Edward Snowden is no Socrates

The case of Edward Snowden is a tough one to cover.  This is because when it comes to judging his actions one must separate the information he revealed from the manner in which he revealed it, something that can be difficult to do depending on your opinion of the NSA’s spying programs.  For me, the fact that Snowden revealed two highly classified espionage programs in the name of warding off Big Brother does not validate the fact that he illegally leaked the information to the press and then fled the country.  This brings me to my two problems with Snowden and why he is no modern day Socrates.

The first is quite simple – no one elected Snowden to decide what intelligence programs should or shouldn’t be in place and which of them should be public.  By leaking the NSA programs to the press, Snowden ironically undermined the very system he proclaimed to be protecting: our system of representative government, whereby elected officials govern on behalf of the people.  The fact that you do not agree with a particular law or policy does not give you the right to circumvent the system of governance you have agreed to be a part of. While some people put Snowden’s actions in the same vein as a jury exercising its right to nullification (and some are arguing that any jury asked to judge Snowden should use this right), the difference is that the people on a jury are being asked, as part of the social contract between government and citizen, to apply their judgement to the case at hand. No one asked Snowden to put himself in the position of judge.  He elevated himself to that status, believing his opinions to be more valuable than those of the senators, congressmen, and officials who approved, oversaw, and implemented the programs he revealed.

My second problem with Snowden, and why I believe he is no Socrates, has to do with the importance of justice and the social contract.  After Socrates was convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and of impiety, and sentenced to death by a jury of his peers, his friend Crito visited him in jail to try to persuade him to flee the city with his help.  Having dedicated his life to truth and justice, Socrates countered his friend’s request by asking two simple questions. The first is whether “we should never willingly act unjustly, or that we should in some instances and not in others?”  In other words, can one ever justifiably act unjustly?  For Socrates, the answer is no because “acting unjustly is evil and shameful in every way for the person who does it,” and therefore, “one should not repay an injustice with an injustice, as the many think, since one should never act unjustly.”

After convincing Crito of the need to always act justly, Socrates then seeks to establish whether it would be just or unjust for him to flee from his punishment.  He does this by asking his friend his second question: “When someone has made an agreement with someone else, and it is just, must he keep to it or betray it?”  From Crito’s acknowledgement that one must keep to all just agreements, Socrates then argues that by fleeing the city he would be unjustly breaking his social contract with Athens and thereby damaging her laws and civic community. In a fictional conversation with the city’s laws, Socrates describes how by choosing to live in Athens his entire life he agreed to abide by her laws and the decisions reached through them. To flee Athens now because he finds her verdict against him unjust would be an unjust breach of contract with the city and therefore would violate the principle that one should never act unjustly.

To quote at length,

Consider then, Socrates” the laws might say, “whether we speak the truth about the following: that it is not just for you to try to do to us what you’re now attempting (fleeing). For we gave birth to you, brought you up, educated you, and gave you and all the other citizens everything we could that’s good, and yet even so we pronounce that we have given the power to any Athenian who wishes, when he has been admitted as an adult and sees the affairs of the city and us the laws and is not pleased with us, to take his possessions and leave for wherever he wants.  And if any among you wants to live in a colony because we and the city do not satisfy him, or if he wants to go somewhere else and live as a foreigner, none of us laws stands in the way or forbids him from taking his possessions with him and leaving for wherever he wants.”

“But whoever remains with us, having observed how we decide lawsuits and take care of other civic matters, we claim that his man by his action has now made an agreement with us to do what we command him to do, and we claim that anyone who does not obey is guilty three times over, because he disobeys us who gave birth to him, and who raised him, and because, despite agreeing to be subject to us, he does not obey us or persuade us if we are doing something improper, and although we give him an alternative and don’t angrily press him to do what we order but instead we allow either of two possibilities, either to persuade us or to comply, he does neither of these.”

“Aren’t you,” they might say, “going against your contract and agreement with us ourselves, which you were not forced to agree to nor deceived about nor compelled to decide upon in a short time but over seventy years, in which time you could have gone away if we did not satisfy you and these agreements did not appear just to you.”

By breaking his contract with the city, Socrates would not only be committing the unjust act of unilateral abrogation, but he would also be severely damaging the city’s laws and all the reputation it derives from them.  Again, to quote the fictional conversation,

“By attempting this deed (fleeing), aren’t you planning to do nothing other than destroy us, the laws, and the civic community as much as you can?  Or does it seem possible to you that any city where the verdicts reached have no force but are made powerless and corrupted by private citizens could continue to exist and not be in ruins?”

Of course, we know how this story ends.  Socrates believes the arguments of the city are just and chooses to stay and die rather than flee.  This is not what Edward Snowden did. Not only did he elevate himself to the position of judge with regard to the NSA’s spying programs, but he then followed up his unjustified leaks by breaking his social contract with and making a mockery of the very society he is professing to protect.  In other words, he is a coward and hypocrite who should be resolutely condemned for his actions.  He is no modern-day Daniel Ellsberg who, after leaking the Pentagon Papers, turned himself in to the authorities, saying “I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”  While Ellsberg’s actions supported the idea that the will of society, as expressed through its laws, must be respected, Snowden’s actions send the message that it is up to individuals to decide whether the law applies to them or not.  This is a very dangerous suggestion, and one completely at odds with democracy and the rule of law.

In sum, regardless of what you think of the NSA’s programs, it is important we do not elevate Snowden to the position of hero or martyr.  By doing so we praise a man who believes he is above the law and encourage others to follow in his steps.  For those of you who believe the NSA programs are an atrocity and are disposed to defend Snowden’s actions, ask yourself this: Do you really want individuals who will flee from justice deciding the merits of government programs in place of your elected officials who you can vote in and out of office?  By siding with Snowden you are implying “Yes” and setting a precedent that could do more damage to our country than any NSA spying program ever could.

4 thoughts on “Edward Snowden is no Socrates”

  1. this excellent essay elucidates on the defining difference between Snowden and previous whistleblowers. Socrates and Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers of 1971) stayed in harm’s way and put their faith in the justice system. Snowden has made the argument that his moral compass is above the law. Some have argued Snowden epitomizes the self-interested Millienial generation. That strikes me as an exaggeration, but it’s not central to this piece. Thanks for this great article, Stephen.

    1. I get what you’re saying, but morality isn’t often as black and white as the slavery example you give. I think it’s a stretch to say Snowden’s actions fit this model.

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