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When fact imitates fiction: The Snowden case

In the history of (especially moral) philosophy, a recurrent theme involves the tension between the affirmation of so-called “free will” on the part of humans, and its denial, or what is called (a variety of) “determinism”. Without going into too much detail, it seems to me safe to say that most philosophers have favoured free will when it comes to moral choice, and understandably so, because it would not make much sense to talk about morality or ethics if one does not presuppose the capacity to choose between right and wrong, good or evil.

As Kant observed in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, if humans are not capable of moral choice, we would be devilish or diabolical beings, caught in the delusion of (sometimes) doing good, when we are in fact promoting evil. Probably the staunchest defender of free will, Jean-Paul Sartre, claimed that freedom of the will is something we can never abjure, because even as we abnegate it, we exercise it: we are “doomed to be free”.

The case of Edward Snowden, unfolding in media space at present, casts this question of free will in an interesting light. If I understand things correctly, Snowden — who was working as a data analyst for a company contracted by the National Security Agency (NSA) (that is, a US government agency), and tasked to find and/or scrutinise a massive number of communications records of all kinds, from e-mail to Facebook — got to a point in his professional life where he suddenly discovered that he had a conscience. In other words, he found himself unable to proceed with what he had to admit to himself was, morally and constitutionally speaking, wrong and unacceptable.

It is constitutionally wrong in as far as it violates US citizens’ right to privacy (which we, in South Africa, lost with the introduction of Rica, by the way). Nevertheless, the NSA was probably not interested in people’s private affairs as much as in information that would comprise a Gestalt of sorts, a predictive pattern of communicational indications that something — some future actions bearing on “national security” — would (at best) probably flow from the intentions embodied in the communications involved.

Its moral reprehensiveness is therefore more complicated, because it involves the implicit denial of citizens’ (and non-US citizens’) free-will. Why? If one is placed under suspicion, or arrested and detained on the grounds that something you wrote in an e-mail, or said in a phone conversation to someone else, might be taken as a prognostication regarding future actions, it entails the implicit denial of your freedom to choose, to change your mind about something that may, or may not, have been intended, contemplated, or simply “idly said” by yourself.

This is not even to go into all the difficult questions of what would constitute conclusive incriminating communicational evidence of being a “security threat”. Sure, there are straightforward messages or letters, or perhaps less straightforward, encoded ones that could not easily be dismissed as clear or reliable instances of conspiracies to sabotage or otherwise undermine a country’s integrity. But where would it stop?

As the history of the persecution, by the Roman Catholic Church, of thousands of women as “witches” (during especially the 16th century) shows, once intent on finding incriminating evidence, any verbal or written utterance can be interpreted in various registers of ambiguity, to make it say what you want it to say. And once this has been done, you could be “conclusively” branded as a would-be witch (or “terrorist”), regardless of your intentions and future actions.

Does this reflection on “facts” not bring to mind a neo-noir fiction film by Steven Spielberg, namely Minority Report (2002), based on a story by Philip K Dick, in which a special police unit called PreCrime, arrests supposedly would-be criminals based on the “foreknowledge” of the crimes they will commit in the future, in this way supposedly pre-empting the crimes? This “foreknowledge” is supplied by three “precogs” — psychics with an uncanny gift to foretell the future — the philosophically interesting question being whether these future culprits or criminals are somehow robbed of their freedom to choose their own actions through the causality uncovered, and arguably triggered, by the precogs’ prophetic selection of such “future criminals”.

The narrative concerns the chief officer of the PreCrime department, Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise), who is himself fingered by the precogs as the future murderer of a man called Crow, and who discovers, through the department’s chief researcher on precog “technology”, that PreCrime routinely discards the “minority report” from the three precogs — the vision on the part of one of them which occasionally differs in its predictive specifications from the other two. The mere existence of such a “minority report”, of course, casts doubt on the causal value and accuracy of the precog-prophecy.

