Daniel Beck

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Daniel Beck is a recent PhD graduate from Michigan State University’s Department of Philosophy. He has presented on topics in bioethics, environmental philosophy, moral philosophy, and political philosophy at both national and international professional conferences, and his scholarly work on bioethics methodology has been published in a peer reviewed academic journal.

"Berkshire Museum 2013" by Berkshiremuseum is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Berkshire Museum in Western Massachusetts, which has 40,000 objects in its collection, including both works of art and historical artifacts, plans to sell 40 works of art to help fund a building renovation and to add to its endowment. According to NPR, the museum sees this move as essential to its continued success and financial stability. Van Shields, executive director of the museum, claimed, “To survive, it is change, move, or die — we have to change… It is not about what we have. It is about who are we for.”

However, some in the larger world of art museums have protested the move. The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors reportedly urged the Berkshire to reconsider its decision. Particularly, some have objected to the fact that among the paintings to be auctioned are some paintings by Norman Rockwell, who lived his last 25 years in the same county where the Berkshire Museum is located.

"Harvard University Widener Library" by Joseph Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

A recently released report from a Harvard panel of faculty members recommended that Harvard adopt an outright ban on student participation in unrecognized social clubs such as “Final Clubs,” fraternities, and sororities. These organizations have not had official recognition from Harvard since 1984, when such formal recognition was rescinded because these social clubs refused to end membership policies discriminating on the basis of gender. In May 2016, Harvard decided to penalize anyone who joins these single-gender social clubs by banning student members from “holding athletic team captaincies and leadership positions in all recognized student groups. They will also be ineligible for College endorsement for top fellowships like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.” The report from the faculty panel takes the May 2016 policy to its natural conclusion: an outright ban.

"Newborn Baby Feet" by Julie Gentry is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Public Domain Pictures)

Charlie Gard is an 11-month-old boy suffering from an inherited and terminal mitochondrial disease. He cannot move his arms and legs or breathe unaided. At the time of writing, Charlie was still in intensive care at a UK hospital. Charlie’s parents decided that Charlie should be brought to the United States to receive an experimental treatment that may help alleviate his condition. However, the doctors at the UK hospital decided that the experimental treatment would not likely improve Charlie’s quality of life. Since the parents and the doctors disagreed on what would be in Charlie’s best interests, the courts got involved.  The UK legal system has so far ruled that receiving the experimental treatment would not be in Charlie’s best interest, and Charlie should be removed from life-sustaining treatment to receive palliative care; the legal process is still in process concerning Charlie’s ultimate fate.

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The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics, recently declared that certain area of South Sudan are no longer in famine, but “but almost two million people are [still] on the brink of starvation.” According to an April 4, 2017 BBC article, the famine in South Sudan started in February 2017, during which 100,000 people faced starvation. This was reportedly the first time in six years that a famine had been declared in any part of the world. The main reason for the South Sudan famine is the current violence precipitated by political disagreements between the president and vice president of the country. The president fired the vice president in July 2013, who he later accused of wanting to take power, and forces loyal to both sides escalated the political dispute into armed conflict.

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"Edward Snowden at Upper Canada College, World Affairs Conference 2015" by RogerSheaffe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

James Comey, former Director of the FBI, recently testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding conversations that he had with President Trump. The public knew some of the details from these conversations before Comey’s testimony, because he had written down his recollections in memos, and portions of these memos were leaked to the press. We now know that Comey himself was responsible for leaking the memos. He reportedly did so to force the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor. It turned out that his gamble was successful, as Robert Mueller was appointed special prosecutor to lead the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

After the testimony, President Trump blasted Comey as a Leaker. He tweeted, “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication…and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump later tweeted that Comey’s leaking was “Very ‘cowardly!’” Trump’s antipathy towards leaking makes sense against the background of the unprecedented number of leaks occurring during his term in office. It seems as if there is a new leak every day. Given the politically damaging nature of these leaks, supporters of the president have been quick to condemn them as endangering national security, and to call for prosecutions of these leakers. Just recently, NSA contractor Reality Winner was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified materials to the press. However, it is worth remembering that, during the election campaign, then-candidate Trump praised Wikileaks on numerous occasions for its release of the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.

A cynical reading of this recent chain of events suggests that the stance that government figures take towards the ethics of leaking is purely motivated by politics. Leaking is good when it damages a political opponent. Leaking is bad when it damages a political ally.  Sadly, this may be a true analysis of politicians’ shifting stances towards leakers. However, it does not answer the underlying question as to whether leaking can ever be morally permissible and, if it can be, under what circumstances might it be?

Approaches may differ, but I think it is reasonable to ask this question in a way that assumes that government leaking requires special justification. This is for two reasons. First, the leaking of classified information is almost always a violation of federal law. Leaking classified information violates the Espionage Act, which sets out penalties of imprisonment for individuals who disclose classified information to those not entitled to receive it. As a general moral rule, individuals ought to obey all laws, unless a special justification exists for their violation. General conformity to the law ensures an order and stability necessary to the safety, security, and well-being of the nation. More specifically, the Espionage Act is intended to protect the nation’s security. Leaking classified information to the press risks our nation’s intelligence operations by potentially exposing our sources and methods to hostile foreign governments.

