Edward Snowden and the Ethics of Whistleblowing


When Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency in United Sates was tapping phones of world leaders and capturing information from ordinary people, including U.S. citizens all over the world, there was outrage and shock. The U.S. government as evidenced by its action to charge Snowden under the Espionage Act was outraged. The rest of the country and throughout the world, people were outraged, and they took to debating on privacy, surveillance, ethics, and prudence.

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The NSA spied on everyone that it could. Therefore, the business of NSA became everyone’s business, and this was one of the reasons provided by Snowden for his whistleblowing action. On the other hand, states have to spy because they need intelligence to subvert national threats and sustain order in the society. Thus, there are questions that this paper seeks to answer. They relate to ethical dilemmas arising when interpreting Snowden’s actions. The discussion considers whether under the deontological and consequentialist theories of ethics, the actions would be justifiable. After the discussion, the best resolution is presented and justified (Scheuerman, 2014).

Ethical concerns from the case

The first ethical concern is whether the correct thing for a person in Snowden’s capacity should whistleblow or not. Whistleblowing is supposed to be a noble act where an individual thinking for the best of everyone decides to take action that leads to the identification of an ongoing activity to harm others. Thus, the whistleblower saves others from harm. In the Snowden’s case, he was whistleblowing against the surveillance activities of the NSA.

He informed the public that there was illegal spying taking place on a mass scale, and there was a need to question it. His actions also revealed the inefficiencies of oversight authorities such as Congress to protect the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens in the United States. The question being asked is whether it was the right thing to do for Snowden, who would have chosen less public ways of revealing the information or simply quit from the position that allowed him to intercept of the issues of concern.

The Second concern is the good of the public after the release of the information regarding state surveillance. Would the public be safer and better guarded against more spying after the publication by Snowden, or would the status quo remain? The concern raises an ethical thought on whether the actions by Snowden were meant for the benefit of all, and whether the outcomes were for the sake of all in society. At the same time, should there be evidence to show that Snowden was acting for personal gains, then would there be an appropriate justification of the lengths he went to achieve his objectives? If so, then this paper is seeking to explain the moral grounds that Snowden would be relying on and the ethics that the accusers and sympathizers of Snowden would use in their defense and prosecution.

Another concern is the treatment that Snowden received and the example it shows to other people whose organizations may be doing something wrong, and they need to report. Under present conditions, they would be subject to the same treatment, and depending on the impact of their actions, they can be fired, sent to prison, accused and acquitted or face other social and legal consequences. Nevertheless, many would be encouraged to pursue the same path as Snowden when convinced that the outcome is justifiable, so the question here is whether the end justifies the means and in that case who would be the person or authorities in charge of determining what extent is justifiable by such action (Scheuerman, 2014).

Two traditional theories and potential resolutions to the dilemmas

Following the deontological approach to ethics, individuals can act or choose to act based on their duty. By following Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory, the foundation of thought and action would follow that moral rightness only occurs when doing things out of duty. Therefore, a resolution of the concerns raised earlier regarding the actions of Snowden would be to evaluate whether the person what action out of duty.

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In retaliation, the government will also be judged on whether it was acting out of duty. Doing the right thing in Snowden’s case was important because of it being right irrespective of the consequences that he would face. Moreover, he may have acted according to what he wished someone else to act as universal law. Following this approach, one sees that Snowden’s biggest concern was his duty to humanity, the need to expose the truth, spur debate, and limit harm to the highest number of people while generating long-term benefits of an accountable society to everyone. He achieved the objective based on the coverage and interest that his actions caused on government spying throughout the world (Scheuerman, 2014).

Snowden only had to consider his duties as a citizen, a member of the spied society and a contractor to NSA. Some of the expectations are included in moral codes of religion and social conduct. Furthermore, he seems to have explored the additional understanding of his duty before coming forward with the leaks. Anyone else placed in Snowden’s position following the Kantian ethics would proceed in the same manner.

Here, the motive of Snowden was right, and that makes his approach correct. Meanwhile, the government’s motive to sue him was also right it was meant to protect interests of citizens, but if it is relying on a false claim of protection that was misguided by the errors at NSA that Snowden was revealing, then the action was wrong. It was not based on duty to follow the right order, protect Fourth Amendment rights, and safeguard interests of private citizens (Galliott & Reed, 2016).

The second applicable theory for delivering a resolution to the ethical concerns is the consequentialist approach. Using the utilitarian ethics theory of John Stuart Mill, an individual should seek to act in a way that increases pleasure and minimizes pain, and this could be evaluated by the consequences of the action. Furthermore, one should recognize that happiness and unhappiness are the bases for generating good and evil.

In this case, Snowden had more than the basic assumption of right and wrong to use. There were interests of the government, heads of governments, the public, the systems of law and order and the law itself that he had to consider. His actions would be pleasing to journalists keen to show that they are being critical of government action. It would cause unhappiness to the authorities at NSA and some parts of government.

