An uncomfortable morality…

Julian Assange has had a busy year. In a short space of time he has managed to make multiple headlines and countless enemies as the figurehead and catalyst of a unique free speech movement; Wikileaks. A runner-up for Time Magazine’s, “Man of The Year”, he has gained notoriety for being the principal editor of Wikileaks, the central activity of which has been the metered release of hundreds of diplomatic cables and government memos, none of which should have seen the light of day, let alone the world-wide web.

My interest in Assange lies in how his actions have been placed under a moral scrutiny by both the press and public alike. It is difficult to ignore the multiple sources, both media and public, that have labelled his actions as courageous. Indeed, some have called his decision to publicize the occasionally dubious actions of some nations’ leaders and representatives as the highest possible form of moral virtue.

I respectfully disagree.

Assange is indeed doing something dangerous. His choice to disseminate the Wikileaks contents have exposed him to inevitable retribution and his freedom and life are very much in danger as a result of his actions. However, it is imperative that we remember that while courage as a behavior has a relationship to risk and danger, this is metered only by the presence of a moral good. Exposing oneself to danger is not in itself courageous…doing so for the advancement of a greater good moves one closer to being labelled as courageous but even then there is an issue.

Assange will remain in the headlines for many months to come and although we have only seen a small proportion of the cables in the Wikileaks arsenal, it might be worth considering the extent to which “the moral good” has been advanced by his actions. What may seem as a selfless action for noble purposes (e.g. the telling of “truth”) can be brought into question by the specifics of Assange’s decision to release cables only to certain news sources. In doing so, Assange has moved away from advancing the case of “the moral good” towards advancing his construction of “the moral good”. Of course this isn’t to say that his construction is of immoral origin, but it is shaped by his decision to be selective in disseminating what he shares and indeed, who he shares it with.

I can’t help but bring into question how much more transparent and powerful his actions might be if he released cables to all news sources at the same time rather than cherry-picking those media outlets which seem to support (often with little critical interpretation) his actions. Detractors might be given far less ammunition to discredit the potential morality of his actions if there wasn’t such an obvious class distinction in how he appears to select those publications who are given access to details far in advance of others.

I feel it important to say that I think that Assange has shown a high degree of moral purpose in his actions but as I usually caution, we need to be attentive to how we attribute courage to actions not simply to preserve the integrity of that label but also to ensure that it is applied to those people and actions where moral advancement occurs ahead of personal or financial gain. Assange is indeed doing something admirable in advancing free speech but the extent to which he is courageous in doing so is still unclear to me. Maybe those labels and attributions need to be directed more towards Bradley Manning, whose fate, still undecided, lies outside the rule of civil law.

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About Neil D. Walshe

Neil Walshe is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of San Francisco, California. His research looks at the role of courage and cowardice in the workplace in order to understand how moral behaviors relate to the world of work. While much of his work focuses on military and high-risk occupations, he tries to place the concept within the realm of more traditional white collar professions.
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