Asia Sentinel reprints this as a public service at the request of Philosophie Magazine although the questioning could have been more rigorous
A professor at Princeton, Peter Singer is one of the most influential and controversial philosophers of our time. He has addressed almost every domain of applied ethics, although he is most widely known to the public as a defender of animal rights. Last Summer, in the Harper’s magazine (U.S.), he published a remarkable analysis of the impact of the Internet on our world.
In this article, Singer notes that the world is in the process of becoming transparent, everyone is now placed under observation for all to see. We are going to lose the protection of private life, our tastes in leisure or sex, when not published on Facebook, are recorded by search engines.
Contrary to common knowledge, Singer believes that increasing transparency offers a historic opportunity to make mankind more moral. If everything ends up being known, we shall abstain more often from doing evil.
Peter Singer has accepted to discuss these views with Julian Assange, the co-founder and spokesman for Wikileaks. Their conversation has taken place via Skype – for Julian Assange is in residence at Ellingham Hall, in the Norfolk, deep in the English countryside, during the proceedings for his extradition to Sweden. And the result is quite surprising.
Julian Assange turns out to be “no great fan of transparency.” This conversation with Peter Singer offers Assange an opportunity to address the purposes, ethics, and tactics of Wikileaks in a remarkably thought through and articulated manner.
Peter Singer: As a philosopher, I’m interested in phenomena that make a difference to the world, I’m interested in attempts to improve the world and make it a better place. And I saw what Julian was doing, in terms of making information more open, more available, as motivated by that spirit. Certainly, it’s highly controversial.
On the one hand, one can argue that this objective of transparency and the veracity of information can lead to better forms of government. On the other hand, this procedure has been widely criticized: people have said that it might cost individual lives, the lives of informants for instance, or that it makes it impossible to conduct diplomacy in the way that it’s conducted today.
In more general terms, Wikileaks’ detractors are afraid that this enterprise will undermine the trust that citizens have in their States and will lead to increased security spending. It is truly a problem for applied ethics.
Julian Assange: In contrast to what people have alleged, I’m not actually a big fan of transparency. Rather, I believe that history shows that when human beings pass on information that is true about their environment to each other they are providing themselves with the means to make good decisions about the environment in which they live. It is this rather meagre philosophy that is the essence of my beliefs.
Peter Singer: Okay, but is it possible to release every kind of information? How should we define the limits? It’s very hard to answer this question in principle. We can adopt this criterion: any information whose release represents a clear and present danger should be kept secret. Remember the declaration of the American judge Oliver W. Holmes: "There can never be freedom to shout ‘Fire!’ when you’re in a crowded theatre."
Julian Assange: Unless there is a fire!
Peter Singer: You have a point there. Even so, I maintain that this first criterion is valid: if the release of certain information could cause a catastrophe, it should be prohibited, even if otherwise it could serve the idea of a more transparent democracy, help us to have better government or shed light on corruption.
Julian Assange: I prefer to consider this question in terms of responsibilities. Publishers have a duty to convey information to the public and to protect their sources. Who should be authorized to employ coercive force to stop the publication of information and when? To answer these questions, we have to make a strict conceptual distinction between proven actual harm and what I will call speculative harm. In my view, coercive force should only be employed in response to an actual harm that has occurred. If we are to have a system of censorship, then how is that system to run? Who will be in charge of the system, how will they be appointed, how can we ensure that the censors perform the duties assigned to them and not use the power corruptly? Inherently, a system of censorship is a system of secret justice: we know from long and painful experience that justice must be seen to be done.
Peter Singer: Let us consider the case of information relating to the security of nuclear power stations, or rather their weaknesses, which could be used by terrorists: do you really believe that one should publish this information and wait until harm has occurred before taking legal action? In such a case, the harm can take gigantic proportions.
Julian Assange: I think there are three stages which are successive but distinct in the process we’re considering: there’s a first state prior to publication, there is a second state after publication but prior to harm, and then there is a third state, where actual harm has occurred. In the first two stages, the harm has no real existence: it’s a mere theoretical hypothesis – a speculation. The third stage, the case where actual harm that has occurred, is very rare.
