The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Strategical rather than unethical

After the Zimmermann telegram was deciphered, Admiral Hall chose to withhold the important information regarding the unrestricted submarine warfare and put many Americans’ lives on the line.

The decision itself at that moment seemed unethical because it resulted in the death of many innocent Americans. However, thinking in a larger scale, Hall’s action was justifiable. Firstly, given this war context, the ethical considerations probably weren’t be the top priority for people who dedicated themselves for the future of their country. Instead of thinking about whether their decisions might be ethical, they would probably spending more time weighing up the consequences of their actions, which, in Hall’s case, was the potential long-term consequences of disclosing their advanced cryptographic progression to the world. Hall realized that it might eventually make the British lose the advantage of using their advanced cryptographic techniques to gather the information that would be extremely valuable to them in the war.

Another text written by Sun-Tze in the Art of War says that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” Sun-Tze’s words implies that in order to win the battle, not only should us try to gather as much information as we can about the enemies, but also try to avoid exposing any of our own progression to the enemies. That was exactly what Hall did. His action enabled the British to see through German’s plot while keeping the Germany in the dark, hence gaining significant advantages in the long run. In this sense, I believe that Hall’s decision shouldn’t be considered unethical, but simply strategical.



The Morality of Admiral Hall's Actions


Ethical, Unethical, or Both?


  1. kims46

    You argued that while people may view Hall's decision as something unethical, it was nonetheless reasonable because he was able to maintain the British upperhand during the war. I like the distinction you make between ethics and logic, and I agree that while his choice may be ethically ambiguous, there was a long-term thinking reason behind it. However, I might introduce the question that, had the British suffered many casualties and hiding the cryptanalysis of the note did not bring about enough long-term good, would Hall's decision still be considered reasonable? It is easy to say it was, at this point, because in reality the result of decision was positive. But perhaps it would not be so much a black and white answer to say his decision was logical if it didn't turn out so well.

    • Derek

      That's a good question, Suzy. Had things turned out differently, would that have made Hall's decision more or less ethical? Or should the ethical status of Hall's decision be based entirely on information available to Hall at the time?

      Of course, sometimes information in faulty. I'm thinking of the US decision to invade Iraq, based on what we now know to be incorrect information about weapons of mass destruction. That information seemed pretty solid at the time. Do we judge President Bush's decision based on the information he thought he knew? Or do we adjust our judgment based on new information?

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