Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy where the moral justification of a course of action is established based on its ability to accord tangible benefits to a more significant number of beneficiaries than those who lose out. Therefore, utilitarianism justifies its decisions based on establishing the number of benefits against the losses. If the former exceeds the latter, then the course of action was warranted. Such decision-making processes that pit morality and the balance between benefits and harm have long been a source of great scholastic and social contention.
This short essay uses the practical method of making moral decisions to analyze the justification for government surveillance over its citizens.
The utilitarian method of making moral decisions is a unique process that involves establishing the possible benefits and harms of each course of action associated with the same decision. This process includes first identifying all possible courses of action that are directly applicable to the issue in need of attention (Białek and De Neys 634).
In this scenario, all possible courses of action are listed down and established as feasible solutions based on both merit and outcome. Afterward, each of these possible solutions is analyzed individually and its benefits and harms are identified. Lastly, the course of action that offers the highest number of advantages as opposed to harming its subjects is chosen.
Many governments have adopted the much-criticized approach of surveillance on their citizens to identify terrorists, public enemies, and significant criminal activity before they become a reality. However, there is a moral dilemma in doing so because although these governments are intent on keeping their citizens safe, these methods also constitute a breach of privacy and espionage on the citizenry.
Every citizen that is not under investigation for criminal activity is entitled to their right to privacy. Therefore, the argument on whether this method of establishing public safety and curbing major crime or terrorism is justified seems to be a perfect scenario for the utilitarian approach to moral decision-making (Ferrin 71). The value applicable in this scenario is the right to privacy and be free from espionage, which is also highly desirable in the currently connected world. Breach of the peoples’ rights to confidentiality usually causes enormous scandals and mass unhappiness.
Another value that becomes evident in the course of analyzing the case scenario is trust in government systems. Although governments are tasked with the safety and welfare of their citizens, spying and collecting information from them breach the same trust these beneficiaries have for their leadership (Day 34). While the government could be interested in maintaining peace and avoiding significant attacks and crime, their processes could also end up eroding the trust that their beneficiaries have in them.
The moral dilemma pitting an overzealous government keen to protect its citizens and the citizenry concerned about their privacy could benefit from three possible solutions. First, the government could cease surveillance on its people altogether and seek alternatives to identifying potential threats to the people and government. Another possible solution would be to establish specific criteria for continued surveillance to prevent even obviously innocent citizens from suffering the breach of rights (Dunn Cavelty 704). One such approach would involve people with known connections to terror groups, gangs, or threats to the government. If such suspects and their immediate families are identified, court warrants could be sought to begin surveillance on them and their networks. The third possible solution to this moral dilemma is continued surveillance of the people as a discrete process. Although this solution offers benefits for both citizens and their government, it would aggravate the already dire situation.
The second solution is perhaps the most beneficial for all parties involved. Creating an exclusive criterion for continued government surveillance based on past criminal behavior, links to terror and criminal groups, or extreme views against the government seems to be a fair justification. This solution would protect innocent citizens from scrutiny into their lives and the attached breach of their rights to privacy. Consequently, the citizens would be happy that their right to privacy is protected and the welfare of society is still very much a priority to the government based on its targeted surveillance (Ferrin 80). Such circumstances would create the most happiness in modern society given its attachment to privacy rights and the growing concern over safety and security.
Another solution whose impact on global happiness elicits interest is the last one where the government continues surveillance albeit in a more discrete manner. It is not a secret that governments such as the United States, China, and Russia continuously monitor their peoples’ lives online and offline without telling anyone about it. This government surveillance elicits a lot of negative sentiment from people, especially those in more liberal countries such as the United States (Day 37). However, the same activity also assists in identifying possible threats to security such as terrorist groups meaning there are distinct benefits too. Therefore, this solution has the most negative impact on global happiness based on its effect on peoples’ rights to privacy.
The last resolution, which was a complete closure of all government surveillance on its people, would also have its outcome regarding global happiness. When the United States was exposed through turned intelligence operatives such as Edward Snowden, it ceased its blanket policy of surveillance after the uproar these revelations caused. However, the government had to seek alternative forms of intelligence gathering and surveillance processes leaving it exposed to extremists and domestic terrorist attacks (Dunn Cavelty 708). This solution may have a two-fold effect on global happiness. The first reaction is happiness because the government has been exposed and ceased all surveillance activities thus upholding citizens’ rights. However, once a major criminal or terror attack occurs due to the government’s shortcomings in intelligence gathering and surveillance, that happiness turns to anger and disappointment.
Based on these considerations, the most beneficial way of solving the moral dilemma of a government involved in surveillance targeting its people is the second solution. When a government creates a unique set of requirements that justify its continued monitoring of the subjects, it is principally involved in a utilitarian method of decision making. This solution would involve identifying possible suspects based on past criminal records, links to known gangs and extremist groups, and extreme views on government and society (Ferrin 83). Additionally, the suspects’ friends, family members, and all known associates would also be placed under surveillance. The rest of society would be free of all forms of supervision or investigation. This solution benefits the government by providing it with a reliable source of intelligence, reducing intelligence-gathering costs, and speeding up crime prevention. It also helps people by protecting their rights to privacy while keeping them safe through effective crime prevention processes.