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Snowden, Heroism, and Self-Interest

Snowden, Heroism, and Self-Interest

2 Mins
June 12, 2013

Edward Snowden thinks he isn’t a hero. That’s sad.

Snowden released secrets about the U.S. government’s domestic spying to the public. He paid a high price for this deed, going from a six-figure job in Hawaii to unemployment and exile, not to mention walking away from the girlfriend who had followed him to Hawaii . And he did it because of his commitment to online freedom and privacy: “ My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

If heroism is commitment to one’s chosen values, surely Snowden qualifies. If the key is that the values be great ones, keeping government in its place is as great as they come, and ensuring that people can keep secrets from the government qualifies too. If the key is great virtue, one would have to know the facts better than I do to be sure his action was rational, but that isn’t the cause of Snowden’s doubts. He plainly thinks he made the right decision.

The great heroes of American freedom fought for their own freedom , not just other people’s.

Snowden denies his own heroism “ because what I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” That means: He denies that he’s a hero because he acted for the protection of values that were tremendously important to him.

He might as well say, I’m not a hero because I’m a hero. A person who paid a high price to prevent something of no importance to him would have wasted that price. Heroes pursue real values—values that have meaning in their lives. The great heroes of American freedom fought for their own freedom , not just other people’s.

Sadly, Snowden seems to have bought into the principle of altruism—that only what one does for others, and not what one does for oneself, has moral value. To be heroic, he seems to think, his action would have had to be self-sacrificial. He would have had to pay a high price for nothing that he wants. He would have had to have given up the job, the wealth, and the romance he had earned—and done it for no purpose of his own, not even to create the kind of world he wants to live in. That would not have been heroic, but pitiable and, quite simply, stupid.

True heroes fight for real values—and a real world—they really want. They should be proud of that.

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Alexander R. Cohen
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Alexander R. Cohen
Values and Morals