The manner of releasing the content would also affect the harm or good done to citizens. Snowden opted for a calculated release and offered information to spark the interest in the work of NSA without making individuals feel threatened that they were to lose their jobs or that they had lost their privacy (Regh, 2015). Therefore, Snowden empowered people to take better care of their communication strategies and be in control of what they let the NSA and possible other spying agencies use for and against them. In some way, the NSA will have to change, and people will change the way they guard their privacy, which is an improvement and a direction towards the achievement of the Fourth Amendment rights.

The consequences of the actions by Snowden led to his charge of espionage and they caused significant debate about privacy. The good for the majority outplaced the harm on the individual. Therefore, the best resolution to the ethical concerns was to go ahead and release the information in the calculated way to evoke curiosity, release public tension, and accept full responsibility (Galliott & Reed, 2016).

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Impact of ethical relativism and globalization on the suggested dilemma resolution

Increased integration of countries, communication systems, and cultures has meant that issues are affecting the United States become global issues to a certain scale. Thus, a global perspective would point towards universal acceptance of the resolutions presented here by the degree of their compliance with a harmonized universal moral code. Resolving to do one’s duty would be the right thing to do, if the obligation considered is the same for the rest of the world.

A problem with this effect of globalization would be that it could impose an ethical view supposed by Western hegemony, which does not consider the interests of other less powerful states and their people adequately. The solutions from the U.S. would be superior to those of third-world countries. However, relativism defends various commitments of cultures and makes ethical concerns be subjected to contextual circumstances. For example, the duty to act morally or the good of all in the U.S would differ from the duties that Chinese citizens face in their country regarding the same ethical dilemma. When this is the case, the resolutions applied here would not be generalized to the rest of the world unless they recognize the specific cultural identities and uniqueness of people of other parts of the world (Esikot, 2012).

The best resolution

The second utilitarian solution is the best because it lays the burden of bad consequences on one person and the benefits of good consequences of all stakeholders, including the NSA that now has to improve its activities and accountability approach.

Why it is the best resolution

Ensuring that the good of all prevails over the happiness of an individual is an important expected outcome of applying utilitarian ethics. Moreover, consequentialism is grounded in actual effect, so the action of Snowden, those of the government and reactions by the public or input by media will be evaluated based on effects. When all effects or most of them lead to the betterment of society, then the resolution is sound, and this was the case demonstrated by the second option when trying to answer the ethical concerns raised earlier. Besides its promise of delivering favorable outcomes, this resolution should only be considered in the U.S. case or as a solution supported by Western hegemony. It may fail to meet moral criteria of other cultures across the world.


The Snowden case has presented acceptable ethical concerns on spying and the consequences of whistleblowing. The paper explored the case briefly then introduced the main ethical concerns arising from it before proceeding to use two theories for arguing for separate resolutions for the identified dilemmas. Interestingly, both theories utilized in the paper advocate for the action that Snowden took as they consider the benefit of the majority being significant.

However, a major difference was that in the Kantian ethics option, the duty of the induvial was considered, where the benefits to the majority were brought in as part of the obligation. Snowden has to sustain benefits to all citizens instead of his benefit of just letting the matter go. Meanwhile, the utilitarian option also presented consequences and measured them regarding impact and relevance to the overall good of citizens and their government.

It was selected as the appropriate basis for informing the resolution to take. Snowden did the right thing under the utilitarian theory, but there is room to argue that the government did not have sufficient information to act contrary and based on the conditions, it too acted for the good of the people. Nevertheless, the motives and consequences of Snowden’s action triumph. Meanwhile, the paper also showed that globalization presents a risk of the introduction of Western hegemony in the determination of the effectiveness of the resolutions. It implies that solutions presented may not be fit for all countries, yet they could be taken for granted as the best.

However, the relativism approach offers an alternative outlook where disparate cultures in different countries and their identities would be considered such that Snowden’s actions will not be taken as worthy in all societies.

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Esikot, I. F. (2012). Globalization versus relativism: The imperative of a universal ethics. Journal of Politics and Law, 5(4), 129-136.

Galliott, J., & Reed, W. (Eds.). (2016). Ethics and the future of syping. Abingdon, OX: Routledge.

Regh, W. (2015). Discourse ethics for computer ethics: A heuristic for engaged dialogical reflection. Ethics and Information Technology, 17(1), 27-29.

Scheuerman, W. E. (2014). Snowden and the ethics of whistleblowing. Boston Review. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Edward Snowden and the Ethics of Whistleblowing." March 11, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/edward-snowden-and-the-ethics-of-whistleblowing/.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Edward Snowden and the Ethics of Whistleblowing." March 11, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/edward-snowden-and-the-ethics-of-whistleblowing/.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Edward Snowden and the Ethics of Whistleblowing'. 11 March.

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