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Stanford philosophers to discuss ethics of whistleblowing with Edward Snowden

Did his leaking of classified NSA documents make Edward Snowden a patriot or a traitor? Should he be praised for his heroic whistleblowing, or blamed for compromising national security, or abandoning his duty? 

On Friday, May 15th, Edward Snowden, former infrastructure analyst inside the NSA, will discuss “The Ethics of Whistleblowing” during a live recording of the nationally-syndicated radio program Philosophy Talk

Philosophy Talk co-hosts John Perry and Kenneth Taylor, professors of philosophy at Stanford University, will question Snowden on the dilemma faced by those with a duty to their employer, or country, to maintain secrecy, while feeling ethically compromised by their organization’s illegal or immoral practices.

Perry, Taylor, and Snowden (by videoconference from Moscow) will explore the philosophical tensions resulting from a conflicting sense of duty.  They will confront questions such as: What drives people to take this kind of action, given the serious consequences for whistleblowing?  Who has a duty to blow the whistle and under what kind of conditions? Do we need more transparency from government entities like the NSA?

The event, which sold out in under an hour, has drawn a great deal of excitement from the Stanford community. The recorded show will air on radio stations nationwide the week of July 3rd. In the Bay Area, it can be heard on KALW on Sunday, July 3rd, and again on Tuesday at noon.

“Each year, students in Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program (SSP) hold a Distinguished Speaker event, and Edward Snowden was their top pick this year,” said Taylor, who commented that although he is the SSP Program Director, the students ran with it and made it happen.” The students Taylor noted, also had the idea of involving Philosophy Talk in the event.  “We gladly agreed. I'm very impressed by their efforts!” 

Philosophy Talk, the “program that questions everything, except your intelligence,” is in its 11th season.  Heard in over 300 regions nationally, Philosophy Talk celebrates the value of the examined life.  Perry and Taylor invite listeners to join in conversations about issues from popular culture to our most deeply held beliefs, challenging listeners to identify and question their assumptions. 

Snowden has been quoted as saying, “I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American." A consequence of his whistleblowing act has been new reflection on what concepts like “traitor”, “hero”, and even “American” mean.

Critical analysis of familiar terms is precisely where Taylor and Perry say philosophy can be most useful, and as such, part of Philosophy Talk’s mission is to identify and question assumptions.

Taylor, the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Stanford, and an expert on the philosophy of language, logic, and mind, described the philosophical questions that Snowden’s case brings to light as “paradigmatic moral dilemmas.”

As they will explore on the show, whistleblowing produces “gut-wrenching cases of conflicting duties,” which Taylor explained by posing some of the questions Snowden’s story raises: “Did Snowden’s duty to the Americans public to expose potentially unconstitutional activity on the part of the U.S. government override his duty to the same public to protect government secrets? By what criteria can we decide in such cases?”

A professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford, and a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at UC Riverside, Professor Perry, who is the author of over 100 articles and books on a wide-range of philosophical issues, and a recipient of the Nicod and Humboldt Prizes offered a philosophical perspective on why Snowden is such a polarizing figure.

"If you're a big fan of government transparency, and worry about unchecked domestic surveillance, you're probably going to find Snowden's actions praise-worthy.” On the other hand, as Perry remarked, “if your main concern is about intelligence-gathering for the purpose of keeping Americans safe from foreign and domestic threats, you may be more inclined to heap blame on Snowden."


Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156,