Edward Snowden may not have done the right thing, but his individualism makes him a hero.
It didn’t take long for columnists, commentators, and concerned citizens to debate the morality of Edward Snowden’s actions. Such debate is good and valuable. As he explained to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden sought to preserve his freedom and way of life by publicizing a top-secret National Security Administration surveillance program (PRISM). Given the gravity of his choice, it’s important that we think and talk about whether he did the right thing.
Some critics have argued that Snowden’s actions are the bitter fruit of problematic philosophical trends. Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks makes the case that Snowden was infected by a virulent strain of individualism that has no idea how to “knit together for the common good.” Snowden, in his interview with Greenwald, acknowledged that his actions were purely “self-interested”—he, as an individual, does not want to “live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” In pursuing his individual interests, he may have endangered the lives of millions of his fellow citizens by enabling terrorists to avoid capture.
I do not yet know enough to pronounce judgment on Snowden’s actions. But I will argue that his individualism –his refusal to allow any higher power, whether secular or spiritual, to dictate his actions– is positively heroic.
Brooks’ criticism of individualism has convinced many. It struck a chord with a friend of mine, who drew an analogy to the animal kingdom to illustrate the destructive nature of individualism. She spoke of a BBC program that depicted the respective approaches of wildebeests and zebras to crossing a river full of crocodiles. In the program, the wildebeests, which crossed as a mindless collective, were more successful than the zebras, which each chose their own approach.
Why should we not do as the wildebeests do? What makes us different? My answer: The importance of reason to human life.
Human beings can only survive by the use of their reason. They are conceptual beings and cannot initiate action unless they identify by means of their reason what their goals are and how to achieve them. Other species learn sets of vital skills and respond to varied situations in different ways, but they do so without consciously deciding between alternatives, and can survive that way. Human beings, on the other hand, cannot provide for their simplest physical needs without a process of thought.
This distinction is what recommends individualism to human beings and not to other conscious animals. Human beings can only survive by the use of their reason, and, simply put, there is no such thing as collective thought. There is no such thing as a collective human mind. Thus, a human being, in order to survive as a human being, MUST be an individualist. Each human being must independently exercise their mind, even if they build on what they learn from others. They cannot simply follow the herd.
Thus, it was not immoral for Snowden to act on the basis of his independently reasoned conclusions, rather than submitting his conclusions to a higher authority for approval. Indeed, it was morally mandatory. If Snowden simply deferred to the better judgment of the government actors that authorized PRISM, he would have acted immorally.
That’s not to say that Snowden was right to disclose PRISM. In order to reach a reasoned conclusion about whether or not to act as he ultimately did, he needed to seek as much information as he could about the program that he was concerned about, including the constitutionality of that program and the national security risks it was intended to address. If he did not, he did not act as an individualist should and he did not act morally.
So, returning to the initial question: Did he or did he not do the right thing?
Frankly, I don’t know. Snowden is evidently not prepared to face his accusers in open court. There is much we don’t know about what Snowden knew about PRISM, its purpose, its legal justification, and its efficacy in accomplishing its intended purpose. There is much about PRISM that we simply don’t know. A public trial might have shed some light on both Snowden and PRISM.
Because of this knowledge problem, I am not prepared yet to pronounce Snowden’s actions right or wrong. I am prepared to say that it is profoundly wrong to condemn his individualism. Snowden did not sin because he ultimately thought for himself. In refusing to submit his judgment to any higher power in any absolute sense, he did what rational beings ought to do. In this respect, if in no other, he is a hero.
Evan Bernick is a Legal Associate at a DC think tank and a Legal Fellow with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. He blogs daily on his own website, The Benevolent Objectivist. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.