If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear

Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog has weighed into the debate over the ethics of WikiLeaks ‘Cablegate’ leaks.

Here’s the question to their readership:

“Governments around the world have condemned Wikileaks recent release of US diplomatic cables, often while simultaneously denying they matter; the reactions are tellingly similar to the previous reactions from the US military simultaneously claiming the leaks were highly illegal, dangerous and irrelevant. At the same time many have defended the release as helping transparency. As David Waldock twittered: “Dear government: as you keep telling us, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”.

“Is this correct?”

And here’s one roughhewn response:

“Dear government: as you keep telling us, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”.

Is this correct?

Good question. When used by governments, there are two distinct but related problems with this form of justification.

First, philosophers such as AC Grayling will argue that, as a justification for action, ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear’ is prone to ‘mission creep’ whereby government uses the presumption neither of guilt nor innocence to invade or impose upon our private lives more and more, gradually eroding privacy.

The second and related problem is that when government invokes this justification it is government amassing the information, intelligence or evidence. But according to ideas of how government agencies should run, no particular government agent is indispensable. As such, no one person is responsible for safeguarding the amassed information; any single person can abdicate responsibility for keeping your records confidential. So, governments contain the inherent potential to ‘leak’. You do then have something to fear, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. The ‘something’ is that private information about you will become public for no other reason than that someone leaked it from government.

Your question, however, is directed at government. And the idea that the shoe would be on the other foot is so novel that I couldn’t possibly offer a considered answer.

But, coaxed, if I were to pluck a response from the aether I would draw on the anarchist idea that the conditional is always true when applied to governments. If a government has done nothing wrong then it has nothing to fear (~W → ~F). But from this we can neither assert that if a government has done something wrong it has something to fear or nothing to fear ((W; ∴ F) ∨ (W; ∴ ~F)), nor that a government with nothing to fear has done nothing wrong (~F; ∴ ~W) without committing the fallacy of denying the antecedent and the fallacy of affirming the consequent, respectively.

What we can conclude, however, is that given the justification ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to [fear]’, the fact that the US government fears WikiLeaks publishing these documents means the US government must have done something wrong (F; ∴ W). But the next question is whether or not it is legitimate to apply this justification to governments when we are not happy to suffer it ourselves.

If we apply the two objections raised when the justification is applied to citizens to government, then the justification may be sound if there is no risk of mission creep and if the keeper of the information is responsible for its keeping. On the first objection, mission creep, WikiLeaks’ aim is to erode government ‘privacy’. Whether governments are entitled to privacy is another (and the bigger) question. On the second objection, accountability, leaking is by its nature an act of not keeping information safe. Similarly, whether such government-damaging information should be kept from leaking is another (and bigger) question.

The response, mine, is a brief attempt to use some very basic rules of inference to set the parameters for the more important discussion referred to in the last paragraph. The method is very simple.

There are certain inferences that one can and cannot make when given the conditional statement ‘If X then Y’, formalised as (X → Y). For example, let’s pretend I say to you, ‘When I finish my PhD I’ll run naked across the campus’, (F → R). You can now reasonably expect that when I finish my PhD I’ll run nude across campus. The valid inference looks like this:

  1. When Dylan finishes his PhD he’ll run naked across the campus
  2. Dylan’s finished his PhD
  3. Therefore, Dylan will run naked across campus

Formally, the inference looks like this:

  1. F → R
  2. F
  3. ∴ R

But there are cases where the proper inference is a bit more tricky. If you see me running naked around campus, can you legitimately infer that I’ve finished my PhD? No. To do so would be to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent, which is invalid. The invalid inference would look like this:

  1. When Dylan finishes his PhD he’ll run naked across the campus
  2. Dylan’s running naked across campus
  3. Therefore, Dylan has finished his PhD

Formally, the invalid inference looks like this:

  1. F → R
  2. R
  3. ∴ F

The inference is invalid for a very simple reason. There may be occasions when I feel the need or desire to run naked across campus that have nothing to do with my completion of my PhD. I might just enjoy running naked across campus.

So what other inferences can you legitimately make? Let’s say that you don’t see me running naked about campus. Given that I said, ‘When I finish my PhD I’ll run naked across the campus’, you could legitimately infer that I haven’t finished my PhD. The valid inference looks like this:

  1. When Dylan finishes his PhD he’ll run naked across the campus
  2. Dylan’s isn’t running naked across campus
  3. Therefore, Dylan hasn’t finished his PhD

Formally, the valid inference looks like this:

  1. F → R
  2. ∼R
  3. ∴ ∼F

But then, given my promise, what could you legitimately expect if you knew I hadn’t finished my PhD. Well, you wouldn’t expect anything to follow. My promise was conditional upon completing my PhD. Therefore, if you expect to see a nudie run before completion you’re either greedy or you’re committing the fallacy of denying the antecedent. The invalid inference looks like this:

  1. When Dylan finishes his PhD he’ll run naked across the campus
  2. Dylan hasn’t finished his PhD
  3. Therefore, Dylan will or will not run naked across campus

Formally, the invalid inference looks like this:

  1. F → R
  2. ∼F
  3. ∴ (R ∨ ∼R)

Given my promise and that I’m yet to finish my PhD, you cannot know either way whether I will or will not be running naked across campus. As previously mentioned, I might just like running naked across campus, in which case you might see me running naked across campus; or I might not like running naked across campus, in which case you won’t see me nudie running until I’ve completed my PhD.

By now you might be thinking that the whole exercise seems perverted. But I assure you, when a conditional or ‘if … then’ statement is involved, a few brief rules of inference help you to know when and when not to expect someone to run naked across campus as much as they help you to know when you should and shouldn’t fear incarceration.

Indeed, I have a feeling that the two may share more than their formal structure.

Respond, rebuke, participate: