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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The NSA Goes to Congress: Kant on Lying as Unethical

James Clapper, Director of U.S. National Intelligence, told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in March 2013 that the National Security Agency was not gathering any type of data at all on millions, and even hundreds of millions, of Americans. After leaked documents showed that Clapper had misled the committee in stating, “There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly,” he issued an apology to the committee for having made the comment that was “clearly erroneous.”[1] U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the committee, praised Clapper as an honest and direct man.[2] The discerning reader realizes the full implications of the difference between being in error and lying. To err is human, but to deliberately fabricate for the benefit of oneself or one’s group is a matter on which particular humans can and do differ morally.
Kant is especially well-known for having claimed that it is never ethical to lie. This makes Kant's ethics difficult to accept in terms of "white lies," which are told for another person's benefit rather than for selfish reasons. In terms of universalizing lying as a practice, were everyone to decide to lie on a regular basis, the truth would lose its value because no one would trust it. Lying would no longer have its intended value either, as it would be expected and therefore ignored. In other words, universalizing the maxim of lying would be self-contradictory concerning lying itself; lying universalized would involve a logical contradiction. Put another way, lying as a practice universalized would insult reason itself, and thus be unethical to any rational nature. As human beings, we have such a nature.

It is admittedly strange to think of "unethical" as being in terms of a logical contradiction being contrary to reason. It is easier to think that a logical contradiction is not possible for a being having a rational nature. Kant is saying that as we are rational beings, it is unethical for us to do something if universalizing the practice to it being done by everyone would involve a logical contradiction. Is this criterion simply an expedient method for determining whether a given practice is ethical or unethical, or was Kant really thinking of ethics differently than we think of ought? If the latter, even saying that a logical contradiction is unethical because it insults reason would introduce emotion where there is none; Kant's notion of what it means for some action to be unethical would be that reason is being used against its own rational nature.

Put in Kant's easier formulation that is much easier to understand, lying involves treating other people as one’s means only, rather than also as ends in themselves. You can still treat someone as your means, as long as you also treat him or her as an end in himself or herself too. This formulation has been likened to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done to you. However, I wouldn't like to be anyone's means and yet Kant permits this as long as I'm also treated as an end in myself (as a rational being). So I don't think Kant's ethic is as idealistic as is the Golden Rule.
Applying Kant to the case at hand, James Clapper either testified in ignorance or to deceive the senators. If the former, the NSA should not have sent him to testify. Either the agency was at fault for sending the wrong guy or Clapper should have known of the program but did not. If during a NSA meeting covering the program he had been daydreaming of spying on the woman living next door, he is culpable. He would have been using his boss as a means rather than also as an end in himself.

Alternatively and more likely, if Clapper knowingly deceived the committee, either on orders from the NSA or from his own will, he used the senators as means rather than also as ends in themselves. Put another way, I doubt that Clapper likes to be lied to; neither does Diane Feinstein or any of the other senators. Nor do the people of the states that those senators represent, or the general public for that matter. An agent knowingly misleading his or her principal is a particularly sordid instance of lying; not only is it selfish and inconsiderate, it is also insubordinate.

Clapper either testified in ignorance or to deceive the senators. If the former, the NSA should not have sent him to testify; the fault is not necessarily his own. However, if he knowingly deceived the committee, either on orders from the NSA or from his own will, he used the senators as means only, rather than also as ends in themselves. Therefore, whether out of ignorance or deceit, Clapper’s error or lie points to insufficient democratic accountability of the NSA to Congress. If NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander lied to Congress in saying that the NSA could not determine how many U.S. communications were being gathered at the time when in fact the NSA was using its auditing tool Boundless Informant precisely to determine the number of such communications, a disturbing pattern rather than a single incident of faulty testimony would characterize the NSA.[3] In particular, the agency could have developed an organizational culture in which the elected representatives in Congress and even truth-telling itself are insufficiently respected and valued. Such anti-democratic values may be the underlying culprit behind what could be a cavernous hole in democratic accountability—the breach of which would of course maintain the illusion of ongoing accountability.

 Kimberly Dozier, “James Clapper: Answer on NSA Surveillance to Congress Was ‘Clearly Erroneous’,” The Huffington Post, July 2, 2013.2. Jeremy Peters, “Feinstein’s Support for N.S.A. Defies Liberal Critics and Repute,” The New York Times, July 1, 2013.
3. Kimberly Dozier, “Edward Snowden: NSA Lying, Collecting All Communications Into and Out of U.S.,” The Huffington Post, July 8, 2013.