Which ethical standard, if any, can a nation employ to protect secrets against adversarial intelligence services?

There is no universal ethical standard that a nation can employ to protect secrets against adversarial intelligence services. Every government has an interest in protecting state secrets as well as gathering intelligence on foreign governments. Ethical questions arise both from the activity of protecting secrets and gathering intelligence data, and the question is whether to use the same ethical standards as your adversary or to attempt to set a higher ethical standard.

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Your question poses the classic dilemma of how one party's ethical standard hinders it from achieving the same objective when the other party does not adhere to a similar standard. The question is both philosophical as well as has real implications and consequences if not answered. It goes to the...

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Your question poses the classic dilemma of how one party's ethical standard hinders it from achieving the same objective when the other party does not adhere to a similar standard. The question is both philosophical as well as has real implications and consequences if not answered. It goes to the heart of the primary function of government, which is to protect citizens from potential harm, whether from an adversary or natural disaster.

Americans and the world generally perceive the United States as a country of laws, rules, morals, and ethical standards. That reputation has been tarnished in recent years by revelations of the military and the CIA's unsavory tactics to extract information from suspected terrorists shortly after the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. At the time, the argument presented by government officials was that the severity of the attack and its unknown nature necessitated an American response that dismissed ethical concerns for safety. One can argue the abandonment of core ethical, legal, and historical ideals in the "war on terror" have lowered the perception that America has the highest of ethical and moral standards guiding decision making.

The example of 9/11 focuses on the basic premise of answering the question of what ethical position can be employed to protect a nation's secrets from falling into the hands of adversarial intelligence agencies. Taking America as an example, if you accept the notion that the government's primary responsibility is to protect citizens from harm, you can not reject the idea that the American response is to fight the enemy on the ethical terms they adhere to. The guiding ethical principle is whatever it takes to defeat an enemy intent on gathering intelligence to cause harm to American society, and this becomes the standard in which the government will operate. It is the Machiavellian principle; the ends justify the means. In its extreme, it is a position where no ethical principle exists, and the justification of the action becomes the de facto standard.

If you reject the Machiavellian notion and believe Americans should set the ethical standard for the world, then the guiding principle becomes that certain aspects of American life will be sacrificed to maintain moral authority in world affairs. Within the framework of American democratic practice, there are laws and oversight which guide decisions and promote the idea that Americans do not adopt the tactics of the enemy to maintain freedom and protect citizens. We are theoretically a legally, ethically, and morally just society that refuses to sacrifice ethical character for reactive political expediency. The world community should reject the ethical standard of the enemy and adopt the American ideal of democracy in its place.

Regardless of one's belief, there is incentive to deter a foreign adversary from probing secrets to gain an advantage. In truth, the reverse is also true. Americans have an equal interest in knowing what their enemies are up to. Both sides of the argument lead to the same conclusion; there is no ethical standard that protects nations from intelligence gathering. The only relevant ethical question is how far a government will go to obtain another's secrets and how extreme their tactics will be.

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