Mar 10, 2014

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The Morality of Treason: Edward Snowden – English 5 – Essay 2

Assignment: What constitutes morality, that is, moral principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior? Is Edward Snowden a moral patriot or a traitor?

In the first section you will define what constitutes morality. One requirement is that you will draw from the ideas of the writers whose works we reading our “Ethics and Morality” unit, namely Henry David Thoreau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Luther King, Jr., Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Michael Gazzaniga. You will also include your own ideas. Finally you will draw from ideas of writers not included in this course whose works have influenced your thinking. 

In the second section, you will present your argument proving that your claim that Edward Snowden is a moral patriot or that Edward Snowden is a traitor.

Grade: 90/100


- Effective practice of using King and Thoreau as lenses.

- Your argument is based on solid, logical points and you provide ample persuasive detail.

- You write w/ clarity and precision.


Gabriella Wendt

English 5

10 March 2014

The Morality of Treason: Edward Snowden

                Morality is often defined simply as what guides right and wrong behavior. Some people believe that morality is intrinsically driven, and others believe morality is established by a higher power. Regardless of its origins, universal and cultural moral concepts influence and drive governments and laws across all nations.

Throughout the last few weeks, we have closely examined several respected perspectives on the concept of morality, but for the purposes of this paper, I will draw specifically from the ideas presented by Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau, and Michael Gazzaniga. Their ideas closely reflect my own in the belief that morality is an inherent responsibility. Gazzaniga illustrates this by writing “Evolution is saving the group, not just the person” (426). Investing in one’s own best interest, in the long run, does not benefit anyone, even oneself. It is the welfare of the group that affects the individual’s success, and I believe that Edward Snowden understood this.

In June of 2013, Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and contractor for the NSA, released thousands of classified intelligence documents to the media. He claimed it was an attempt to alert America and the world to what he believed to be crimes committed by the United States government against its people. These crimes included secretly accessing cell phone metadata, surveillance, wiretapping, bypassing encryption and privacy controls all without the peoples’ knowledge. When Snowden revealed himself as the source of the leak, the United States declared him a fugitive and charged him with espionage and theft of government property. Snowden then obtained temporary asylum in Russia after fleeing the US. Past whistleblowers, such as Chelsea (Bradley) Manning who is currently serving a 35 year prison sentence, have not been so lucky (Knowlton).  In the case of Edward Snowden, it is clear to me that he is a moral patriot; his “crimes” against the United States government were driven by his own conscience and the desire to help his fellow human beings.

Both Thoreau and King approached morality from the standpoint of duty. If one finds something to be morally unsound, it their moral obligation to do something about it; they both believed complacency to be one of the worst moral crimes. Thoreau asserted that “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right” (306) and “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong”(310). King agreed on this concept: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (382). Thoreau also went on to state that “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist the government when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable” (308). I am certain that these two great men would celebrate Snowden’s actions and in turn would help fight the uncovered injustice.

After making his initial discoveries, Edward Snowden tried to give his government the benefit of the doubt, but found that after a time he could wait no longer. In their profile on Snowden, the BBC reported that “Mr. Snowden said he had considered going public earlier, but waited to see whether President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 would change the US approach.”[Mr. Obama] continued with the policies of his predecessor.” Snowden believed that the actions the government took did not have the consent of the people of the United States. As Thoreau states “The authority of government … to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed” (323).

Edward Snowden’s actions, though condemned by the United States government, were celebrated by the majority of American voters. A Quinnipac University National Poll showed that 55% over 34% believed that Snowden was a patriot rather than a traitor. This belief was consistent regardless of political affiliation, gender, race or age.

Anthony Romero from the Huffington Post acknowledged “As a whistleblower of illegal government activity that was sanctioned and kept secret by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government for years, he undertook great personal risk for the public good. And he has single-handedly reignited a global debate about the extent and nature of government surveillance and our most fundamental rights as individuals.” Snowden listened to his conscience and took action; Thoreau and King would have found that to be the only reasonable option. Politico reported that “These actions have been accompanied by a sea change in public opinion about surveillance. Poll after poll has shown that for the first time ever, Americans think the government has gone too far in violating their privacy, with vast majorities believing the NSA scooping up a record of every phone call made in the United States invades citizens’ privacy.”

One could argue that when Snowden sought asylum in Russia, it was a sign of his crimes and treason, one might continue by saying that he should have been willing to submit to trial in the United States if he believed his actions were reasonable and just. King insists “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty… an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law” (384). But King also claims that “Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber” (385). However, in this case, the secrets stolen from the NSA do not make Snowden the robber. We the people are the robbed, we are the violated and the United States is the robber. Snowden was simply trying to open our eyes to the injustice of what was happening behind our backs. He is one of us, and thus should be protected as one of the robbed.

Based on the presented moral reasoning’s of Thoreau, King, and Gazzaniga, it is clear that Edward Snowden was acted on his conscience and that the United States government behaved in ways that were not sanctioned by its people. It was a moral responsibility to release the classified documents to the public and that is why I believe that Edward Snowden is not a traitor to our country. Rather he is a patriot and a hero.



Works Cited

Brown, Peter. Snowden Is Whistle-Blower, Not Traitor, U.S. Voters Tell Quinnipiac University

National Poll. Rep. Quinnipiac University, 1 Aug. 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

                Gazzaniga, Michael. “Toward a Universal Ethics.” Jacobus 415-431

Jacobus, Lee A., eds A World of Ideas Essential Readings for College Writers. Boston:

Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Jacobus 375-392

Knowlton, Brian. “Senators Differ Sharply on Penalty for Snowden.” The New York

Times. The New York Times, 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.

“Profile: Edward Snowden.” BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 6

Mar. 2014.

Romero, Anthony D. “Edward Snowden Is a Patriot.” The Huffington Post., 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” Jacobus 301-324

Timm, Trevor. “Edward Snowden Is a Patriot.” POLITICO. POLITICO LLC, 8 Oct. 2013. Web.

06 Mar. 2014.

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