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Alien Disclosure – Is Ignorance Bliss?

image of ufo hovering over desert road

This week – in scenes straight out of an episode of The X-Files – a House Oversight subcommittee has begun hearing testimony regarding an alleged alien cover-up by the U.S. Government. According to retired Major David Grusch, the U.S. has been retrieving and reverse engineering unidentified flying objects (UFOs) since the 1930s. Among the claims made by Grusch, the most audacious – and, perhaps, most unsettling – is that this government activity has included the recovery of non-human biologics.

Put simply: Grusch claims that aliens have visited Earth, and that the U.S. government is well aware of this.

It’s obvious that UFOs exist: I see one every time I spot something in the sky that I’m incapable of identifying. What is controversial, however, is the claim that some of these UFOs are of alien origin. As famed astronomer Carl Sagan noted, however: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And while Grusch has provided a great deal of testimony relating to the alleged cover-up, this has been exclusively in the form of second-hand reports from other government officials. Grusch himself has not seen these alien spacecraft or biologics first-hand, nor has he yet provided concrete evidence of their existence to the subcommittee.

But suppose that Grusch is right. The possibility of the government covering up evidence of alien visitations raises all kinds of ethical questions – especially when it comes to a government’s duty to disclose information to its citizens. Would it be right for the U.S. to keep such a revelation from its people?

Governments keep secrets all the time. Ostensibly, this is done for the benefit of those they govern. We can only assume that something similar would be true in this case. Incontrovertible evidence of the existence of alien life would be an unprecedented turning point in human history. It would shatter the worldviews of many, and have far-reaching implications for many of our religious and philosophical beliefs. It’s conceivable that, despite our best cognitive intentions, this revelation would be accompanied by widespread fear and anxiety.  As the protagonists of Men in Black so eloquently put it:

James Edwards: “Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.”

Agent Kay: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

The reason for government non-disclosure, then, might simply be to avoid such panic: that is, to maximize the welfare of the citizenry. But how do we measure welfare? Put another way, how do we establish what makes a life go well? One obvious answer is “happiness.” Indeed, this is what the Hedonists believe – that how well a life is going can be measured purely in terms of pleasure and pain. What this means is that if the disclosure of alien life would, on balance, make people’s lives less happy, then the government is maximizing welfare (i.e., doing the right thing) by refraining from sharing that information.

But is pleasure really all that matters? Robert Nozick poses a famous thought experiment to challenge this idea. Imagine that there is a machine that can give you any experience you want. You can program it with whatever will bring you pleasure, and avoid anything that brings you pain. What’s more, upon entering the machine, you will lose any memory of having done so – meaning that your experiences will not be ruined by the knowledge that they are illusory.

The question: would you choose to hook up to this machine for the remainder of your life?

When I pose this thought experiment to my students, they often raise one of several concerns. Many worry about the friends and family they would leave behind. But suppose that these people also have the option to enter their own experience machines – something which they happily do. Others worry that a life filled with constant pleasure wouldn’t be as good – that is, that without the bitter, the sweet wouldn’t be as sweet. But we can take care of that too. If it helps your appreciation of the pleasure, some small amounts of pain can be programmed into your experience too. Ultimately, all that matters is that your life in the experience machine would be one that gives you a greater balance of pleasure-over-pain than your ordinary life.

Yet, despite this, many would be reluctant to enter the experience machine. The most often cited reason for this is that there is more to our welfare than happiness. Sometimes, what’s best for us isn’t what brings us the most pleasure. That’s why we go to bed early, visit the dentist, and read dry philosophical treatises.

And the very same reasoning applies to knowledge. Suppose that you’ve just bought a brand new outfit and ask a trusted friend how you look. Suppose, further, that the outfit is atrocious and makes you look absolutely ridiculous. Which would be better for you: To be told a flattering lie that makes you feel good about yourself? Or to receive the harsh truth – a truth that might allow you to make better decisions going forward? While the former might bring about greater pleasure, there are good reasons why many of us might prefer the latter.

There are many cases where it might be good for us to be given certain information, even when that information brings us sadness or anxiety or fear. Consider, for example, a cancer diagnosis or evidence of the infidelity of a spouse. The question for us is whether or not evidence of alien life is one such example. It’s undeniable that while some would be thrilled by government disclosure of the existence of alien life, many others would suffer from a raft of negative emotions. Given the considerations above, however, it’s no longer immediately obvious that these negative responses justify non-disclosure. It may very well be the case that our lives will go better knowing that we are not alone in the universe, even if that prospect doesn’t make us happier. Maybe, when it comes to evidence of aliens, ignorance isn’t bliss.

