Individualism is No Sin: The (Anti)Heroism of Edward Snowden

by Evan Bernick:

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.

Edward SnowdenSome 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.


  1. How can you condemn someone for their individualism? I honestly don’t understand how that could ever be an argument… I think its silly that “society” tries to teach us from a young age to be free thinkers and individuals, but something like this happens and he gets criticized for for it. This just goes to show how deep some people’s hypocrisy runs.
    I think that its incredible that he was brave enough to expose the NSA for violating people’s individual rights. He saw something he thought was wrong with our government and did something about it. How many people can say that they have had this much effect on our government and society? Though I (of course) don’t know the whole story, I love that he exposed the Government for its abuses of power and violation of individual’s freedom… Last I checked we are free as individuals, not only in groups of wildebeests.
    Anyway, great article, Evan! 🙂

  2. The non-objectivist libertarian says:

    Wait, how is refusing to acknowledge anything greater than yourself a heroic act? I don’t know of any “hero” in history that fits that definition. By definition, all heroes act for a higher purpose. You cannot act sacrificially with only your own needs in mind. In the moment of being a hero, you are submitting your own individuality for the common good. I don’t think you are wrong in affirming the goodness of individualism, but calling that heroic is just not the proper use of the term heroic.

    As libertarians, we need to be more careful about the way we talk about individualism so not to pit it against the common good. Individualism needs the voluntary collective to truly be individualism.

    And one last thought.. Do we really survive by our own human reason alone? Human reason is great and all, but remember that human reason has been used to justify huge evils in the world. I sure hope we survive by something greater than our pretty-good-but-sometimes flawed reasoning! Where’s the libertarian humility? The knowledge problem isn’t just a problem of the market.

    Don’t mean to be harsh with the challenge, I actually really liked you post. I would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts!

    • To the non-objectivist libertarian,

      Thanks for your challenge!

      You state that, “By definition, all heroes act for a higher purpose.” A hero, to my understanding, is one who exemplifies virtue in thought, word, and deed, and is worthy of emulation. The notion that, in order to be virtuous, one must be obedient to something higher than oneself, is a very different notion than that which I’ve articulated here– I claim that there is nothing higher than the self, no end-in-itself beyond the life and happiness of the individual actor, and no means to that end other than reason. Adherence to reason is, therefore, the height of virtuous activity. It is heroic as such. That it is not regarded as heroic in our culture at present does not mean that it is not heroic.

      That does not mean, however, that the hero doesn’t act to promote the common good. There IS no such thing as the common good distinct from the good of every individual. The good of every individual best promoted when each individual acts in accordance with his rational self-interest. Therefore, a society in which the common good is best promoted is one in which every individual is an individualist, seeking his rational self-interest. There is no need to choose between individualism and the common good. It’s just that promoting the common good is incidental to promoting one’s own interests.

      You rightly point out that reason has been used to justify terrible evils. But that doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable to do evil. The devil can quote Scripture, and Sophists can claim the mantle of philosophy. To act rationally means to live in accordance with reality– if we invoke reason to support, say, Marxist economic theory, which has been thoroughly and decisively refuted by experience, we’re not acting rationally. To appeal to reason as a necessary means of human survival is not to claim that it is omnipotent, only that, insofar as we accomplish anything at all, even something as basic as building a shelter from the elements, we must observe, conceptualize, and act on the basis of valid concepts.


  3. Sokushinbutsu: The Ultimate Individualists says:

    “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.”

    Timeout. You just got done explaining why Snowden is cool for not answering to a higher authority. Then you question his actions on whether or not they’re cool with a higher authority: the Constitution (pbui). I know it’s typical of capital-L Libertarians to want things both ways, but this is pretty blatant.

    Anywho, the real problem is that Snowden is acting as an individual for a greater good (that people ought to be free not to be spied on). However he is also acting irrationally because by acting on this, he is trading in his high salary and comfortable lifestyle in exchange for being hunted by the most powerful military aparatus in human history, and having to rely on the kindness of dubious people for security and sustenance. This ought to scare you free thinkers because Snowden has the guts to take your philosophy to its logical conclusion: Other people suck, so it’s better to live as a hermit with no obligation to anyone else than to be forced to cooperate.

    But Snowden may not think other people suck, and he certainly does not think so highly of himself that he particularly deserves to live as a “free man” in the United States. Instead, he has tossed away all the perks of American-style individualism for the messy reality of being persecuted for meaningfully taking on something powerful, which he did not need to do at all. He has traded in possessions and security for, I suppose, a clean conscience (if we’re assuming he has no ulterior profit motive). That is something no Libertarian would do, though, because Libertarians are all about property rights and ownership, whereas Snowden has eschewed those in favor of being a vagabond.

    A clean conscience is something that cannot be quantified, and hence cannot be rationally explained. You don’t seem to understand what Snowden is trying to say, which is that it’s better to live as a wandering rustic who has done the right thing than as a cushy “individualist” who has to rely on his farmhands for support while denouncing dependence. He’s heroic because he is true to his (absolutely crazy, I remind you) convictions, convictions that are directed to the betterment of all at his expense.

    “To act rationally means to live in accordance with reality– if we invoke reason to support, say, Marxist economic theory, which has been thoroughly and decisively refuted by experience, we’re not acting rationally.”

    Snowden has thoroughly and decisively rejected capitalism, though. With this and that, I’ve now given you clearance to do the rational thing: denounce Snowden for putting Libertarians on the spot vis-a-vis their convictions. Very good that you’ve recognized him as a paragon, but he’s out there and you’re in here, at the teat.

    • Snowden specifically claimed that he did what he did because he believed that he had identified unconstitutional activity. If he’s wrong about that, it’s relevant to an assessment of his actions that solely focuses on his self-interest. If he’s overestimated the assault on his liberty — and, yes, an action by the government that does not comport with constitutional constraints is more threatening than one that does not, insfoar as it suggests that we live to a greater extent under the arbitrary whims of officials– he may not have calculated his self-interest correctly. As you point out, he’s given up a great deal in the service of what he takes to be a higher value, namely, freedom from a government with pretensions of totalitarianism. If, objectively, he’s wrong about the nature of the threat, he’s made a terrible mistake– he’s no less an individualist for it, however.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *