Problems in taxonomy (applied ethics edition): is Admiral Rogers a Humean or a Kantian?

A recent blog post by Dick Lipton and Ken Regan at Goedel’s Lost Letter (“Does logic apply to hearings?”) inspired me to write the post you are about to read. In brief, when the Director of the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael Rogers (pictured below), testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee a couple of days ago (7 June 2016), among other things, Admiral Rogers said: “I have never been directed to do anything that I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical, or inappropriate.” Although one can debate the constitutionality of NSA’s bulk collection of phone records (remember Jewel v. NSA?), here we shall focus on the morality/ethics of NSA’s data collection methods. (Like Adm. Rogers, we will use the terms “morality” and “ethics” interchangeably in this post.) Adm. Rogers’s blanket statement that he has never been told by his superiors (i.e. presidents Obama and Trump) to do anything morally wrong sounds good, but the problem with Admiral Rogers’s blanket denial is that, during the course of his testimony, he never discloses what theory of ethics he subscribes to. In short, what conception of morality steers his moral compass? 

Consider, for example, two of the most influential theories of moral philosophy: Humean versus Kantian ethics. If you are a Humean, i.e. a moral consequentialist, then you would most likely conclude that the NSA’s bulk data collection methods are indeed moral and ethical. Why? Because for a pragmatic consequentialist, the ends (protecting the homeland) generally justify the means (bulk collection of metadata). By constrast, if you are a Kantian, i.e. if you subscribe to some form of duty-based ethics, you would most likely find the NSA’s bulk collection methods to be morally wrong, a flagrant breach of individual autonomy and human dignity. As a result, since these two competing conceptions of morality can generate conflicting conclusions about whether a specific surveillance policy or course of action is right or wrong, at a minimum we need to know whether Adm. Rogers is a Humean or a Kantian before we can even attempt to assess the truth–or logic–of his testimony.

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