Moral Limits on State Secrets

photograph of "Top Secret" manila envelope

The topic of UFOs recently made headlines, as a purported whistleblower claims the United States government is secretly in possession of alien spacecraft. This proclamation comes in the midst of increased national attention to the prospect of UFOs in recent years. Of course, the general American public is far from having any definitive evidence of the existence of such things as UFOs or intelligent life from other galaxies, but if such evidence exists, we might wonder if the government has a moral obligation to disclose it.

It seems there are at least two distinct questions to unpack here: Under what conditions (if any) can the government permissibly keep a secret from citizens? Under what conditions (if any) can the government permissibly lie to citizens? Let’s start with the former. Of course, there is a strong precedent of the government refusing to disclose certain kinds of information to the public. For instance, most agree that certain information pertaining to military operations and national security should be held in secret due to the risks involved with leaking such intel. But the ethics surrounding state secrecy get murkier once we start talking about matters pertaining to citizens’ privacy or risks that would potentially change their day-to-day behavior. There also are clearly issues where the American public is justified in demanding full transparency from government officials, including the procedures behind elections, the allocation of tax payer money, etc.

The relevant question thus becomes into which of these categories does evidence of UFOs or extraterrestrial life most plausibly fit. It must be determined if releasing this evidence to the general public poses sufficiently harmful threats, so as to justify state secrecy. One potential concern is that releasing significant evidence of UFOs or extraterrestrial life would constitute such a paradigm shifting event, it is extremely difficult to predict how the public would react. We have strong historical reason to be skeptical that the population will respond in a fully peaceful or rational manner. If we consider all of the social upheaval and violence that came along with the paradigm shifting events of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation, we can safely conclude that rapid influxes of knowledge that fundamentally transform society are not always well-received. Of course, such a rationale does not provide conclusive reason for the state to keep secrets, but societal peace and stability are certainly factors when it comes to making complex ethical judgments at the governmental level.

Other reasons why the state might have an interest in keeping UFOs or evidence of extraterrestrial life a secret pertains to national security and military strategy. If, as some have claimed, the government possesses partial or even fully intact alien technology, the state is likely scrambling to understand the engineering behind such objects. This knowledge would be helpful when it comes to building superior military technology, making it clear why governmental authorities would not want to share this advantage with other nations. Similarly, the government surely does not want knowledge of how to build more effective weapons falling into the wrong hands. While there is a clear national advantage to possessing the best, most sophisticated technology, there is also a clear national disadvantage if that technology is adopted by one’s political enemy. Thus, for reasons of both public safety and military strategy, the state might possess compelling reasons to conceal evidence of life and technology from other galaxies.

So we’ve established there may be sufficiently strong reasons to justify government secrecy in the case of UFOs and extraterrestrial life, but we have yet to discuss the permissibility of state-endorsed lies. Lying is thought to be more difficult to morally justify than merely withholding the truth. Furthermore, lying also greatly diminishes institutional trust, causing lasting damage beyond the initial moral damage involved in the telling of the lie. Thus, it is probably safe to conclude that if ever it is permissible for the government to lie to citizens, such instances are somewhat scarce. They might include severe threats to the public that would cause mass panic, violence, or social unrest, especially if it is likely these threats can be resolved in a way that avoids these negative outcomes. The thought here is that lying is justified because it is necessary to promote the greater good.

However, even if we grant the state’s good intentions, some might remain dubious that the government is ever morally permitted to spin lies to its own citizens. The moral and pragmatic costs of lying are simply too high to be justified, particularly at the state-level. A philosophically interesting test case for this can be found in the domain of healthcare ethics. In a recently published paper, the author argues there are four conditions which must be met in order for public health officials to lie: (1) the risk of harm to the public is substantial, (2) the upside of telling the lie is very high, (3) lying mitigates this risk of harm to the public, (4) and lying is by far the most effective way to mitigate the risk of harm. Insofar as these four conditions are plausible in the public health case, they can perhaps serve as a more general template for judging the permissibility of lying in other domains as well.

Much of the difficulty in judging the moral status of state secrets and lies derives from our collective uncertainty of the actual risks posed to civilization by UFOs or extraterrestrial life. Assuming the existence of such entities, even the people among us who know the most, still know vanishingly little about the extent of intelligent life beyond our planet. Without more information, we can only speculate as to the nature of the risks. Ultimately the government’s decision to either conceal or share evidence with the public needs to be sensitive to a range of public goods, including that of institutional trust, public safety, and political stability, all of which might be threatened by revelations of life vastly more advanced than humanity.

