The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

The Moral Question: Does Intention Matter?

Trade-offs between decisions that secure immediate safety versus the “overall good” – whether that means a quicker end to war, more net lives saved, keeping the upper hand – are often made during wars. They’re made in our everyday lives as well, though, of course, the consequences of choosing between those two options are on a much less significant scale. I thought reading about the deliberate withholding of the Zimmerman Note from Wilson was very interesting, as it was the first time I was exposed to this information. It didn’t particularly incite a strong reaction from me, however, in the sense that I felt very pro- or against the decision Admiral Hall made.

At the same time, someone might argue that it was based on similar principles as those during the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, an event that I do have a strong opinion on. In order to end the war quickly, thus the “greater good” aspect of it, America decided to end 129,000–246,000+ innocent lives in Japan. While this death toll was not pre-estimated nor maliciously and intentionally predicted by any means, the result is still reality.

This differs from the Zimmerman event in that rather than deliberately taking lives, Hall put at risk the potential of danger from unrestricted U-boat warfare. I think the argument that his decision was reasonable can easily be made by stating that the reality of the situation was that the United States kept an upper hand and many lives were saved. It seems that the consequence was favorable. Taking that into mind, both these decisions – regarding the bombing and the Zimmerman note information – are probably considered ethical or reasonable almost overwhelmingly by looking at the result, rather than by looking at the initial intentions. If we looked at intentions, then both cases would un-controversially be deemed fair, which is clearly not true.

So by mulling over this event where we are in 2015, I too would most likely say (perhaps hypocritically, since I don’t support the bombing decisions) that Hall made a logical decision to withhold the information he was keeping. Even knowing to consider his intentions, it is simply impossible not to look at the result when we’re peering into the past from almost a hundred years into the future.


Ethically Relying on the Unknown


Sacrifice Few to Save Many


  1. neuhofc

    Throughout your blog post, you compare the atomic bomb decision and Admiral Hall’s decision to withhold information, yet you come to different conclusions as to the ethics behind them. Why do you think that Hall’s actions can be considered ethical while the atomic bomb can not as you state that, when looking at both the intentions and the final result, the action “would un-controversially be deemed fair”? Personally, I believe the difference between these two actions is the direct harm caused by the atomic bomb as opposed to Admiral Hall’s decision to not act on known information. While the atomic bomb killed many innocent civilians, Hall was not killing the Americans himself but instead just not telling the United States of possible future harm to their citizens.

    • Derek

      I would agree, Charlotte, that there’s a “who pulled the trigger” element to this discussion. I think that does change the ethical calculation, even if Hall’s (in)action likely led to the deaths of American sailors.

      On the other hand, Hall was merely predicting that withholding the Zimmerman telegram from the Americans would, in the long run, save more lives. He couldn’t know for sure that, for instance, the Germans wouldn’t start changing their encryption methods, regardless. In other words, by telling the Americans, he would almost definitely save lives. By not telling the Americans, he was only maybe going to save lives. One could argue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén