The Ethics Of Eavesdropping And Choosing An Ethical Theory For Personal Decision Making

The Right to Privacy and Government Eavesdropping

Post 1: Support a society that is wrong for one individual to eavesdrop on the telephone conversations of another citizen. Should the society also prohibit the government from listening in on its citizens’ telephone converstaions?

Suppose a society holds that it is wrong for one individual to eavesdrop on the telephone conversations of another citizen. Should that society also prohibit the government from listening in on its citizens’ telephone conversations?

This question appears to be simple at first because, in America, our society is structured on the Social Contract code of ethics. Every American citizen is bound by the same laws as every other citizen, including government officials. Part of our contract is the Right to Privacy Law. The right to privacy is “…the right to be let alone, in the absence of some ‘reasonable’ public interest in a person’s activities…” There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution or its amendments guaranteeing American citizens the right to privacy. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has created this right by synthesizing the Fourth Amendment (which prevents unreasonable search and seizures) with other constitutional amendments that “protect our freedom to make certain decisions about our bodies and our private lives without interference from the government.” So, if it’s wrong for individual citizens to eavesdrop then it should be wrong for the government to eavesdrop as well. Correct?

However, the legal right to privacy did not extend to government wiretapping (eavesdropping on telephone conversations) until 1967. In the case Katz v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant’s “…’reasonable expectation’ of Fourth Amendment protection” thus inferring that unreasonable search and seizure applies to a person’s private phone calls (even if those phone calls are regarding illegal activity). Before this case, government wiretapping was considered legal because there was an “…absence of a physical intrusion…” This was also part of the argument against the defendant in the 1927 case Olmstead v. United States. Olmstead was a bootlegger convicted on evidence gained from wiretapping. The Court upheld the guilty verdict and stated that “while wiretapping may be unethical no court may exclude evidence solely for moral reasons,” recognizing that eavesdropping was morally wrong, but convicting criminals was more important. Then, forty years later, in Katz v. United States Justice Potter Stewart wrote for the Court “The Fourth Amendment protects people, not places.” Consequently, the ruling in Katz v. United States overturned the ruling in Olmstead v. United States. Ultimately, the “wrongness” of eavesdropping on phones has been legally recognized for only forty-eight years.

This begs the question; which is more “right?” Protecting an individual’s privacy or stopping an illegal activity? Americans have answered this question with a compromise: warrants for eavesdropping can be granted to government agencies if reasonable suspicion of illegal activity is provided first. However, not all Americans agree to uphold this compromise or think that this compromise is necessary if they feel it a hindrance to pursuing criminals. A very famous, controversial example is described in the article Inside the NSA the Day After 9/11. This scenario is often compared to that of the dystopian novel 1984, except (as pointed out in Orwell’s 1984 Still Matters, Though Not in the Way You Might Think) it’s pointed out that America is under government surveillance not because our society chose communism but instead because it is afraid of terrorism. This example is extreme, but it is real. However, the argument remains that America’s social contract is that no citizen eavesdrops on any other citizen and that the government requires special permission to eavesdrop on criminals. Even when government eavesdropping was legal, it was still thought of as morally wrong. Therefore, regardless of the reason, it is still wrong for the government to eavesdrop on its citizens because it is wrong for the citizens to eavesdrop on each other.

The Benefits and Arguments of the Social Contract Theory

Post 2:

The discussion for 35. asks “if you had to choose only one of the ethical theories presented in this chapter and use it for all of your personal ethical decision making, which theory would you choose? Why? How would you respond to the arguments raised against the theory you have chosen?” – I’m using a real book not an ebook so I’m unsure if I’m still supposed to include hyperlinks or just reference what page I got my information from. 

Of all the ethical theories I read about I believe I agree most with the Social Contract Theory. In layman’s terms, this means living in a society where citizens have moral rules and a government that is capable of enforcing them. It is possible I have a bias to this theory because living in the United States we have a sound government which enforces the rules quite well (in comparison to the civil unrest in the Middle East). 

This theory also embraces having rights (such as absolute, negative, etc.). This is ideal for me personally because the language is based on rights, and referring to the possibility of me being biased, the book does state in reference to Western-style democracies “for people raised in these cultures, the concept of individual rights is powerful and attractive” (86). 

Secondly this theory helps why rational people act out of their own self-interest. In this scenario, I’ll use a different example than what the book listed. In this scenario we can talk about eating less meat to increase more sustainable practices. I could refrain from eating meat once a week, like what many of the eating places on Campus do (meatless Monday’s) which would help reduce the consumption of animals, increase agricultural land, and is likely better for my body. However- will these restaurants offering these meatless options become more crowded if the general student population is engaging in these practices as well? What if the vegetarian options being consumed are less sustainable? Is it in my best interest to wait in line and potentially consume something that is less healthy and wholesome than my regular diet (say what they provide is comprised of more processed foods like cheese and pasta). But- if no one else engaged in this sustainable practice then what would be the point? Would it be better to only offer a meatless option so that way full cooperation was necessary? Because the chances of adherence are higher when cooperation is guaranteed. 

It also explains why civil disobedience may be the right option, at times. In the book it discusses the innappropriateness of segregation. In this case I’ll target a similar controversial subject- gay marriage laws. Social contract is based on everyone receiving equal benefits for their burdens. If protests continue happening for gay marriage against the state the protestors are in, their actions are considered morally justified. The idea of not allowing people to marry whomever they love is now being considered unjust, meaning those individuals were morally right. 

Choosing an Ethical Theory for Personal Decision Making

There are also quite a few arguments against the social contract theory as well. For one, none of us signed up for this contract. But this theory is based on common sense, and the reason we live in a society with other people shows why we adopt moral guidelines. We would not want to cohabitate with one another if our rights felt violated, if our items were stolen and if we did not feel safe. Thus, it insures a mutual agreement. No one is bound to stay if they don’t want to. 

Another argument is the SCT does not explain how to solve a moral problem with there are conflicting rights, such as abortion. Getting around an argument for this, is trickier because in the end there is no real solution. One side is typically dismissed. However, in comparison to the other theories, which seem much more concrete, I would argue that there is always likely to be controversy and compromise with difficult scenarios. 

Post 3: According to the Golden Rule, one should treat someone else exactly the way they would like to be treated, but with this in mind, how would the rule effect the relationships between people personally and as a society whether it be in a positive or negative way?

This discussion really caught my eye, therefore I chose to write about it. Since the course syllabus says, “If more than one of you holds the question at the same time; don’t sweat it; post it anyway”, I am assuming its fine if more than one person chooses the same post.

According to the YouVersion App, which I personally use, the New King James Version Bible defines the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12 as “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets”. Ever since I was a kid in my Sunday school class, I was taught this rule and it has been embedded into my head. This rule does provide a good idea having the intention that everyone should be treated equally, although it does have a bad side to it as well. For example, imagine playing sports, there are two teams competing against each other in order to claim the prize but only one will win. If this rule were to be engraved in everyone’s brain, there would not be such a hobby as sports since you wouldn’t want the opposing team to win. The sports fanatic that I am, it would really be heartbreaking not being able to play a part in some kind of competition. Also, an incorrect intention could be that, if you were to get into an accident that completely ends up totaling your car, you might think, “why did this happen, I have never hit anyone before?”, then you might be like well now I can go total someone else’s car since I was hit and it better not be my fault. The greatest downfall of this rule would be that, if one were to follow it, they could just be used and abused by others that don’t according to “The Other Side of the Golden Rule”, but besides all this negativity, there is also the positivity it brings forth.

A few of the good sides to this rule would obviously be that thieves would not exist. Maybe even security and the invasion of privacy would not be an issue as much as it is today. Since we would not want someone invading our bank account and taking our money, we would not attempt it as well.

Some might take this rule out of context and expect to receive back whatever they give out of generosity if not more. A really good example would be the act of donating money. Some people out there would hope that if they donate a certain amount, they would receive the exact amount back if not double. Of course, this rule should not be treated in that sense just the same as the lottery, which should only be played for fun.

One interesting fact that I did learn was that there are different interpretations of the Golden Rule depending on which religion you follow. According to “The Universality of the Golden Rule in the World Religions”, it defines and compares how the Golden Rule is taken into account in Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and more. Also, another good source that showed this comparison was “The Golden Rule in World Religions (QUOTES)”.

The comparison between eavesdropping of citizens and government is totally different scenario and eavesdropping from the side of government which is for protection of general public and to curb terrorism. To cite an example, eavesdropping must be made legal from the side of government with proper reasoning and justifications. It must be made legal with all the possible amendments so as to make the nation less vulnerable to unethical threats. The notification of eavesdropping case must be sent to potential criminals after the procedure so as to catch up thefts or crimes in the region.

Therefore, as a matter of fact it should be completely confirmed that government holds an upper hand in responsibilities and rights and hence in terms of morality government should be given due regard. The examples defined in the post give critical aspect of this dilemma and morally analyze the eavesdropping scenario.

Even the most favorable theory in my point of view is social contract theory that points out that morality is a blend of set of rules that will govern the behavior and the conditions that other people may also accept them in total. It is observed that natural rights are the highest doctrines to be followed and owned by an individual. In all the forms of social contract theory, I favor the modern social contract theory where democracy or better known as self rule is the best way to ensure the common and widespread welfare in addition with maintaining freedom of an individual person under the rulebook of laws. This modern social contract theory shall be made the face of the world and the governments operating in those States so as to empower each and every individual along with the higher government. Democracy in its complete term is form of a social contract theory which is mutually beneficial for right makers and right practitioners. It was a revolution carried out by some of the philosophers giving their personal views about the theory but upholding the inherent essence of social contract theory in which state exists to serve the interest of the people which should be given some hold of the political power.

Implementation of Golden Rule as perceived in the post is the most justifiable format in which an individual could have perceived the rule. More than a rule, it is a form of code of conduct in which it is taught to act similar to an individual in a way we want ourselves to be treated. But, in my point of view, I would bend my personal view towards positive effects of such golden rule. Negative aspects of such Golden Rule as just a matter of understanding the change and transition in the society shall be slow and non uniform thereby accepting the behavior of the other people and acting rightly on our part. Positive effects of execution of such rule in the society and personal relationships shall outweigh any of the negative thought and hence would help the overall society to be able to transform in a better world.

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