The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: personal values

Same Evidence, Different Arguments: Value Conflicts in Little Brother

During the class discussion led by Ms. Galvez, Marcus cited a short passage from the Declaration of Independence to explain his attitude toward the DHA's extensive surveillance techniques and invasion of privacy, stating that the primary role of the government is to ensure the safety and happiness of the people, and that it derives its authority from the consent of the governed. However, in the next class, Mrs. Andersen, the new teacher, uses another quote from the declaration of independence about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to support her view that the DHA is justified in extensive surveillance.

The interesting thing about this part of the book is that both sides of the argument are citing the same fundamental idea to support opposite positions; central to both passages is the idea that the government's primary purpose is to ensure the happiness and safety of the people. But this idea, while most people agree with it, can lead to drastically different visions of society depending on your interpretation.

Marcus takes the view that the government's invasion of personal privacy through mass surveillance limits personal freedoms to the point that it is nearly impossible to be happy while not meaningfully improving the safety of the people, so the government is failing to perform its primary duty. In contrast, Mrs. Anderson takes the view that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are importantĀ in that order. That is, life is more important than liberty, and liberty is more important than happiness, so the government is justified in intensive surveillance to ensure the life of the people, even if it means sacrificing some liberties and happiness.

To resolve this conflict, we must realize that fundamentally, it is a conflict of values. Marcus is willing to sacrifice a marginal increase in safety for his freedom and right to privacy; Mrs. Andersen values her safety to the point that she is willing to sacrifice her privacy and some personal freedoms. I think in the extreme case Doctorow lays out inĀ Little Brother, Marcus is clearly correct; the amount of freedom and happiness sacrificed to the DHS outweighs the tiny increase in safety they provide, but in general, both value rankings are potentially valid, and conversations about how we as a society prioritize our values are essential in settling disagreements and solving problems in the public sphere.

Feeling Safe

The display in the Newseum asks what people would give up for security. The results are exactly as you would expect. Some people make arguments for pro privacy and there are others for pro security. There is no clear cut answer to this question. One person summed up all the answers in a nutshell by stating "as much as necessary to feel safe". This answer struck me specifically because he used the term "feel safe" rather than "be safe". This implies that there is no definitive answer. The answer depends solely on what you, as an individual, value the most and would be willing to give up. For example,person A may feel safer knowing that their private life is secure from outside viewing. In that case they would not give up anything for safety, as they are already safe. However, person B may feel safer knowing private information can be viewed by outside parties, such as the FBI, in order to prevent future terrorist attacks. In this case, they would grant access to private information in order to give government the ability to use data mining to potentially spot a hidden terrorist. In each scenario, the individual gives up different things in order to feel safe. However, it is intriguing because in person B would not consider the person A to be safe, based on what they value. The display in the Newseum does a fantastic job at portraying the actual complexity of this question, as it highlights that each person has different values and those values govern their stance on this question.

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