Edward Snowden, a computer expert, and former CIA administrator released confidential Government documents to the press about the existence of Government surveillance programs. According to many legal experts and the US Government, his action violated the Espionage act of 1971, which identified the leak of State secret as an act of treason. Yet, despite the fact that he broke the law, Snowden argued that he had a moral obligation to act. He gave a justification for his “whistleblowing” by stating that he had a duty “to inform the public as to that which is done in there name and that which is done against them.” According to Snowden, the Government’s violation of privacy had to be exposed regardless of legality since more substantive issues of social action and public morality were involved here. Many agreed with Snowden. Few argued that he broke the law and compromised national security, for which he should be held accountable. Do you agree that Snowden’s actions were ethically justified even if legally prohibited? Why or why not? Make an argument by weighing the competing values in this case (20 Marks)  

Mentor’s Comment:
  • The ethical dilemmas involved in this case study are-
    • Legal Vs individual
    • Responsibility
    • Law vs morality
    • Security vs transparency
  • You can either agree with his actions or disagree. Substantiate your decision with your argument.


Individual freedom and rights at one hand and larger interest of society or the nation on the other are perennial sources of conflict. The given situation also highlights the very same fact. There are times when two competing values create a dilemma. 

In the present case the competing values are:

  • Morality Vs Legality
    • Morality is based on an individual’s opinions and values whereas legality focus primarily on the law system and forces of the government.
    • As a relativist philosopher, Immanuel Kant believes that human values are based mainly on the culture they grew up in (Kant and Cultural Relativism). He says that people choose whether something is right or wrong according to the influences of their familiar culture. 
    • Law is necessary to maintain order and minimum coordination in society. Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper.
    • In this case, Edward Snowden has legally violated the Espionage Act, 1917, but his actions must be looked at with his intentions to serve the larger public good.
  • Individual liberty (privacy) Vs National Security.
    • The Supreme court in Puttaswamy’s judgment has accepted Privacy as a Fundamental Right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. So any violation of individual privacy should always be within the confines of the law.
    • Individual liberty (privacy) seeks to provide individual space to humans. This value respects the intricate relations of a person, personal feelings of people, etc., which are essential because we are humans. National security seeks protection of society from all kinds of threats and it is the duty of the state to protect its citizens, boundaries, economy, etc. 
    • It should be understood that all these values cannot propagate mutually exclusive to each other. There must be certain limitations or domains under which national security and individual liberty should operate.

In the mentioned case, Snowden was in a dilemma and surveillance was a gross violation in the name of national security, so he was right in exposing the government. The New York Times rightly stated on Snowden’s actions, “He may have committed a crime, but he has done his country a great service.”

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago


2 years ago


2 years ago
Reply to  NJ_00

Parth Sir, Many answers in feb are not evaluated..