Professor Peter Ludlow of Northwestern University wrore a brilliant piece in NYT’s Opinion pages on the moral and ethics of whistleblowing, examplified by e.g. Manning and Snowden.
A lot of people have argued that by blowing their whistles, Manning and others acted morally, ethically as well as legally wrong when they broke the laws of their “System”, that they should have used the mechanisms available inside the System, such as reporting upwards in the System‘s chain-of-command, to get changes the System‘s behavior. Well, turns out that at least Manning did, and was not only ignored, but told to drop it and just “obey orders” (that does sound awfully much like 3d Reich, doesn’t it…?) .
Professor Ludlow argues the opposite, the basis of his argument being that if you are a Component of a System that in itself behaves immorally (or otherwise badly) , it would be immoral not to act, not to be a whistleblower – in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s words: “if you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud”.
Not only do I agree with Professor Ludlow’s reasoning, but futhermore his text is interesting also when seen from a Systems Theory point of view: most large organizations, and perhaps particularly heavily bureaucratic government organizations, tend to be constructed and organized from a perspective of Reductionism, Mechanism, and Determinism, with massive amount of stringent processes , procedures, rules and regulations, aiming at minimizing all randomness, variability and spontaneous, non-deterministic behaviour. In essence, such organizations are constructed to operate as a Newtonian orrery, where the “System”, once put to motion, will flawlessly and deterministically execute acording to its governing laws towards a fully predictable future state. No intrinsic events – except component malfunctions – can change the path of these types of systems.
Well, if the government and it’s subsystems (NSA etc) are constructed with this reductionistic and mechanistic mindset, then it will indeed be totally impossible to change the behavior of the System, and the outcomes of that System, from the inside: in order to change the operation of these types of systems, you need to step outside of the System, and implement the changes from there. And that’s exactly what the wistleblowers did: by blowing their whistles, they stepped outside of the System within which they normally operate, and by doing so, gave the System an external chock (public outcry),resulting in a change of future direction of the system. It’s like an astroid hitting a planet.
It still remains to see whether the chock also will result in any substantial and necessary changes to the configuration of the System, but the point I want to make here, to connect my musings to those of Professor Ludlow, is that without these whistleblowers, who detected the evil and immoral behaviours of the surveillance system, the system would not, indeed could not, have changed.
For systems to change from intrinsic factors, they need to allow for some randomness and variability in their operation and structure, or they need to be constructed from a complex systems theory point of view, allowing for variability, feedback loops and emergent behaviors.