Government Leakers: Liars, Cowards, or Patriots?

James Comey, former Director of the FBI, recently testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding conversations that he had with President Trump. The public knew some of the details from these conversations before Comey’s testimony, because he had written down his recollections in memos, and portions of these memos were leaked to the press. We now know that Comey himself was responsible for leaking the memos. He reportedly did so to force the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor. It turned out that his gamble was successful, as Robert Mueller was appointed special prosecutor to lead the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

After the testimony, President Trump blasted Comey as a Leaker. He tweeted, “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication…and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump later tweeted that Comey’s leaking was “Very ‘cowardly!’” Trump’s antipathy towards leaking makes sense against the background of the unprecedented number of leaks occurring during his term in office. It seems as if there is a new leak every day. Given the politically damaging nature of these leaks, supporters of the president have been quick to condemn them as endangering national security, and to call for prosecutions of these leakers. Just recently, NSA contractor Reality Winner was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified materials to the press. However, it is worth remembering that, during the election campaign, then-candidate Trump praised Wikileaks on numerous occasions for its release of the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.

A cynical reading of this recent chain of events suggests that the stance that government figures take towards the ethics of leaking is purely motivated by politics. Leaking is good when it damages a political opponent. Leaking is bad when it damages a political ally.  Sadly, this may be a true analysis of politicians’ shifting stances towards leakers. However, it does not answer the underlying question as to whether leaking can ever be morally permissible and, if it can be, under what circumstances might it be?

Approaches may differ, but I think it is reasonable to ask this question in a way that assumes that government leaking requires special justification. This is for two reasons. First, the leaking of classified information is almost always a violation of federal law. Leaking classified information violates the Espionage Act, which sets out penalties of imprisonment for individuals who disclose classified information to those not entitled to receive it. As a general moral rule, individuals ought to obey all laws, unless a special justification exists for their violation. General conformity to the law ensures an order and stability necessary to the safety, security, and well-being of the nation. More specifically, the Espionage Act is intended to protect the nation’s security. Leaking classified information to the press risks our nation’s intelligence operations by potentially exposing our sources and methods to hostile foreign governments.

Second, as Stephen L. Carter of Bloomberg points out, “leakers are liars,” and there is a strong moral presumption against lying. Carter provides a succinct explanation: “The leaker goes to work every day and implicitly tells colleagues, ‘You can trust me with Secret A.’ Then the leaker, on further consideration, decides to share Secret A with the world. The next day the leaker goes back to work and says, ‘You can trust me with Secret B.’ But it’s a lie. The leaker cannot be trusted.”

The strong presumption against lying flows from the idea that morality requires that we do not make an exception of ourselves in our actions. We generally want and expect others to tell us the truth; we have no right ourselves, then, to be cavalier with the truth when speaking with others. Lying may sometimes be justified, but it requires strong reasons in its favor.

Ethical leaking might be required to meet two standards: (A) the leak is intended to achieve a public good that overrides the moral presumption lying and law-breaking, or (B) leaking is the only viable option to achieving this public good. What public good does leaking often promote? Defenders of leaks often argue that leaking reveals information that the public needs to know to hold their leaders accountable for wrongdoing. Famous leaker Edward Snowden, for example, revealed information concerning the surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA); it is arguable that the public needed to know this information to have an informed debate on the acceptable limits of government surveillance and its relation to freedom and security.

Since leaking often involves lying and breaking the law, it must be considered whether other options exist, besides leaking, to promote the public good at issue. Government figures who criticize leakers often claim that they have avenues within the government to protest wrong-doing. Supporters of Snowden’s actions pointed out, however, that legal means to expose the NSA’s surveillance programs were not open to him because, as a contractor, he did not have the same whistleblower protections as do government employees and because NSA’s programs were considered completely legal by the US government at the time. Leaking appeared to be his only viable option for making the information public.

Each act of leaking appears to require a difficult moral calculation. How much damage will my leaking do to the efforts of the national security team? How important is it for the public to know this classified information? How likely is it that I could achieve my goals through legal means within the government system? Though a moral presumption against leaking may exist—you shouldn’t leak classified information for just any old reason—leaking in the context of an unaccountable government engaged in serious wrongdoing has been justified in the past, and I expect we will see many instances in the future where government leaks will be justified.