Edward Snowden and the virtues of courage, magnanimity, justice and civility

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/2803762/images/o-EDWARD-SNOWDEN-facebook.jpg

Edward Snowden is an American computer professional, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, and former contractor for the United States government. In 2013 he copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). He revealed numerous surveillance programs of the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecom operators and European governments.

“A subject of controversy, Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a traitor, and a patriot. His disclosures have fueled debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.”

Despite the controversy, I believe that Snowden embodies the technomoral virtues of courage and magnanimity.

In a TED Talk (above), Snowden reflects: “I want to make it very clear that I did not do this to be safe. I did this to do what is right. And I am not going to stop my work in the public interest, just to benefit myself”. He saw the dangers of mass surveillance and acted bravely, for the common good, and paid a high personal price–he had to flee the US and has been living in exile since. This concurs with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of courage: “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (p. 131).

Furthermore, Snowden exemplifies moral ambition and leadership; he acted from the conviction that mass surveillance needs to be checked and balanced with other values, such as privacy and transparency. This resonates with Vallor’s definition of magnanimity as a technomoral virtue that “enables and encourages moral ambition and moral leadership, two things sorely lacking in our contemporary technomoral milieu.”

Moreover, Snowden promotes the virtues of justice and civility.

In the same TED Talk (above) Snowden states: “We don’t have to give up our privacy to have good government. We don’t have to give up our library to have security”. He promotes finding better balances between security and privacy in the work of agencies like the NSA. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of justice: a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (p. 128).

Finally, when asked to reflect on his role, in the same TED Talk (above), Snowden replies that he sees himself primarily as a citizen–a citizen concerned with values like privacy and transparency. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of civility: “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action” (2016, p. 141).


Possibly, you find that Edward Snowden Aimee van embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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