Edward Snowden, speaking about his decision to become a whistleblower:
I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945: “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”
Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell US secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice.
That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets.
Can doing ‘the right thing’ really require one to break an oath or pledge or to do what is illegal? Do we really sometime have ‘a duty to violate domestic laws’? Does a person’s complicity in a practice they come to regard as wrong make them a hypocrite? What is the relationship between integrity and whistleblowing?
One way we might think about this last question is through the concept of ‘parrhesia’, as described in Foucault’s essay, ‘Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia’:
[P]arrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.
- Statement by Edward Snowden to human rights groups at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Friday July 12 2013.
- ‘Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society’. Statement by Chelsea Manning on sentencing.
- Foucault, ‘Discourse and Truth: the problematization of Parrhesia‘