Thursday, March 10, 2011

Anonymous and Breaking Laws Ethically

An article by MSNBC has a spokesperson for the group Anonymous, Berrett Brown, saying,

“Our people break laws, just like all people break laws,” he added. “When we break laws, we do it in the service of civil disobedience. We do so ethically. We do it against targets that have asked for it.”

(See MSNBC: Hacker group vows 'cyberwar' on US government, business.

One fact to note is that criminals generally like to think of their victims as asking for it.

The husband who beats his wife will claim that she asked - that she has done something wrong and deserves to be beaten. The same with the parent who beats her child.

The common murderer will tell you that his victim deserved to be killed for some affront or other - in some cases, for the mere crime of showing disrespect for the murderer or some group the murderer belongs to.

To the rapist, the woman asks for it by the way she dresses or the way she is alleged to treat men.

One of the differences between the criminal and the just - between those who act immorally and those who act morally - is that ethical people do not decide for themselves who deserves to be victims of violence and who does not. They subject their case to an impartial judge and jury. They create a set of rules that are posted publicly for everybody to see, they give everybody a voice in what those rules are, and, where those rules are broken, they present evidence to an impartial judge and jury who can make an unbiased decision.

Vigilantes - who claim the right to be accuser, judge, jury, and executioner on all matters - inevitably judge their enemies always to be guilty, and themselves always to be innocent. We see this in Brown's attitude. Anonymous can do no wrong. All of their enemies "have asked for it."

Brown also demonstrates that he has no understanding of the concept of civil disobedience.

We have three paradigm examples of civil disobedience in our history.

The first is Henry David Thoreau who, because he considered the American war with Mexico to be a war of aggression for the purpose of conquering territory belonging to another sovereign power, refused to pay taxes in support of such a war. He openly defied the government and peacefully went to prison.

The second was Ghandi's Salt Satyagraha. Ghandi's intention was to protest the British salt laws by breaking them. He announced to the government that he was going to break the law. He walked 240 miles (over 24 days) to the coast, and there, in full view of the public, broke the law in a way that did no harm to any person, and allowed himself to be arrested. While he sat in jail, 60,000 people followed his example.

The third example are the non-violent "sit ins" that took place during the civil rights movements. Restaurants and other facilities were divided into "white" and "colored" sections. Groups of blacks would walk into these establishments and sit in the "white" section. There, they would get arrested and be hauled off to jail.

There are two aspects of civil disobedience that Brown does not understand.

The first is that you cannot perform acts of civil disobedience behind a mask. The perpetrator of civil disobedience stands up and takes credit for his actions and announces why he is doing what he is doing. When he is arrested. He expects to be arrested. In fact, he plans to be arrested. That is a part of his message - that he cares so much for the principle he is standing for that he is willing to suffer a personal cost in defense of that principle.

The second, of course, is that acts of civil disobedience are . . . well . . . civil. The person who practices civil disobedience destroys nothing - damages nothing - and commits no acts of violence. Anonymous, on the other hand, is all about committing acts of violence against the property of other people.

Among the methods the group is vowing to use: posting personal information about the officials on the Internet, a method known as “doxing.” The group also this week issued a threat over the Internet to “harass” the staff at Quantico “to the point of frustration,” including a “complete communications shutdown” of its Internet and phone links.

These are acts that aim to destroy the usefulness of the property belonging to other people. If it was a house, we can destroy it by burning it to the ground. If it is a computer program or process, we destroy it by making code changes that make it unusable. There is no moral difference between these two acts of violence. Neither of them qualify as "civil".

Anonymous commits acts of violence. Of course, we are told, the victims of their violence "have asked for it" - and they have made themselves the accuser, judge, jury, and executioner. On this matter, please refer to the first part of this posting.

Acts of violence in defense of liberty is sometimes necessary. The Underground Railroad that helped slaves to escape into Canada provide an example.

There is more to be said on these issues than I can fit in one small post. However, one thing I can say is that Anonymous spokesperson Barrett Brown is utterly incompetent when it comes to discussing these issues. Nor do I see any sign from Anonymous itself that it is embarrassed at having such a display of incompetence in somebody claiming to be their spokesperson - suggesting that Anonymous itself, by and large, suffers the same deficiency.

