The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Contextual Ethics

Ethics in times of war must be thought of differently from ethics in times of peace, however much we may want it to be otherwise. The focus of ethics during wartimes turns to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is sacrificing the wellbeing of a few for the good of the many. It is “big-picture” thinking, striving to benefit as many people as possible, even if that means a few people must get hurt along the way.

When thought of in that context, Britain’s Admiral Hall’s decision not to tell American President Woodrow Wilson about the Zimmerman telegram makes perfect sense. If he had told President Wilson the contents of the telegram, the Germans would have been alerted to the fact that the British were able to read their messages, and would have changed their codes and created additional obstacles for Britain’s cryptanalysts, potentially costing Allied lives. The danger posed to America by Germany’s U-boat warfare, by comparison, put far less lives at risk, especially because it seemed likely that the United States would enter the war after the beginning of the U-boat attacks.

The reason Admiral Hall’s decision would seem unethical in the context of today is that the major powers of the world have not been involved in a worldwide or home-turf war in some 70 years, since the end of the Second World War. The focus of ethics has shifted from utilitarianism to a more deontological ethical viewpoint. Deontology, contrary to utilitarianism, concentrates on how ethical an action is without consideration for the consequences of the action. In this situation, it would seem Admiral Hall had a moral obligation to inform President Wilson of the Zimmerman telegram, simply because it would be “the right thing to do.” However, when thought of in the context of the First World War, Admiral Hall’s decision to bring the United States into the war in a more roundabout way seems the more logical and ethical choice.


Ethical, Unethical, or Both?


Victory At All Costs


  1. yanrong

    The post suggests that Admiral Hall’s decision was ethical in the context of the First World War when the ethics was focus on utilitarianism, even though it might not seem ethical in today’s society which focuses on a more deontological ethical viewpoint.

    I really like this post because it is very clear and focuses on how the different context might change our perception on whether Hall’s action was ethical.

    Also, I’m very curious to know why would you believe today’s society would value deontology more than utilitarianism. To me, it seems that many people nowadays would still believe that sacrificing the wellbeing of a few for the good of the many would be the way to go, even though we haven’t been involved in a worldwide war for around 70 years.

  2. Sandra

    In GUNDAMY’s post “Contextual Ethics” regarding the ethics of Admiral Hall’s withholding of important information that could have saved American lives if exposed, this student brings up an important distinction between ethics within wartime and ethics within personal lives and why Admiral Hall’s actions were justified. The more I think about the ethics, the more I agree that Admiral Hall (not leaking the decoded Zimmerman Telegraph and thus misleading the Germans to believe that they still had a strong encryption system led to eventual Allied victory) had reasonably logical justification to withhold information in the greater context of history.

    For example, if the British risked exposing the telegraph to warn the Americans and save lives that did not need to be squandered, this knowledge would have obviously given the Americans an upper hand. However, this would have also motivated the Germans to conceive a newer and stronger encryption system.

    Here, people would argue that in the possibility that they couldn’t come up with one fast enough, Allied victory would surely still triumph.

    Yet, two factors still remain uncertain here: how would we know of the timeframe the Germans would have until they come up with a new system and what if they did come up with a stronger one? The course of history may have been seriously altered, but we will never know for sure.

    So, who’s to say that they wouldn’t succeed in creating a stronger system? In the next chapter of The Code Book, Singh writes that “if necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps adversity is the mother of cryptanalysis,” (Singh 144) meaning that in the event in which a country is cornered, fear will be the ultimate driving force and overcome any difficulty, since the urge for security is far too great.

    Thinking of this possibility that the Germans would have come up with a stronger cipher draws me to believe that Admiral Hall was right in thinking that leaking the Zimmerman Telegraph posed too great of a danger.

  3. Junhao

    Your blog post has many compelling arguments over morality and utilitarianism. While you believe that the Admiral Hall’s decision was ethical during the Great War because of the focus on utilitarianism, it is considered as unethical in today’s world because people have shifted from utilitarianism to how ethical an action is instead of what outcomes it results in.

    However, I would like to argue that ethics is not pertinent to neither times of war and peace. It is merely determined by people. More importantly, what is right varies from country to country, and person to person; it depends on what one consciously approves or disapproves. For instance, to the British the decision was ethical because it could prevent the Germans from discovering the fact that their encryption had been deciphered so that it would be easier for the Allies to win the war and thus saved many lives. But to the Americans, such a decision is undoubtedly unethical since it endangered many lives of Americans.

    Therefore, I do not agree with your thesis that we now focus more on deontology than utilitarianism. Utilitarianism tells us that we ought to act to bring about the greatest sum of pleasure over pain for all those affected, and deontology asks us to examine what is morally good. Both ethical viewpoints have their values, and we usually take both into consideration when we tell right from wrong.

  4. Safwaan

    While it is true that we do think of the arguments of utilitarianism and deontology it is important to know that the arguments of ethics are far more nuanced than that. In many cases, when determining whether an action is ethical or not, people’s opinions often reflect what the best outcome for them would be if they were to have been in that situation. Effectively, people deem actions as unethical or ethical based on their vested interest.

    For example, in Andrew’s blog, he states that Admiral Hall’s actions were “undoubtedly unethical” even though he recognizes the fact that Hall’s withholding of information “may have actually saved a greater number of lives”. We can clearly see from this that Andrew chooses to ignore the reality, and rather feel that Hall’s actions were unethical. As Andrew is an American he would obviously place greater value on the lives of his fellow citizens than anyone else.

    However, as an Englishman, I think that Hall’s decision was ethical as it saved many English lives, as the British were able to continue decrypting messages and thus, reduce the fatalities that they suffered at the hands of the Germans.

    It seems that the ethics of a situation actually differ from person to person and nation to nation. Whenever the ethics and morality of an action are discussed, it is important to not only understand the different viewpoints but also where they come from. Thus, biases can be recognized and a more objective conclusion can be reached.

    Link to Andrew’s blog:

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