Look for example at all the criticism that has been levelled against Wikileaks: we’ve been accused of endangering the lives of many people, and it was predicted by our opponents that we would trigger a wave of reprisals and lynching of United States informers, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon went so far as to allege that I had blood on my hands.
Today, if you do a Google search with the keywords “Wikileaks blood on hands”, you find ten times as many hits as for "Pentagon blood on hands". It is completely absurd, when in spite of all its efforts, there is no claim even by the Pentagon that a single person has died as a result of our publications which cover over 120 countries. Why is this absurd propaganda so prevalent? It’s the same rhetorical trick that was used by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to try and legalize torture in the US. We have to torture, don’t we, because we could gain an immense speculative benefit: if there’s a ticking time bomb hidden away somewhere, programmed to go off in 24 hours’ time, and we’ve got a terrorist who could tell us where it is, we shall save innocent lives by torturing him and we need torture laws to do that. This argument is purely speculation, because such a situation has never actually arisen. So in my opinion, one must remove deployment of coercive force away from all speculative considerations. Speculation opens the door to every sort of excess, let alone secret speculative arguments by those close to power.
Will the Internet make humankind more moral?
Peter Singer: We know that people behave differently when they know they’re being watched. Some British psychologists conducted an interesting experiment: they put up a painting of a pair of eyes over a coffee machine. They observed that the amount of money that the coffee drinkers put in the honesty box went up considerably. And yet it was only a painting!
When they replaced it with a picture of some flowers, contributions went down. So it seems that we behave better when we feel under observation. In everyday life, we also tend to refrain from reprehensible actions when other people can see us, whether they are our peers, people we care about or people who could penalize us. The Internet has the merit that it creates an immense community of peers.
Of course, there will always be individuals here and there who do the wrong thing, but I believe that most people are concerned to do what is right. The Internet gives us the opportunity to create a different moral environment in which everyone is placed under observation for all to see, so that people are more and more encouraged to adopt moral modes of behavior.
Julian Assange: I agree with Peter: if we think we’re being observed by those we interact with, our behaviour will be less dishonest, or at least less opportunistic. But there is one important point that we should not forget: the Internet represents not only transparency, but also surveillance. And this surveillance is less by our relatives, friends, peers and other quasi benevolent people than by State intelligence agencies and their corporate pals.
That is a serious, potentially fatal problem for globalized civilization. We need our own private space to get away from observation, not by our peers, but by powerful groups who study our behaviour with the aim of manipulating it. What’s more, having lived for some years in small provincial towns, where everybody knows everybody, I know that their atmosphere can sometimes be oppressive.
As long as you are close to the norm all is well. But if you obey strange cultural norms; if you defy the group consensus, your can find yourself in a very uncomfortable position. I’m thinking here, for example, of the difficulty of being homosexual in a small rural community. At least there one can always move. So I’m sceptical of the appealing description that you propose. The prospect of a global shared morality looks dangerous. Interpol sent out a Red Notice for Gaddafi, but they also sent one out for me.
Peter Singer: As concerns the global shared moral values that I mentioned, in my view these are limited to a few, very simple rules: respect for others, for example… The only morality that could lay claim to universality would be what is called a "minimal ethic", with a limited number of principles.
Julian Assange: Morality is not a subject I usually go into. When I talk about the reasons why I act in one way or another, I content myself with stating them. If someone else thinks differently, I do not believe that I have the authority to require them to change their values. For example, FBI officers are trying to have me indicted for espionage: I can accept that; it’s rational from their point of view and it’s in their career interest.
Peter Singer: That’s not certain! People often have a very narrow conception of their own interest, which it is possible to broaden or modify. The FBI agent is trying to pursue his career, but it’s also possible that he is appalled by war and torture. To quote another example: in the course of my campaigns in defence of animal rights, I have had occasion to meet the spokesperson of a cosmetics company, Revlon, which used to test its products on animals. This public relations manager was certainly supposed to stifle criticism and promote his company. But in the end, he realized that he could be heroic in another way, by putting an end to these practices, which were harming the reputation of the brand.
