Privacy and Surveillance

Utilitarian ethics have a linkage to principles of utilitarianism that have a tracing back to writings by Jeremy Bentham (Shanahan & Wang, 2003). During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Bentham was a legal reformer who worked at finding an objective based viewpoint that would provide England with a framework of the laws that is viable for adoption. This framework is supposedly meant to be accepted by the majority of the public. Thus, he held a belief that the best way to reach an agreement on such a framework would be to go with the idea that would be most beneficial to a greater majority of the public (Shanahan & Wang, 2003). This decision also involves considering harms such that the hazards and harms are considered before the decision is arrived at. This means that his motto was the number of people that it will benefit with greater numbers having more preference determines the best decision.

Following Bentham’s thoughts and ideas on utilitarianism, issues that may arise in terms of privacy and surveillance can be resolved by considering whether they are of benefit to many or not (Harris, 2002). This means that surveillance of individuals and invasion of their privacy for greater good is permitted if it benefits most of the public. If it is beneficial to most of the public, then the public are likely to endorse it. For instance, a company or an organization whose stakeholders invest large amounts of money will most likely implement a policy that allows them to monitor their employees. This is because the greater public (stakeholders and customers) will feel safer if they know that those who are handling their money are under strict surveillance. Such a decision will be made even if they are aware that such surveillance will be an invasion of the privacy of the workers. This surveillance could be in the form of monitoring personal emails and activities during out of office hours.

Utilitarian ethics differ in terms of the type of questions that are asked before an individual makes a decision. Based on the types of questions that are asked, one can judge the types and nature of decisions that they are supposed to make. One of the questions asked in utilitarian ethics is what effect of the act will have on the general or overall balance that exists between good and evil (Shanahan & Wang, 2003). As such, decision is unrelated to the type of action that will be taken but on the nature of the consequence of the action. This implies that if a lie would be of more benefit that the truth, then the lie would be the preferred choice of activity. When this ethical standpoint is applied to issues that often surround privacy and surveillance, it follows that invasion of privacy and surveillance would be approved if the balance of the consequences shifts towards greater good than evil. This decision is two sided in that if the invasion of privacy and surveillance through technology will results in more evil, then the decision made will veer towards less or no surveillance and invasion of privacy.

Despite the fact that utilitarian views on ethics differ, there are commonalities, in that, if the consequences better, then the decision which leads to that consequence should be preferred (Shanahan & Wang, 2003). The harmful and beneficial consequences of actions should be balanced. This type of thinking leads to most decisions which concern privacy and surveillance ignoring the harmful nature of invasion of privacy and surveillance since the greater beneficial consequence of averting danger exists. For instance, today’s high tech world has led to terrorists and other individuals and groups involved in organized crime embracing the anonymity of the internet. As a result, the need to monitor technology use by private citizens and invasion of their privacy through technology has increased. Despite the raising of some concerns, this decision has remained adamant in the minds and practices of governments. According to utilitarian ethical theory, the more moral decision is the one that will result in a greater balance between harmful and beneficial consequences (Harris, 2002).

Like other ethical theories, utilitarian theories also present certain difficulties. While these theories are popular in numerous fields of ethical decision-making theories, they are concerns that arise in their consideration as a sole source of moral compass (Miller & Williams, 1982). Some of these issues arise because of the dynamic nature of decisions as to things that are considered to be beneficial and those that are considered to be harmful. There is hardly, if any, a consistent measure of what is beneficial and what is harmful. This means that the power to make certain ethical decisions remains in the hands of the dominant ideologies. This is while the less dominant ideologies are often the recipients of certain policies that are implemented through utilitarian ethics. For instance, in a state organization the key players are government officials while the recipients of the policy implementations are the citizens. In such a case, the state officials will make decisions that regard to the consequences that are deemed to be beneficial and those that are harmful. Following this, when a decision to invade the privacy of citizens through surveillance is made, the citizen’s rights will be invaded for greater good that they may not necessarily agree with.

In addition, there are issues that arise in utilitarian ethics and are related to the prediction of consequences (Mill, 1957). These issues are underlined by the fact that the chances of one predicting the exact consequences of their actions are one of the most challenging things that one can do (Miller & Williams, 1982). There is no one hundred percent certainty that one can predict the exact consequence of their decision. One may be sure about some part of the consequences of their actions but not of all the consequences of their actions. Consequently, the results of decisions that involve privacy and surveillance can never really be known until the decision is made and the action is taken.

Utilitarian ethics do not take issues that are concerned with justice into account but rather those that are concerned with the greater benefits. If a greater majority of the public will benefit from a course of action, the action will be employed without regard to the consequences it may have to the rest of the population that will be harmed instead. There are times when such decisions will be beneficial as well as just, but in the instance when they are not, the losing side has to live with it. Certain courses of action are better for the greater good of the society but are obviously unjust. The American government, for example, sometimes lays a claim that all Americans would benefit from electronic surveillance and invasion of their privacy since danger from terrorism would be averted. However, this decision has exposed the private dealings of private citizens leaving them with few areas where they can be in true seclusion to enjoy their private time.

John Stuart Mill asserts that the happiness which an individual is looking for or is entitled to or the happiness that he forms is not considered in terms of his individual satisfaction but in terms of the happiness of the greater majority (Mill, 1957). One is, therefore, required to a spectator when considering his happiness and sacrifices this for the greater good. This implies that even through some decisions regarding to privacy and surveillance may be on the negative side of an individual’s happiness, then the individual is expected to let go of his mission of individual happiness and embrace the happiness that would be good for all. If the decision-making processes that people engage in are to take into consideration the justice of all, then utilitarianism cannot be used as a sole framework for decision making. However, utilitarian ethics are the role players in making certain decisions. Privacy and surveillance issues are certainly one of the areas where utilitarian ethics would be most beneficial as they will be instrumental in helping people to think from the perspective of achieving greater good.  The advancement of technology means that people can be monitored and their privacy invaded, with greater ease. It is a great challenge for one to understand why this needs to be done, and utilitarian ethics provides a view point that can be instrumental in understanding such a decision.

The principles that are brought forth by utilitarian ethics urge people to consider the world and some of the decisions they make in the light of other people. In addition, self interest is discouraged while the consideration of all individuals who may be affected by actions is encouraged (Singer, 1973). The era that exists now is highly characterized by self interest and utilitarianism acts as a reminder that morality calls for the consideration of greater good. There are certain challenges that are faced when making privacy and surveillance decisions, such that, there are certain decisions which are made for people because they are for greater good and they will benefit the most of the population positively. The invasion of privacy through surveillance is a common occurrence with support from utilitarianism.