The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Admiral Hall’s Ethics

I found the first question quite interesting as it related to a few topics that I discussed in my Ethics class of junior year. When is something morally justifiable? And, is a bad deed moral if it leads to the greater good? Obviously Admiral William Hall would argue that not telling President Woodrow Wilson about the United States’ potential danger in order to pull the wool over Germany’s eyes was ethical. He was focused on the greater good. This most closely follows consequentialism; the idea that the morality of an action lies in the consequences it bears. I have always disagreed with the ideas of consequentialism. To be completely frank, I think they are a bit ridiculous.

The results of an action are extremely important in determining the morality of the deed, however the results are not everything. An action can, in itself, be ethical or unethical. Certain things, at least in my opinion, are never up for debate. For instance murder is always unethical. Even if something good came from murder, the action would never be moral. Who are we to decide the value of a life? William Hall clearly had no issue valuing human lives. He saw– what could have been– death and destruction and found that potential outcome of his actions to outweigh the more probable consequences. In the end, his decision paid off. However, the decision he made, although great, will never be ethical. 



Admiral Hall’s Decision


Hall’s Choice

1 Comment

  1. Isaac Taylor

    I definitely agree with the author’s arguments regarding consequentialism and their decision that Hall’s actions were unethical. Consequentialism seems like a dangerous line of thinking to follow, reminding me greatly of Machiavelli’s “the ends justify the means” and having the ability to excuse basically any course of action. Additionally, although Hall’s gamble paid off, I cannot condone his decision to sacrifice innocent civilians in a military power play.

    However, I also do not think there was much of an ethical option available to Hall in this situation. Both of his choices would actively lead to deaths–not disclosing his findings would lead to civilian deaths in the Atlantic, while disclosing his findings would very likely result in Germany making efforts to better hide its communications, meaning future deaths may have become unavoidable. In one scenario, Hall would fail to act on information of his own volition, whereas in the other he would engineer a situation in which he would have no information to act on, leading to the exact same scenario he would have faced had he disclosed the German plan. By this logic, Hall was simply biding his time and waiting to decide when to use his ability to peek into German communications, and it could be argued that giving up such a useful advantage too soon would be irresponsibly dangerous, therefore being unethical by unnecessarily putting others at extreme risk.

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