For that reason, Revlon announced one day that it was ceasing to blind rabbits by putting test products in their eyes! This was the right decision, it was a win-win move. So sometimes you can get people to re-assess their interests, their perception of themselves and, in consequence, the actions that they are prepared to undertake.
Julian Assange: Seeing the way the world is going at the moment, everything looks very uncertain in terms of morality, but I would bet that opportunism will always exist. Just as spam will always exist: the more sophisticated spam filters are invented, the higher the cost of spam and the less of it we receive. But unfortunately the lull does not last, because the spammers eventually find ways round the filtering mechanisms and the initial equilibrium is restored. Doesn’t the same principle apply to good and evil?
The theatre of operations
Peter Singer: When we ask whether the action of Wikileaks can really help democracy to advance in the world, I think that the Arab Spring gives part of the answer. It is undoubtedly the biggest set of events that confirms this hypothesis. To some extent, the information contained in the cables was already known, but this confirmation endowed it with an authority that seems decisive to me. The citizens of Tunisia understood that the situation had got to the point where it was absurd.
The cables explain in black and white that the President’s entourage was so immensely corrupt that it deterred foreign investors, which had a direct impact on unemployment. This situation was harming the people directly. It is easy to understand here how transparency of information succeeded in generating awareness and overturning the situation. After that, we had the domino effect: the fall of the Ben Ali regime triggered the Egyptian revolution, then the Libyan revolution…
Julian Assange: The Arab Spring is the outcome of a long maturing process, the result of multiple causes. WikiLeaks was not the only factor: you also have to bear in mind access to education, free movement between Arab countries, the birth of references and a pan-Arab culture among democratic activists in the Arab world. Now, there’s a question about why the revolutions in the Arab world were triggered in December 2010: why at that particular moment? There were only two important events that occurred in early December. The second was the act of despair of the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi who self-immolated on 17th December. The first was the release of the American diplomatic cables, which started on 28th November. A number of activists in Tunisia, as well as Amnesty International, think that those cables contributed to destabilizing the dictatorships of the region.
How did such destabilization work? The release of the cables put the United States in an extremely embarrassing position. Joe Biden had stated on 27th January 2011 that Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator. But that position was immediately corrected by Hillary Clinton, who declared three days later that the United States could not support the dictator Mubarak. Why such an abrupt reversal of attitude? Because hypocrisy had become impossible.
The cables proved that American diplomats had been aware for a long time both of the torture practised by the Mubarak regime, and the corruption of the regime of Ben Ali. Since the publication of the cables, it became difficult for the United States and Europe to lend support to dictatorial regimes while simultaneously pretending to be ignorant of the practices of these regimes. Deprived of Western support and reviled at home, the region’s dictatorships found themselves vulnerable.
We must not neglect one other factor: courage is contagious. The example of the Tunisian activists and of Wikileaks standing up to the Pentagon awakened imaginations – if they can do it then so can we! When we were preparing "Cablegate", we thought about how we were going to be able to survive – and I mean, simply survive – this publication.
We started envisaging different survival strategies. In the end, we banked on a very simple hypothesis. We thought that there must be a threshold, a critical number of crises, that the American State Department and the FBI could deal with simultaneously, all we had to do was push them past their system threshold.
In the panic, the elements and allies of the US apparatus were forced to turn inwards, to mind their own affairs, deal with their own problems, and stabilize their own relationships. The number of complications we introduced exceeded their ability to cope. I think that this strategy worked, and it saved us and helped the Arab Spring.
Peter Singer: This reminds me of how the printing revolution transformed humanity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, printed books began to cross national borders, so you could have philosophers in Germany or France or Sweden corresponding, setting up an early international community. Of course this intellectual community was limited to a relatively small number of people who could read, who could afford books or had access to libraries. It was clearly an elite phenomenon.
Even so, one can argue that printing caused the Humanitarian revolution of the 18th century and that Gutenberg overthrew the absolutism of the Monarchy. With the Internet today, I wonder if we’re not witnessing a similar phenomenon, but this time on a more global scale. If we manage to further reduce the cost of access to information, we have a good chance of creating a global community. It would be a first in the history of the human race, and we have not yet evaluated all the consequences, in particular at the political level.