The Morality of Government Surveillance

Subject: Political
Type: Argumentative Essay
Pages: 3
Word count: 712
Topics: Public Policy, Government, Morality

Government surveillance has often been challenged from a moral point of view. The basis of such criticism is that it is a violation of the right to privacy. This paper argues the morality of government surveillance using utilitarianism and the felicific calculus. Through an understanding of both utilitarianism and the felicific calculus, the paper argues that the government uses the surveillance as a way of tracking communication involving terrorist and other criminals thus preventing terror and main crimes before they happen. Since the surveillance increases security and reduces the possibility of terror related deaths; it can be termed as a moral action by the government.

There have often been debates on the morality of government surveillance of members of the general public. There are those who are against this form of surveillance with the assertion that it violates the rights that every citizen has to privacy. The government and the other supporters of government surveillance are often of the opinion that such surveillance is necessitated by the responsibility that the government has to ensure the security of every member of the society. Through the use of both utilitarianism and the felicific calculus, this paper will prove that there is moral backing for government surveillance. 

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The theory of Utilitarianism suggests that the morality of an action is determined by its ability to maximize utility. This is an implication that regardless of how an action might seem from the onset, it will mainly be defined as moral if the outcome of the action leads to the happiness and well-being of the greater majority (Barrow 93). This is what the government surveillance is aimed at achieving. With the increase in the cases of terrorism, it is always moral for the government to do all that is within their powers to ensure that the risks of terrorism are minimized. Therefore, even if surveillance of communication might be a breach of the right to privacy, the ultimate outcome, which is the enhancement of security against terrorism and any other activities that might endanger the lives of the citizens justifies the action. Evidently, the government has to choose between giving the citizens privacy and giving them security. As long as the information collected is strictly used for security purposes, then the surveillance can be termed as moral from a utilitarianism point of view.

Felicific Calculus is an algorithm that was formulated with the intent of calculating the quantity of pleasure that results from a given action. This algorithm has often been used in the determination of the morality of certain actions under the assumption that the amount of pleasure resulting from an action can be used in the determination of whether they are moral or not (Götz 153). The strength of the pleasure that results from the knowledge that one’s communication might be low but the pleasure that the government has the upper hand in detecting any form of communication involving terrorists is high. The level of certainty that probability of terrorism will be reduced if communication is made hard is also high. Furthermore, the number of people whose lives will be saved when the government intercepts communication between terrorists and stop a potential terrorist attack is also very high. Therefore, the saved lives can be used to justifying the breach of security that some of the critics of government surveillance have always used to argue against it.

Evidently, both utilitarianism and the felicific calculus can effectively support government surveillance. Despite the argument of the breach of the right to privacy, both utilitarianism and the felicific calculus both tend to argue that it is better to lack privacy than to lack security. After all, the government has millions of people to put under surveillance. This is an implication that they will not be concerned about the minor privacy issues that citizens might be concerned with (Stahl 35). Only a person who has something to hide would be against the use of surveillance to enhance the level of security.

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  1. Barrow, Robin. Utilitarianism: A contemporary statement. Routledge, 2015.
  2. Götz, Norbert. “‘Moral economy’: its conceptual history and analytical prospects.” Journal of global ethics 11.2 (2015): 147-162.
  3. Stahl, Titus. “Indiscriminate mass surveillance and the public sphere.” Ethics and Information Technology 18.1 (2016): 33-39.
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