Religion & Liberty Online

Can whistleblowing be Biblically justified?

(Photo credit: Associated Press)

Last week, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a tech specialist who was contracted for the NSA and works for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked the details of a classified surveillance program to the media. As Christians debate the ethics of Snowden’s actions we should consider the question, “Under what circumstances can there be biblically justified ‘leaking’ or whistleblowing?”

What does being a “good neighbor” or a “Good Samaritan” (à la Luke 10) mean, obligation-wise, when it comes to warning others against possible harm? If I have accurate and true knowledge about a situation that could result – or has already resulted in – public (or semi-public) harm, do I have an obligation to report it?

While the Bible doesn’t spell out the ethical obligations in these specific situations, the literature on justified whistleblowing tracks closely with another set of criteria many Christians apply to one specific intersection of ethics, “neighbor-love” (what Augustine called ‘caritas’) and public order: the just war tradition.

There are two distinct categories in the just war tradition – jus ad bellum (justice before war; or justice when initiating a war)  and jus in bello (justice in war, or justice in the process of waging war) — both of which are applicable to questions of whistleblowing.

Jus ad bellum Considerations

Proper authority – Who has the right to initiate a conflict?

Just cause – Is the conflict being initiated to achieve a proper end?

Right intention – Am I initiating the conflict for the right (internal) reasons?  Public good or private hatred?

Macro-proportionality – Will the goal of this conflict be worth the evil/damage that will take place?

Last resort – Have I tried, to the extent possible, to achieve the proper end through peaceable means?

Probability of success – Is it even possible to achieve the proper end through military means successfully?

 Jus in bello Considerations

Discrimination – When I fight, am I fighting in such a way that I do what I can to ensure that those who should be protected, like women, children and the infirm, are protected?

Micro-proportionality – When I fight, do I use tactics that are out of line with my immediate operational objective?

Ethicists who analyze whistleblowing (like Sissela Bok, Michael Davis, and Richard DeGeorge) tend to use similar categories to those found in just war theory. In order to overcome the hurdle of disloyalty to an employer or organization of which one is a member, these ethicists look at such questions as:

(a) Do you know that there is possible harm and/or moral wrongdoing going on? Or are you just trying to get back at someone? (just cause and right intention)

(b) Is this information something that you have reasonably direct knowledge about? (proper authority) Added to this, DeGeorge asks, “Is your continued work going to contribute to the wrongdoing you think will occur?”

(c) Have you exhausted all of your internal remedies (immediate supervisor and above)? (last resort)

(d) If you go public, will the “evil” you cause “prevent the [public] harm at a reasonable cost? [Davis]” (proportionality)

Other criteria based on oath-keeping may also needed to be considered. If someone has signed a non-disclosure agreement or, as with the case of Snowden, carries a security clearance, that person is under more stringent guidelines. In such cases, disagreement might require resignation, but continued silence. If public comments are made, they should be done with the understanding that it could very well result in harm to others, prosecution, and jail time.

In this particular case, my view is similar to that of James Carafano, author of  a book on Washington’ s use of contractors, Private Sector, Public Wars:

We have to separate the leaking of the material, which is simply wrong, from concerns about the program itself. Surveillance for threats can be done legally; however, it is impossible to tell from press reports and government talking points alone if the program was administered properly. That said, individuals who suspect wrongdoing in government have legitimate options to bring it to the attention of responsible individuals in government and Congress without breaking the law.

Setting aside the questions around the NSA’s surveillance, do you believe Snowden’s actions were biblically justifiable?

[Note: Portions of this post on the general issue of ethics and whisteblowing came from draft material and discussions with adjunct professor of government at Patrick Henry College, Brian J. Auten, who has given me permission to use it.]

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).