Second, as Stephen L. Carter of Bloomberg points out, “leakers are liars,” and there is a strong moral presumption against lying. Carter provides a succinct explanation: “The leaker goes to work every day and implicitly tells colleagues, ‘You can trust me with Secret A.’ Then the leaker, on further consideration, decides to share Secret A with the world. The next day the leaker goes back to work and says, ‘You can trust me with Secret B.’ But it’s a lie. The leaker cannot be trusted.”

The strong presumption against lying flows from the idea that morality requires that we do not make an exception of ourselves in our actions. We generally want and expect others to tell us the truth; we have no right ourselves, then, to be cavalier with the truth when speaking with others. Lying may sometimes be justified, but it requires strong reasons in its favor.

Ethical leaking might be required to meet two standards: (A) the leak is intended to achieve a public good that overrides the moral presumption lying and law-breaking, or (B) leaking is the only viable option to achieving this public good. What public good does leaking often promote? Defenders of leaks often argue that leaking reveals information that the public needs to know to hold their leaders accountable for wrongdoing. Famous leaker Edward Snowden, for example, revealed information concerning the surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA); it is arguable that the public needed to know this information to have an informed debate on the acceptable limits of government surveillance and its relation to freedom and security.

Since leaking often involves lying and breaking the law, it must be considered whether other options exist, besides leaking, to promote the public good at issue. Government figures who criticize leakers often claim that they have avenues within the government to protest wrong-doing. Supporters of Snowden’s actions pointed out, however, that legal means to expose the NSA’s surveillance programs were not open to him because, as a contractor, he did not have the same whistleblower protections as do government employees and because NSA’s programs were considered completely legal by the US government at the time. Leaking appeared to be his only viable option for making the information public.

Each act of leaking appears to require a difficult moral calculation. How much damage will my leaking do to the efforts of the national security team? How important is it for the public to know this classified information? How likely is it that I could achieve my goals through legal means within the government system? Though a moral presumption against leaking may exist—you shouldn’t leak classified information for just any old reason—leaking in the context of an unaccountable government engaged in serious wrongdoing has been justified in the past, and I expect we will see many instances in the future where government leaks will be justified.

"Barry Goldwater Statuary Hall" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The September/October 1964 issue of Fact magazine was dedicated to the then Republican nominee for president, Barry Goldwater, and his fitness for office. One of the founders of Fact, Ralph Ginzburg, had sent out a survey to over 12,000 psychiatrists asking a single question: “Do you believe Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as President of the United States?” Only about 2,400 responses were received, and about half of the responses indicated that Goldwater was not psychologically fit to be president. The headline of that issue of Fact read: “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to be President!”

"International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation" by MONUSCO is licensed under CC BY-SA (via Wikimedia Commons)

In a first-of-its-kind legal case, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is being prosecuted in Detroit, Michigan for violating a 1996 federal law against female genital mutilation. Nagarwala was indicted alongside another woman who was allegedly present in the room during the mutilation. Nagarwala’s husband, who owns the clinic where the procedure occurred, is also being prosecuted. Nagarwala is accused of performing female genital mutilation on two seven-year-old girls who had been brought from Minnesota for the procedure.

"Pills" by David Kessler is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

It is painfully obvious that the United States is in the midst of an epidemic of opioid abuse. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than any other recorded year, and the majority of those overdose deaths involved opioids. DHHS and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) claim that an increase in the prescription of pain medication is a primary driver of the opioid epidemic. According to the CDC, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the US has nearly quadrupled since 1999. However, Americans do not report higher levels of pain than they did in 1999.

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"Laptop" by stokpic is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Pixabay)

In 2015, after Lindsey Graham said that Donald Trump should “stop being a jackass,” Trump read Graham’s personal cell phone number aloud to a crowd at one of his campaign rallies and urged people to call the number. Journalists who dialed the number were directed to an automated voicemail account reporting “Lindsey Graham is not available.” His voicemail inbox was, unsurprisingly, full.

"Solitary Confinement, Old Geelong Gaol 7" by jmiller291 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Untidiness, tattooing, insolence towards a staff member, “reckless eyeballing,” and possession of an excessive quantity of postage stamps. These are all behaviors that are officially punishable by “restriction to quarters” and “change of housing” in the US Federal Prison System, according to Quartz. Thus, you can be placed in solitary confinement for relatively innocuous infractions, and the clear potential for abuse of this practice is one reason why the use of solitary confinement to punish prisoners has recently come under intense pressure. New York reached a legal settlement in 2015 with the New York Civil Liberties Union regarding the aggressive use of solitary confinement in its prisons, and a multi-year process was begun to lessen the times people spent in solitary confinement and to improve conditions in solitary confinement units.