Monday, August 24, 2015
Light On the Dark Side: Planned Parenthood and Ashley Madison
In the last few weeks, an organization called the Center for Medical Progress posted videos of Planned Parenthood employees discussing cash transactions involving the body parts of aborted fetuses. And just last week, a hacker group calling itself the Impact Team posted personal information on 32 million users of Ashley Madison, a website that advertises itself as a matchmaker for those wishing to have extramarital affairs. In both of these cases, the hackers or investigators "went to the dark side" technologically, using spy technology or hacking abilities to penetrate secrets of the target organizations. What can we say about the use of technology in this way? Does the end justify the means? Or are we not permitted to do evil, even if good may come from it?
Though the technology is new, the moral dilemma posed by these cases is very old. Both St. Augustine (354 - 430 A. D.) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274 A. D.) took up the question of whether good intentions can justify an evil act. In fact, Aquinas cited Augustine approvingly as he considered this question: ". . . Augustine says that there are some actions which neither a good end nor a good will can make good."
For those familiar with digital logic, we can express what Aquinas says about the matter in terms of an AND function of three inputs A, B, and C. All inputs have to be true in order for the output of the AND gate to be true. For Augustine and Aquinas, not only must the will (intention) of the actor be good. And it's not sufficient even if the outcome of the action (the end) is good. The act itself has to be good, or at least not on a list of intrinsically evil acts, for the overall action to be permissible.
What does the list of intrinsically evil acts look like? Well, most moral theorists include lying on the list. Right there, the anonymous investigator of Planned Parenthood who posed as a buyer for a fetal-tissue company ran afoul of the no-evil-acts principle. He wasn't telling the truth—there was no such company. And he was wired with audio and video recording equipment that took down every word spoken by the Planned Parenthood representatives, who wouldn't have been so forthcoming if they had known the guy they were talking with was a spy, basically.
How about the Impact Team, those Ashley Madison hackers? We're on softer ground here. About the worst moral transgression they committed was theft of the Ashley Madison records, though it is theft of a peculiarly digital kind, because Ashley Madison still has all the records they used to have. They're just exposed to public view now, for curious spouses to peruse in case they have had some suspicions about whether their partner has been straying, or trying to. As it turns out, there were a lot more wanna-be adulterers signed up than real ones. One of the embarrassing things the Impact Team revealed about the website was that about 85% of the site's customers were men, and it's likely that many of the female profiles on the site were fabricated. Add that to the fact that the site charged users $19 to allegedly remove all their personal data from the site, only they didn't, and Ashley Madison's business model looks to be coming apart at the seams. Which is probably just what the Impact Team hoped would happen.
Now, I happen to believe that the planet would be a better place if neither Planned Parenthood nor Ashley Madison existed as organizations, at least in their present forms. If the actions of hackers or investigative journalists move circumstances in the direction of ending or diminishing the influence of these outfits, I think that outcome would be a good thing. Does this mean I disagree with Augustine and Aquinas that a good end sometimes does justify intrinsically evil means? Not necessarily.
Just to show how complicated things can get, let's consider St. Thomas's views on war, specifically, killing in the context of war. He allowed as how there were sometimes "just wars" and in such cases, killing was justified in that context, even though murder was on that list of intrinsically evil acts.
The people at the Center for Medical Progress may view what Planned Parenthood does in its abortion clinics as a war on unborn children. They, along with virtually everyone else in the prolife community, reject violence as a means of stopping abortion. But nobody was physically injured by their investigations. Instead, the statements of Planned Parenthood personnel that were intended for a private audience have been exposed to the world—brought to the light, in other words. The same happened with Ashley Madison's client lists. Both organizations have issued strenuous condemnations of the people who exposed them, which is not surprising. It's just like Jesus said: "For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed."
There is a difference between deciding that you would do a thing yourself and observing the actions of someone else in a historical process. The radical abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) killed numbers of slavery supporters and was captured as he tried to take over a Federal armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He was tried and executed for his crimes, but his actions brought attention to slavery in a way that moved the mysterious processes of history forward, and may have hastened the day when slavery was abolished throughout the entire U. S. The U. S. Civil War was not a good thing in itself, but the outcome of ending slavery was.
I would not personally go around hacking somebody's private customer lists or carrying spy cameras to get the goods on somebody engaged in nefarious dealings. But other people have already gone and done these things. The Impact Team and the Center for Medical Progress knew what they were getting into, and I hope they are prepared for the legal and moral repercussions of their actions. I'm not them, and I can't presume to say what natural or supernatural motives stirred them to their actions.
But I can say that the exposure of evil deeds, leaving aside the means by which they are exposed, is a good outcome. The vulnerability of sites like Ashley Madison to hacking is now known. The fact that Planned Parenthood exchanges fetal tissue for money in long-standing contracted relationships with outside organizations is also known. And while I might have advised the Impact Team and the Center for Medical Progress not to do what they did, they didn't ask me before they did it. And maybe that's a good thing, too.
Sources: My sources for information on the Ashley Madison hack included the Defense One military site (a lot of the users turned out to be military personnel) at http://www.defenseone.com/threats/2015/08/ashley-madison-hack-opm-government-military/119279/ and Wired.com articles at http://www.wired.com/2015/08/happened-hackers-posted-stolen-ashley-madison-data/
and http://www.wired.com/2015/08/ashley-madison-hack-exposes-wait-lousy-business/. The latest Center for Medical Progress video as of this writing can be viewed at http://www.centerformedicalprogress.org. I also referred to St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica (First Part of the Second Part, Question 20, Article 2) from which the above quotation from St. Augustine is taken (Anton C. Pegis, Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Random House, 1945). I also referred to an article on the Planned Parenthood videos on Yahoo at https://www.yahoo.com/health/with-release-of-6th-undercover-video-evidence-of-126520215477.html. The quotation from Jesus is from the New Testament book of John, chapter 3, verse 20 (Revised Standard Version).