Unfortunately, when a group of morally incompetent people claim the right to use violence against others, every decent person has a reason to worry what the results will be.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

One of the differences between the criminal and the just - between those who act immorally and those who act morally - is that ethical people do not decide for themselves who deserves to be victims of violence and who does not.

This seems like a very poor rule. You're pinning the morality of an action (choosing to do violence) on social approval.

And, it seems like you've randomly switched into deontological ethics. We have a bunch of assertions about behavior that is not-virtuous, but only a vague connection to why it creates bad outcomes.

We can make arguments about consequences. But, your examples are all about physical harm to individual people. You're using these to criticize a group that tries to interrupt the logistics of a corporation. So, I do not see that the consequences are remotely similar.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous

This seems like a very poor rule. You're pinning the morality of an action (choosing to do violence) on social approval.

As opposed to . . . what? Pinning it on the desires of the individual who seeks to do violence?

Actually, the system does not pin the morality of an action on social approval. It pins the morality of an action on relationships between maleable desires and other desires.

There is a distinction between what it takes for a proposition to be true, and how we know whether a proposition is true. There is a distinction between whether an accused is guilty in fact, and whether a particular agent is known to be guilty.

We know that personal bias has a tremendously powerful effect on belief - pulling people toward error. The reason to appeal to an impartial jury is not because the jury is always right, but at least they are free of quality that is a powerful cause of error - each person's diposition to judge themselves as always right and everybody else as always wrong.

The same principle is used in science. There is a distinction between the truth of a scientific claim and whether or not it is known to be true. Each scientist is thwarted by personal bias to see the evidence as confirming his theory. He amplifies in his own mind as relevant the evidence that supports his theory, and dismisses as anomalies evidence against it.

To eliminate bias, scientists turn their arguments over for pier review. (It is interesting to note that a great deal of pier review is anonymous. This is done to reduce another source of bias - reviewers who may be swayed by the fact that the paper comes from somebody with a famous name. The pier review process wants the reviewer to focus on the quality of the arguments themselves, and not be bullied by the fame of the person, or lack of fame, of the person who presents it.)

If Anonymous insists on being the accuser, judge, jury, and executioner in its own cases, we can well trust that they find any act of violence useful to its members to be justified. They will dream up reasons to see those they would do violence against as "deserving" of violence simply because of the human disposition all people have to believe what theyw ant to believe.
Civilized people put up institutions with the intention of protecting people from these biases. Places where these institutions are lacking tend to be the place where whole populations suffer significantly from the violence that results.


And, it seems like you've randomly switched into deontological ethics. We have a bunch of assertions about behavior that is not-virtuous, but only a vague connection to why it creates bad outcomes.

You will need to be more specific.


We can make arguments about consequences. But, your examples are all about physical harm to individual people. You're using these to criticize a group that tries to interrupt the logistics of a corporation. So, I do not see that the consequences are remotely similar.

This is a distinction without a difference. What qualifies something as a "harm" does not depend on whether the harmful act is done to a person, or to a tool that the person is using. Cutting off a person's hand and breaking his hammer count as harms because they both render the agent less capable of doing what the agent seeks to do. One is a greater harm because it thwarts more desires, but this is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

Anonymous said...

Here is one difference where I have to disagree with the premise. Anonymous is defending against illegal actions by adversaries that not only are themselves overwhelmingly powerful but are also able to invoke the wrath of the state, again, illegally. Neither Anonymous nor Wikileaks can ask or expect governments to intercede on their behalf, and, operating in the international ether, both they and their adversaries are functioning in places the law has yet to tread. Like the wild west, justice can sometimes only be delivered from the barrel of a [keyboard]. To expect -or wait- for due process would be to give further license to the banksters, who have already proven themselves immune to prosecution.

ethicalrealism said...

What about freedom fighters? Should the oppressed never fend for themselves?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

ethical realism

What about freedom fighters? Should the oppressed never fend for themselves?

Did I not say that there is more to be said on this subject than I can put into this post?

My point was not that all things that Anonymous does is immoral. My point is that this alleged spokesperson, Barrett Brown, seems to be incompetent in matters of ethics - that he does not understand the moral basis for the institution of trial by jury or the concept of civil disobedience.

If Mr. Brown had been giving sensible arguments, my response would have been different - and I might have even agreed with him. As it is, the arguments he provided proves that he is more interested in rationalizations and excuses than in reasons and justifications.