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Commentary: By Fleeing the Country, Did Snowden Act Morally?

Aug 13, 2013

Fresno State Professor Jacques Benninga

Over the past several weeks, we’ve watched as Edward Snowden, the NSA analyst accused of releasing classified government information, escaped to Russia in an attempt to find asylum.  Now that his immediate future has been settled, Fresno State professor Jacques Benninga explores the moral implications of his actions in this segment of FM89’s commentary series The Moral Is.


We Americans can’t seem to make up our minds about Edward Snowden.  A Huffington Post poll in early July 2013 found that nearly 40 percent of Americans thought Snowden did the wrong thing, with another 30 percent remaining unsure.  A week later, a Quinnipiac University poll found the opposite, that by a 55 to 34% margin, respondents judged Snowden to be a whistle-blower, not a traitor.  In our system, whistle-blowers often receive protection; traitors are punished.

Was Edward Snowden acting morally?  An attorney working the case claimed Snowdon only sought to expose a surveillance state and our government’s violation of Fourth Amendment rights.  He said he client was offended at the information he was asked to collect. 

To make sense of this case, consider another, earlier whistle-blower or traitor— the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.  His peers also had trouble deciding.  As you may remember, Socrates was tried by a jury with disrespecting the gods and with corrupting the youth.  Like with Edward Snowden, the opinions of Socrates’ guilt were split, but eventually he was sentenced to death.  Just before he was to be executed, however, a chance emerged for Socrates to escape.  Unlike Snowden, who made sure to escape before his information was released, Socrates turned down the opportunity, telling his friend Crito:

This is my country, I was born and educated here.  Athens gave me liberty and choice. If at any time I didn’t like what Athens offered me, I could, without any penalty, have gone elsewhere.  But because I chose to remain here, I entered into an implied contract, promising to obey its laws unless I could persuade it that its laws were unjust.  If I stayed here when times were to my liking, and then escaped only after being imprisoned, who am I, if not a corrupter of the laws?

So, how are we to judge these actions?  A young Edward Snowden, sensing an injustice, escapes to safety before he can be caught and tried; and an elderly Socrates, unjustly accused of wrongs, stays to faces his accusers. 

My colleague, Fresno State philosophy professor Dr. Andrew Fiala has proposed a ranking of responses of how morally to respond in the face of injustice. At the lowest level, the responder complies or obeys; he does nothing to confront the injustice.  Neither Snowden nor Socrates took this path.  At a much higher level, the responder conscientiously objects or engages in civic disobedience.  This was the route chosen by Socrates. 

But one type of response remains in Fiala’s ranking, the unjust response—feigning compliance while duplicitously acting in defiance of official obligations.  This is what Snowden did.

Whistle-blower or traitor? Moral action or not?  You decide.