Saturday, January 25, 2014

Does It Matter How Effective/Successful NSA Metadata Collection Is?

Would the hit to civil liberties be worth it to prevent Manhattan from being blown up?  

Well...Manhattan...

A negative answer seems insane to me...but if we go down a consequentialist road like that, virtually any policy can be made to seem acceptable...

Perhaps the philosopher's error is to think in such terms, when the point really is: there's no plausible threat that is serious enough to warrant a program of this kind. But that's an empirical claim that might actually--for all I know--be false...

If the program really is illegal, then we can circumvent these worries at least temporarily...though I worry that has all the advantages of theft over honest toil...

6 Comments:

Blogger Pete Mack said...

This kind of reasoning already has it's own name as a common fallacy: the "Cheney Doctrine." It's a recipe for bad policy; taken to its logical end, it's a recipe for tyranny.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

No, the Cheney Doctrine is the so-called "1% Doctrine"...not well-defined, but roughly:

If there's even a 1% chance that x is happening, and x is helpful to terrorists, then we should treat x as if we were certain that it's happening.

That's a completely different thing.

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philosophers have something of an addiction to ticking time bomb scenarios. That's understandable, since they look like a simple, intuitive way of setting up rule/consequence dilemmas. But the problem is that they require the supposition that breaking the rule would, in fact, produce the positive consequence. The problem is, suppositions have a tendency to drift into general assumptions about empirical reality though unexamined repetition. This happened throughout America's shameful drift into use of torture. As the details of torture policy started to leak, out came the ticking time bomb scenarios to chew over and debate, all of which simply supposed that torture is an effective means of getting accurate information quickly. It's not. The actual ticking time bomb case is an easy one, morally. But throughout the debate, most people remained convinced otherwise. Philosophers, in trying to construct hard cases, do real damage when they help people accept false assumptions about the way the world works. Empirical claims may not be super interesting, but they are the first step in moral reasoning.

With the NSA data collection case, all the empirical evidence is pointing to its being a boondoggle. If that's the case, stop the moral reasoning engine, we're done. If it's not ineffective, then let's tease out the dilemma. But don't let the NSA's case get made for it in the suppositions by moving to the dilemma early.

When I taught these types of dilemmas in the last decade (the torture decade), I specifically avoided the ticking bomb as a setup for just these reasons. Usually, we went with some variation on the trolley car, since the supposition is just an application of physics. We also used historical cases, which didn't need suppositions at all. In the few times we did cases that required substantial (possibly) counterfactual suppositions, I made an effort to make sure that they were outlandish as possible: sacrifice to appease the Lovecraftian dark gods, and so forth.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks for this comment, A. I agreed with some of this already, and what I didn't already agree with strikes me as plausible.

My own basic position has been kinda the flip side of this, though...something like:

Don't try to prove torture unacceptable in principle, even in ticking-time-bomb/vaporization of NYC cases. Trying to do that is futile, and makes the anti-torture case look crack-brained. Focus on the fact that real cases are not like TTB cases...

1:04 PM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

Sorry about failing to respond earlier. My point about hypotheticals like this is they assume the Cheney Doctrine: given a prior event with (unknown but tiny) probability, what is the morality of doing X as a preemptive measure against Y?

The collection of metadata is something that must be done in advance (like invading a country, torturing someone, etc.) before determining that Y is likely to happen. So reasoning about hypothetical X is effectively the same as assuming the Cheney Doctrine as a premise.

11:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ah, now I think I see what you mean.

I don't see that the 1% doctrine is literally presupposed here, but there is some weird similarity...

7:02 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home