Is it right to stretch the ethical limits in Domestic Surveillance?

Subject: American History
Type: Informative Essay
Pages: 5
Word count: 1580
Topics: 9/11 Attack, Ethics, Government, Terrorism

The post 9/11 era changed the security measures as the government, through the Constitution, introduced measures to monitor as well as watch or listen to communications through wire-tapping. As various justifications and recommendations are being put forward to ascertain the need for increased surveillance on civilians, arguments are currently being put across, especially the moral limits and ethical boundaries that intelligence professionals should respect. Surveillance, entails how attention is paid on others without the individual having the knowledge of them being monitored while on the governmental context, it equally suggests the authorities watching citizens without their knowledge (Moran, 2015).  The US government introduced the USA Patriotic Act immediately after the 2001 September 11 twin tower bombings giving the authorities the right to intercept as well as obstruct terrorism using any means (Department of Justice, 2017).  After its introduction, the government had the go ahead of searching email as well as telephone communications and it was later termed as domestic surveillance. In such cases, unethical occurs because citizens are watched and monitored without seeking their knowledge or informed consent (Moran, 2015). Surveillance without informed consent is a breach of ethics as it undermines privacy as a fundamental right outlined in the Constitution. According to the utilitarian ethics, if domestic surveillance is pursued by respecting the limits of the law in reducing terrorism threat, therefore, it is unethical to stretch the moral limits since it benefits the masses and the entire welfare of the country.

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Different Ethical Perspectives

Utilitarian ethics

Utilitarian ethics assesses a course of action by outlining or assessing the benefits or consequences of which maximizing benefits to the masses is highly stressed (Audi, 2013).  The utilitarian ethical approach falls under the consequentialist ethics whereby the resulting consequences are used in assessing the ethicality of a course of action.  In this case, the utilitarian theory argues that an action is right or wrong based on the resulting consequences of which moral action is that which brings more benefits (maximizing happiness) and resulting in less harm (minimizing harm) (Audi, 2013). In essence, SpikeToront (2017) argues that intelligence officers are ever in the dilemma as the masters compel them to implement domestic surveillance law without giving them the chance of assessing the moral discourse of their actions thereby questioning the morality behind surveillance. The situation has brought about dilemma on the use of domestic surveillance in averting terrorism and other threats to the country’s security.  The President, the judiciary, private utility companies and American Civil Liabilities Union all expect the officers in charge to carry out with domestic surveillance irrespective of the position or the stand that these individuals have on domestic surveillance, especially its ethical implications (Department of Justice, 2017).  The law enforcers involved in domestic surveillance have to do so within the limits of the Constitution that recommends right to privacy.

On the other hand, Moran (2015) argues that it is unethical and immoral not to follow the law and as such, any action that breaches the laws of the land is considered as unethical at its best. Conversely, not anything which is included in the law is ethical and that not every law is ethical (Moran, 2015). In this case, the statement sets the moral ground for justifying domestic surveillance when the law has been followed and that the intelligence officers are ethical in using the law to protect individuals or the citizens from harm.

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Domestic surveillance, according to utilitarian ethics benefits the greater masses or the nation by reducing terrorist threats.  For utilitarian ethics, a moral course of action is evaluated by weighing how the benefits outweigh the negative consequences or harm (Audi, 2013.  The 9/11 attack is an example of the costs and effects of terrorism on the nation, families and community. The assessed cost was $30.5 billion as economic losses including the costs that had been lost on buildings, tenant assets, infrastructure, in addition to the value of the future earnings the deceased (Bridge & Stasna, 2011).  Around 3, 000 people were also killed while the country lost significant records, major and confidential reports and historical documents (Bridge & Stasna, 2011). Going by the numbers, a terrorist attack is a significant threat to the country as it brings about not only financial or economic losses but mortality that separates families and increases psychological distress. Due to the serious losses from terrorism, it is highly justified for the government to implement or introduce domestic surveillance as a means of improving homeland security.  By enhancing the security and safety of a country, it serves the greatest happiness for the “masses” or “numbers” by reducing or minimizing the negative effects or impacts of terrorism (Audi, 2013).

Kantian Ethics

The Kantian ethics revolves around duty to act moral and as such, a deontological ethical perspective.  The government has the moral duty as well as the responsibility of taking courses of action that are beneficial to the citizens. By applying the deontological ethics, ethicality of an action depends on how it can be used as a universal law or obeys the universal morals (Audi, 2013). Hence, the government acts morally by putting incentives to protect the citizens and improve security which is the role of domestic surveillance. However, this should be done within the limits of the law, by following the provisions of Super Patriot Act.

Nonetheless, Kantianism ethicists argue that a course of action is that which is considered as maxim or can be universally applied to govern moral action and behavior (Audi, 2013). Protecting the citizens through domestic surveillance is a maximum, and by following the law, it shows how the government understands its moral duty of following the law to protect citizens. The law or the Constitution equally gives the government a mandate and duty to protect and safeguard the plight of the citizens in the country (SpikeToront, 2017). In so doing, using domestic surveillance according to the law is an ethical course of action, especially if it has been authorized to do so to protect the citizens from much harm and danger from the threats of terrorism.


Relativism perspective entails how ethics is studied within a sociocultural context.  It also concerns the absolute truth of which a particular course of action is considered as ethical when it follows the laws of absolute truth.  It equally holds that there is no existence of absolute truth of which truth depends on the social or cultural context within which it is used or applied (Audi, 2013). In the case of domestic surveillance, it depends on how the particular culture (the American culture) views and sees the action as accepted.  The law mandated the National Security Agency under the (Act) to implement the law according to the Constitution (SpikeToront, 2017). In this case, the US culture, from the relativism perspective perceives the particular course of action as being moral because it entails and focuses on protecting the citizens. Issues to do with security have grave implications and concerns within the United States. In retrospect, the culture deems it necessary to use any means or course of action to protect the people from imminent danger.

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From the relativist perspective, if the specific cultural context agrees that an action like protecting the citizens is ethical then it gives the government the moral justification of protecting the citizens through domestic surveillance. The decision on domestic surveillance narrows down to what the US or American society, including law makers, the public and other stakeholders in the homeland security regards as ethical when protecting the country and the nation from terrorist threats (SpikeToront, 2017). Besides, the culture perceives such action should be followed by as mandated by the law and only unethical when the law has not been followed. Therefore, relativism perspective views domestic surveillance as ethical according to the American culture that regards national security as an important and vital consideration to protect the individuals from the imminent danger of future attacks and losses as witnessed during the 9/11 attack.


From the ethical perspective, domestic surveillance can be regarded as a breach of informed consent and privacy laws.  However, the role it serves in the society justifies the action as moral or ethical.  The implication is that when the law is followed in implementing domestic surveillance as a measure to improve national security and protect the citizens, the utilitarian ethics regards the action as moral as it serves the benefits of the masses.  On the other hand, Kantianism ethics argue the action based on moral duty and responsibility of the government to protect the citizens.  The relativism perspective also indicates that action depends on how it is regarded as ethical within the societal context. Hence, domestic surveillance, although it brings about the ethical breach of watching or monitoring people without their informed consent, is ethical when the law is followed to the later in implementing measures for safeguarding the security of the nation. The course of action tends to reduce harm and danger as witnessed in the 9/11 attacks thus benefits the majority and reduces harm or danger in terms of personal and economic loss.

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Did you like this sample?
  1. Audi, R. (2013). Moral perception moral perception. Princeton University Press.
  2. Bridge, S & Stasna, K. (2011). 9/11 anniversary: What was lost in the damage. CBC News.
  3. Department of Justice, (2017). The USA PATRIOT Act: Preserving Life and Liberty.
  4. Moran, S. (2015). Surveillance ethics. Philosophy Now, 110, 14-15.
  5. SpikeToront, (2017). NASA surveillance and ethics.
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