad consequence and as a result it would undoubtedly be better if he had confined publication to correspondence that was evidence of the diplomatic pursuit of immoral ends.
Freedom of speech, however, is a strong principle that requires toleration of much that is objectionable, including the toleration of bad consequences. Some distinguish legal freedom of speech and moral freedom of speech and on that basis defend the legal toleration of what is morally wrong to say. So one answer here is to say that his indiscriminate publishing may be immoral but it should not be illegal.
The difficulty I have with this is that the justification of the legal freedom must be based in a moral principle. I am unwilling to justify it only on the grounds that in general legally free speech has good consequences. Sometimes it plainly doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it is difficult to see why it shouldn’t then be illegal. Our case in point is one such.
Rather, I think that the justification of the legal freedom is also, perhaps mainly, based in the moral freedom to speak, and that this grounding freedom is limited no more than our other freedoms, that is to say, limited only by being compatible with the like freedom for others. On this basis nothing anyone asserts stops anyone else saying anything, so cannot be limited in that way. It can be limited by the harm principle, a principle that requires not vague and unspecific harms to unknown people but definite and specific harms to known people.
On this basis, then, whilst Assange’s indiscriminate publication harms general diplomacy and whilst we could wish that he had exercised discretion and discrimination, these facts are not sufficient to make it wrong. What makes it wrong is that it harms named individuals, in particular, the Afghans and Iraqis who risked their own good for the good of their countrymen.