But there is more. When Anderton finds out from Agatha, the “leading” precog, who the person is that he is supposed to kill in the future, he sets out to find him, and although he also discovers that he has every reason to kill Crow (who was instrumental in the disappearance of Anderton’s son), he desists. Crow, however, commits “assisted suicide” by grabbing Anderton’s gun-hand and squeezing the trigger. This means that Anderton did not kill him (as was predicted by the precogs) by intention, but only by being the instrument of the killing. At the end of the film Anderton reveals to the true villain, Burgess, the “flaw” in the precog-related PreCrime system, which affirms human free will: if you “know”, on prophetic grounds, that you “will kill” someone, you can decide against it when the time arrives, as Anderton did.

The relevance of this neo-noir narrative — “neo-noir” because it thematises the question of the grounds of evil in an original manner — for the present furore around Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing act of defiance is this: Minority Report, where the freedom of human volition is narratively affirmed, shows that, even if future human actions could be made subject to the probable accuracy of “psychic” prediction, subjects concerned can decide against the predicted course of actions.

This insight, alone, should caution supporters of the Prism programme for early detection of “probable” security threats through the scrutiny of internet and telephonic communications, that whatever augury data analysts may read in certain communicational “patterns” (somewhat reminiscent of primitive rituals of prophecy, like reading the entrail-patterns of slaughtered animals), such putative portents are not cast in stone. Human beings are endowed with freedom of the will, and this means that it would be an irredeemable injustice to hold individuals accountable for actions they have not, and probably never will, commit.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 14 June 2013

    However much they are recording, how much are they actually reading? I would imagine only those of which there are already suspicions. As far as I am concerned anyone who thinks any electronic communication is secure is very naieve. Any real spy would be using a code, if communicating at all.

  2. Daniel Berti Daniel Berti 14 June 2013

    I’d love it if somebody did something about Rica. I’ve always been uncomfortable with it – and aware that I’m not in much of a position to do anything about it.

    As a side note: It seems to me that the hard incompatibilism of Derk Pereboom is correct, (unless perhaps something interesting can be done with Thomas Nagel’s proposed conception of the world in his book Mind And Cosmos), but that it has roughly no effect on my ability to make sense of ethics. I find it odd that people see a problem there.

  3. Matoro Matoro 15 June 2013

    A difficult one. On the one hand is the question of ‘moral philosophy’. Charles Fried postulated that the proper philosophical basis of contract leads to conclusions profoundly different from contract law on social policies. There is a large body of literature attempting to identify the exact source and nature of moral obligation. Contract is arbitrary free will between willing and able parties. If Edward Snowden had had a proper service contract with for a company contracted by the National Security Agency (NSA) he has a moral obligation to either ‘negotiate’ out of the contract or to add addenda to the contract or amendments to the contract; or comply with the requirements of the contract.
    On the other hand is the concept of a social contract. Social contract theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live. In the twentieth century, moral and political theory regained philosophical momentum as a result of John Rawls’ Kantian version of social contract theory, and was followed by new analyses of the subject by David Gauthier and others. More recently, philosophers from different perspectives have offered new criticisms of social contract theory. Open-ended social contract can become a hideous dark hole and of dubious benefit. It would be difficult to overestimate the effect that social contract theory has had, both within…

  4. Maria Maria 15 June 2013

    Matoro, are you not making the mistake of looking only at Snowden’s position? What if you had a contract with the devil, who employs you to carry out the most depraved project aimed at stripping people of their freedoms, and reserving for himself the right to incarcerate them if they resist his dubious project? Would one be obliged to stay within the terms of such a contract? I believe that Habermas offers a better angle than Rawls into this, with his version of deontological ethics, with a consequentialist twist, when he claims that the “moral principle” of discourse ethics (which the norm-oriented “discourse principle” leads to) amounts to agreement on norms or principles that are universalizable. Not only for everyone here and now, but also for all those who may be affected by present agreements on norms in the future. Can anyone seriously defend the PRISM program’s aim? Remember, it is presupposed that any agreement on this is among rational, post-conventional agents who are beyond religious or ideological justifications for their actions. I don’t believe consensus can be reached on the PRISM program. And if this is the case, it lacks an underpinning, generally acceptable norm. In such a case Snowden is justified in doing what he did, because the contract is not rationally defensible.

  5. rmr rmr 15 June 2013

    Snowden for me is a hero. He had the courage to do what he believed right, regardless the very uncomfortable consequences for him.

