“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.” – Isaac Asimov, Foundation

Wikileaks has been in the news again, this time for leaking up to 5.5 million emails stolen from an intelligence gathering company named Stratfor. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange justified the leak, claiming:

“Here we have a private intelligence firm, relying on informants from the US government, foreign intelligence agencies with questionable reputations and journalists […] What is of grave concern is that the targets of this scrutiny are, among others, activist organisations fighting for a just cause.”

One of those “activist organisations fighting for a just cause” is Wikileaks itself, as the group’s website claimed:

“The material contains privileged information about the US government’s attacks against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and Stratfor’s own attempts to subvert WikiLeaks.”

Meanwhile the phone-hacking scandal in Britain returned to public attention with the news that singer Charlotte Church accepted a £600,000 settlement from the company that eavesdropped on her voicemail messages and published sections of her mother’s medical records. Perhaps in anticipation of further scandal, the executive chairman and heir apparent of News International, James Murdoch, resigned his position within the much maligned company.

These two organisations engaged in illegal practices to obtain private or privileged information for their own ends. What sets them apart in the minds of many is that only one of these organisations is, in the words of its founder: “fighting for a just cause”.

For most of us, lying for a good cause is the low-tech equivalent of hacking for one. Around this time last year, a pro-life activist group called Live Action released videos showing, among other things, a Planned Parenthood worker apparently “advising a sex trafficker how to get medical care for prostitutes as young as 14”. The “sex trafficker” was in fact a Live Action activist, and many in the pro-life community expressed their support for this “undercover sting”:

“LIVE ACTION film representatives are ACTING; they are investigative reporters who have identified real life victims and are presenting their stories in order to gain documented evidence on Planned Parenthood’s hidden agenda. It is the right and duty of citizens to ‘whistle blow’ when they believe crimes are being committed.”

More recently, a water and climate scientist, Peter Gleick, made news after he used another person’s identity to obtain secret finance and strategy documents from the Heartland Institute think-tank. He then leaked them anonymously to the media. Gleick subsequently apologised and publicly revealed his role in the leak:

“My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected.”

Though Gleick’s morally questionable actions have cast doubt over his career, plenty of people have no doubts about the value of his efforts. As one environmental activist explained:

“Peter Gleick, a scientist who is also a journalist, just used the same tricks that any investigative reporter uses to uncover the truth. He is the hero and Heartland remains the villain. He will have many people lining up to support him.”

Others commenting on the Gleick case agreed:

“Gleick has done what is morally responsible, he has exposed the truth that Heartland are not to be trusted. Detectives and journalists use deception and subterfuge against criminals and against people who are dishonest in order to get information that would be impossible or next to impossible otherwise to [sic] via honest means.”

Given the ongoing investigation into the phone-hacking scandal in England, an appeal to the privileged moral order of journalistic tricks might not have the desired effect. But such appeals are the instinctive response of those who feel that, given the gravity of the situation, different moral rules must surely apply. “I’m not a liar, I’m an investigative journalist.”

The problem is that every ethicist worth his salt has traditionally acknowledged two principles:

(1) It is not good for us to lie.
(2) It is not good for us to do something not good (such as lying) even when doing something not good has good consequences. Got that?

Those of us immunised against the cultural baggage that accompanies certain words will recognise point 2 in the grammatically superior yet infinitely more loaded phrase: “we may not do evil that good may come.”

Unfortunately, our culture has been well marinated in narratives – both real and fictional – where the good guy, the antihero, does a host of morally dubious things so that good may come and justice be served. We have grown comfortable with the idea that a character of questionable moral integrity can be redeemed if he puts his talents to work for a just cause. We immediately relate to motifs such as “a cop who cares more for justice than rules”, a theme exemplified by the eponymous antihero of the Dirty Harry movies, and which influenced a whole genre of subsequent films, books and TV series. We love Han Solo, even though he did shoot first.

In such tales, a character who does everything by the book is a naïve rookie who quickly learns that the real world doesn’t abide by simple rules. Alternatively, he’s the kind of empty figure for whom justice is secondary to the law, to his orders, or even to his own career advancement. Either way, the scrupulous are little more than an obstacle to the antihero’s crusade.

So while we might, in the context of a calm ethical discussion, agree that lying is not good and we therefore ought not to do it, it is hard to sustain this conclusion in the face of an engaging narrative. Live Action didn’t lie; its members courageously uncovered the abortionists’ hidden agenda. Gleick didn’t lie; he boldly revealed the truth about a nefarious institution funded by big corporations to distort the climate change debate. They fit the antihero profile: they did what was necessary to bring the truth to light.

That puts us ethicists by default into the position of “naïve or vacuous stickler for the rules”; forced to issue with tedious yet dispassionate solemnity our warning that lying is not good for you, and how therefore could a course of action dependent upon lying ever be considered good? Nobody likes moralists or martinets. We might keep our hands clean, but nobody wants to shake them. The antihero narrative is just too powerful to be undone by dispassionate reason. “You know kids, Batman is a great character; but he shouldn’t take the law into his own hands, regardless of how much unparalleled good he thereby achieves.”

Batman is a great character – the antihero of a gripping set of stories. But if we can’t get past the appeal of the antihero narrative how are we to know – I mean really know, not just feel or imagine – the difference between good and evil, right and wrong? The fact is that a good story engages our passions more than our reason. Our sympathy for the antihero overwhelms our reason, leaving us unable or unwilling to look at these moral issues in the cold hard light of day. Vigilantism is morally wrong, but out of sympathy – conformity of passion or feeling – we are reluctant to reach the logical conclusion that Batman is in the wrong.

If we do not accept that Batman is in the wrong, then reason dictates one of two options: either he is not a vigilante, or vigilantism is not morally wrong. The same reasoning is apparent among those who reject the conclusion that Live Action or Peter Gleick were in the wrong, and are thereby forced to argue either that their actions did not constitute lies, or that lying is not morally wrong. This is what happens when we allow our sympathy for the antihero to influence our moral reasoning. And yet the antihero narrative remains extremely compelling, and the moral case against lying feels correspondingly weak.

How do we resolve this tension between morality and sympathy for the antihero? The answer, according to the great moral traditions, is to suspect our own passions.  The ancient Chinese Sages, the philosophical and moral heart of Chinese thought, put it well (via their German Lutheran Sinologist intermediary):

“Even a single passion still lurking in the heart has power to obscure reason.” 

If, in most situations, we would readily agree that lying is wrong, then we should beware of scenarios that tempt us to passionately conclude that lying is not only blameless, but a good and noble thing.  If our entire moral code accepts at face value that we should not take the law into our own hands, then we must tread very carefully around narratives and tales that make vigilantism seem like the right and proper course.  We should be especially wary when our entire culture exhibits a consequentialist “ends justify the means” mentality on so many fronts.  

The reality is that antiheroes were once fresh and confronting. Dirty Harry was once a challenging moral character before the tough cop became a cliché. Even Batman was new once. What we need to recognise is that our sympathies can be manipulated over time and with repetition. Antiheroes are now so common that we think of them simply as heroes, but familiarity has bred acceptance rather than contempt.

What we need is to refresh our passions, and clear out our sympathies. We need to be able to consider a moral act on its own merits, not blinded by the context of a gripping battle against evil, or an heroic struggle with nefarious organisations. We need to consider our own actions without the distortive effect of consequentialist temptations. The evil actions committed by others do not alter our own moral reckoning. You are not a hero, an investigative journalist, or a spy. You are an ordinary human being considering whether it is good or bad to tell a lie. Forgetting other people’s stories and the dubious lessons of our culture, the answer should be clear.

Let the Chinese Sages have the last word:

“If evil is branded, it thinks of weapons, and if we do it the favour of fighting against it blow for blow, we lose in the end because thus we ourselves get entangled in hatred and passion. Therefore it is important to begin at home, to be on guard in our own persons against the faults we have branded. In this way, finding no opponent, the sharp edges of the weapons of evil becomes dulled… the best way to fight evil is to make energetic progress in the good.”   

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia. 

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...