The Wikileaks revelations and the saga of Julian Assange, its founder and editor, raise important questions about the morality of disobedience. When is it morally acceptable to defy the ruling authorities?
Oscar Wilde (himself jailed for having an affair with Lord George Douglas), once wrote "disobedience is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made". It is hard to dispute the essential truth of this: consider just a few cases (all women as it happens) - Rosa Parkes (bus boycott in the southern states, 1955), Josephine Butler (against Gladstone's 1864 Contagious Diseases Act and the degradation of women), Emily Davison (suffragette, who died under King George V's horse at the Derby in 1913); Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader in Burma, recently released after fifteen years under house arrest (her citation for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 read "she represents the power of the powerless") - these are among a long line of heroes who have taken on the ruling authorities and had lasting impact.
But Julian Assange? Wikileaks have now leaked thousands of pages of classified documents. Some (including video footage) show war crimes of American atrocities in Iraq, for example, of an Apache Helicopter shooting up unarmed civilians and then returning to shoot up a van which came to give aid - and grievously wounding two children inside. Lives, it's seem, are valued differently depending on which side you are on - an Iraqi life (over a million civilians have died since the invasion) is worth less than an American life (5,836 dead since the invasion in 2001). It doesn't seem as though the absolute equality which Kant implied in his famous formulation "never treat human beings just as a means to an end, but always also as an end in themselves", or Bentham implied by attributing equal value "everyone to count as one and no-one as more than one" has really been established in international relations.
There are good grounds for saying that greater openness, even if it means civil disobedience implied by leaking state secrets, is something that will serve the greater good in the long run, by making leaders more aware that history will in the end judge them by what really happened, rather than by what they said happened. We are already finding this with the Iraq inquiry which has exposed the falseness of the argument that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Both a Kantian and a utilitarian might condemn this kind of deception, a Kantian because truth telling is an absolute good, and a utilitarian because not telling the truth in international affairs stokes up bitterness and hatred that can stretch for generations, and fuel untold sufferings for many in the future.
Of course, if we had known this, we wouldn't have gone to war. One of the weaknesses of a utilitarian position is that it's easy looking backwards to say what causes suffering, but very difficult when looking forwards.
But isn't this what Wikileaks is doing - casting further light in hindsight which might just make the next decision based on foresight more morally justifiable?
"It is not power that corrupts, but fear," Aung San Suu Kyi once wrote. "Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." But even under the "most crushing state machinery, courage rises up again and again. For fear is not the natural state of man."