  6. Glenn Glenn 16 June 2013

    Bert, nice piece, there’s a further dimension to this story of espionage, reminiscent of Orwell’s nightmare – a case of ‘fictions imitating more fictions’. This dimension relates to the terminal point of the illusion of a transparent society. The (dying) misconception underpinning Western notions of democracy is the idea that the state acts in accordance with the will of the people by virtue of the electoral process which thereby validates its executive processes, including national security. There’s clearly a vast ethical abyss between vesting powers in state bodies via election and by reference to laws and constitutions – and then trusting the state’s organs to ‘do the right thing’, and to be capable of navigating the tension between doing something wrong in the short term, for the benefit of achieving something better in the long term – such as the safety of its citizens. Our growing realisation (& apparent acceptance) that the state’s ‘normal’ executive processes include an institutionalised and permanent invasion of privacy (in the name of security) cuts to the very heart of the contradictions within the ideals of democracy. The deal that’s being put to us is that freedom and security come at a price; and it seems that despite a few bleating naysayers, most of us are willing to pay that price and sacrifice some de jure rights.

  7. Hélène Hélène 16 June 2013

    To want an ideal world is of course dubious. So called ‘freedom’ is a myth. Are we ‘free’ in South Africa? Anyone thinking so must suffer from serious self-deception. And not just on the Rica front!

    The point is – it does not mean if they (Americans) identify ‘potential’ aggressors, they would necessarily have done them any harm. Discomfort yes. It could be plainly a preventive action, which would make it a moral and responsible act – looking after the safety of your citizens – the first duty of a state, which the SA government has totally and comfortably renegated on. If we give them (US) the benefit of the doubt that they would act reasonably (which some would hate to do I know – while we pretend in SA ‘we’ are the bearers of moral high ground – please spare me that).

    That this guy became uncomfortable – and started thinking he is Asange from Wiki-leaks is his dilemma. This is the new age – the power of the individual.

    Life is full of dilemmas. People who think we live in a world of black and white answers doesn’t understand even the first principle of moral reasoning; It’s not ‘WHAT” you do – it’s WHY’ you do it. In this case one should also think – of the individual versus the majority. Which of course becomes a whole other discussion point again.

    Just by the way – how many people know that in SA we have three security guards for every policeman. We are ( in my thinking anyway) in a new form of civil war in this country.

  8. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 16 June 2013

    Have you considered that there could possibly be a simple solution – such as , for example, that Snowdon’s firm was in financial trouble or restructuring and he was worried about redundancy so cashed in for a future? Or any other amount of simple,human, reasons for his disclosure.

  9. Rene Rene 17 June 2013

    The slow but certain growth of security-mania in the Northern hemisphere is very worrying – it seems to me to be fascism in its germination phase.

  10. Trevor Trevor 18 June 2013

    Good discussion,and great article.
    While we’re at the movies with ‘Minority Report’ I can’t helping thinking of the re-do of Gatsby, and in particular the all-seeing eyes of TJ Eckleburg; a simpler world I suppose, with the Optometrist a guardian of morality, scrutinising deviant husbands. But Eckleburg’s moved on and the eyes are now Orwellian ones – omnipresent, omniscient.

  11. Matoro Matoro 18 June 2013

    Maria – “Can anyone seriously defend the PRISM program’s aim? Remember, it is presupposed that any agreement on this is among rational, post-conventional agents who are beyond religious or ideological justifications for their actions”. I think we as outsiders will find it difficult to fathom the USA’s “ideological justifications”.
    Careful reading of Noam Chomsky’s comments to Tom Dispatch of the Guardian make me wonder whether deontological ethics really exist at regime level.

  12. Prince Prince 18 June 2013

    The information gathered does not constitute an offence neither is it used to prosecute someone. It merely points security personnel where to direct their efforts – That is what makes all the difference with the fanciful movie.

  13. Maria Maria 18 June 2013

    Prince, it does constitute an offence in light of the US constitution regarding privacy. And are you really naive enough to think the information would merely be used to direct security personnel’s efforts? How about detention without trial as a consequence of what some individuals may regard as a “security risk”?

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