Wikileaks has made the news once again for leaking confidential documents. This latest batch consists of 251,287 cables from Unites States embassies. While most of the documents are not classified, some are and this is a matter of concern to American officials.
While there are various legal concerns regarding these documents, my main concern is with the ethics of this leaking. I will consider various arguments in the course of the discussion.
One argument in favor of the leak is the classic Gadfly Argument (named in honor of Socrates because of his claim to the role of the gadfly to the city of Athens). The gist of the argument is that the people in government need to be watched and criticized so as to decrease the likelihood that they will conduct and conceal misdeeds in shadows and silence.
Given that governments have an extensive track record of misdeeds, it certainly makes sense to be concerned about what the folks running the show might really be doing under the cloak of secrecy and national security. If it is assumed that being part of the government does not exempt these people from moral accountability, then it would seem to follow that leaking their misdeeds is, in general, a morally acceptable action. After all, it would seem to be rather absurd to argue that people have a moral right to keep their misdeeds a secret.
The obvious reply to the Gadfly Argument is that even if it is granted, it does not cover all of the leaked material. After all, not all of the material deals with moral questionable activities that should be thus exposed to the light of day. As such, more would be needed to justify such a leak.
A second obvious argument is based on the assumption that in a democracy the citizens have a moral right to know what the folks in the government are doing in their name. This right can be based on the idea that the citizens are collectively responsible for the actions of their government and hence have a right (and need) to know what is actually going on. This right could also be based on the notion that the citizens need to be properly informed so as to make decisions. Since power comes from the people, one might argue that the people have a right to know about how that power is exercised and the information to (in theory) exercise it wisely.
To use a specific example, given the support the United States provides to Saudi Arabia, the citizens of the United States would seem to have a right to know that the Saudis provide funding to anti-American terrorist groups. That information seems quite relevant in deciding how we should deal with Saudi Arabia and to conceal such things from citizens seems to be rather wrong.
To use another example, given the truckloads of public money being dumped into Afghanistan, the American public (and the world) would seem to have the right to know about the widespread corruption.
The obvious reply to this approach is to contend that the good of the people sometimes requires that the state keep secrets from them and others. In support of this, the usual sort of utilitarian argument can be trotted out: to create the most good for the people (and, of course, the world) the United States must sometimes engage in secret activities that might cause problems if they were known. However, this secrecy is justified for the greater good that it creates.
This argument does have significant appeal. After all, the main function of a state is to protect the citizens and ensure the good of the people. This might (and perhaps often does) require actions that might be morally questionable or at least rather embarrassing. As such, for the good of the people, these things must be concealed. Diplomacy, it can be contended, requires considerable duplicity, two-faced behavior and various social games that require secrecy. In this regard, diplomacy between diplomats is very much like diplomacy between friends and co-workers: to get along it is sometimes best that we do not know everything we really think about each other. As such, these leaks could be harmful to international relations and thus the leaking might be wrong.
There are also legitimate reasons to conceal things that are not morally questionable or embarrassing. For example, military secrets or details of intelligence operations seems to fall under the realm of things that can generally be legitimately kept secret. Such leaks could be morally wrong.
This discussion leads to my final point. Given that there can be legitimate grounds for secrecy and real harms arising from leaks, there is a clear need to judge what to leak and what not to leak with due wisdom and moral authority. While the folks at Wikileak claim that they review the documents, it is still a matter of grave concern as to how well the material is assessed before leaking. After all, leaking information about vile misdeeds or exposing wicked deceptions is laudable. Leaking information that undermines attempts to resolve conflicts peacefully or puts people at risk needlessly is certainly morally dubious at best.
Determining who should decide what should be known and what should be secret is a rather difficult matter. Naturally, the folks in the government are likely to be biased and hence their judgment cannot be completely trusted. I have my doubts about the wisdom and moral authority of the folks at Wikileaks, but the need for gadflies does seem clear. However, it would be nice to have gadflies as wise and as ethical as Socrates.