Is it wrong to spy?

Pragmatism can sometimes override ethics
June 18, 2014

Famous spies like Kim Philby fascinate the popular imagination because of their moral complexity.

If there is one thing that the recent indictment of Chinese spies by US authorities shows, it is that spying is commonplace. I mean by “spying” the use of covert and usually illicit means to get sensitive information not available through public channels. Spying is not confined to security services gathering data on enemy militaries or terrorist organisations. Allies spy on allies, commercial groups spy on rivals, governments sponsor spying on various sectors of other countries’ economies to gain an advantage for their own. Research and development data can be of key interest in this respect.

Economic spying is what was at stake in recent US irritation with China. The US had long been warning China of its disquiet over such activities, and at last lost patience. The indictment of the Chinese spies, citing names and issuing photographs, was a sign of that.

Is spying moral? Some would argue that it is necessary, and necessity knows no morality. From our armchairs we look down on such arguments; expediency has committed too many crimes in history for us to listen—at least when ensconced in our cushions. But out in the chill arena of practicality, things look different. The fact that others are spying on us—so some argue—is a good enough justification for returning the compliment, not out of pique but because advantage and disadvantage in matters of information translates into such solid facts as factories opening and closing, and people gaining or losing jobs: real things happening to real people.

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Does pragmatism override morality in this sphere? If an entity such as a government or a business steals information from another entity—say, potentially useful results of research paid for by the latter—then it is not only a criminal but a moral transgression. Harm has been done, injustice perpetrated: that is what interests morality. Merely watching another entities’ activities—where the entity is a corporate body, not an individual (the default on individual privacy is that it should be sacrosanct)—in a way that amounts to neither harm nor injustice is not immoral, though it might well be illegal in a given jurisdiction.

Some would think that Chinese prying into US companies’ secrets is not immoral as such, until it amounts to the step that follows theft of intellectual property: concrete disadvantage to those companies due to use of the stolen property. Others would reply that since this latter is the aim of spying in the first place, the distinction makes no difference.

The dialectic here illustrates what so often happens when the idealisations of philosophy meet the realities of life. We would like snooping and stealing (of ideas as well as of things) to be outlawed because they are immoral, and immoral because they are harmful and unjust, and these in turn because of their deleterious effect on real lives. How can one temporise over questions of harm and injustice? The hard-nosed will say that there are times and causes when it is unavoidable—and alas, one accepts that this view will often, and no doubt too often, prevail.

But it does not stop us from calling a spade a spade. Let us separate spying to get information that helps us to guard against enemies, from spying intended to yield advantages to the spy’s side of things at the expense of the spied-upon’s side of things, where such advantages do or can result in harm of various kinds. Because spying consists of snooping and stealing it deserves judgement in moral terms.

Such emphatic high-mindedness is a risky commodity. It is important to remember that moralisers (those who, because they themselves dislike something, want everyone else to stop doing it) are in the business of emphatic high-mindedness, and examples of it always encourage them to extend it where it does not belong. On John Stuart Mill’s excellent grounds for being generous and tolerant in our attitude to what the moralists’ most love to interfere in, namely other people’s private lives, we must reserve emphatic high-mindedness to topics that really merit it. Spying might not seem an obvious candidate for such. But perhaps it really sometimes is.