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Law, Tolerance and Society

Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?

Emrys Westacott asks a probing question.

Imagine that right after briefing Adam about which fruit was allowed and which forbidden, God had installed a closed-circuit television camera in the garden of Eden, trained on the tree of knowledge. Think how this might have changed things for the better. The serpent sidles up to Eve and urges her to try the forbidden fruit. Eve reaches her hand out – in paradise the fruit is always conveniently within reach – but at the last second she notices the CCTV and thinks better of it. Result: no sin, no Fall, no expulsion from paradise. We don’t have to toil among thorns and thistles for the rest of our lives, earning our bread by the sweat of our brows; childbirth is painless; and we feel no need to wear clothes.

So why didn’t God do that and save everyone a lot of grief? True, surveillance technology was in its infancy back then, but He could have managed it, and it wouldn’t have undermined Eve’s free will. She still has a choice to make; but once she sees the camera she’s more likely to make the right choice. The most likely explanation would be that God doesn’t just want Adam and Eve to make the right choices; he wants them to make the right choices for the right reasons. Not eating the forbidden fruit because you’re afraid you’ll be caught doesn’t earn you moral credit. After all, you’re only acting out of self-interest. If paradise suffered a power cut and the surveillance was temporarily down, you’d be in there straight away with the other looters.

So what would be the right reason for not eating the fruit? Well, God is really no different than any other parent. All he wants is absolute, unquestioning obedience (which, by an amazing coincidence, also happens to be exactly what every child wants from their parents.) But God wants this obedience to be voluntary. And, very importantly, He wants it to flow from the right motive. He wants right actions to be driven not by fear, but by love for Him and reverence for what is right. (Okay, He did say to Adam, “If you eat from the tree of knowledge you will die” – which can sound a little like a threat – but grant me some literary license here.)

Moral philosophers will find themselves on familiar ground here. On this interpretation, God is a follower of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. (This would, of course, come as no surprise to Kant.) According to Kant, our actions are right when they conform to the moral rules dictated to us by our reason, and they have moral worth insofar as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. In other words, my actions have moral worth if I do what is right because I want to do the right thing. If I don’t steal someone’s iPod (just another kind of Apple, really) because I think it would be wrong to do so, then I get a moral pat on the back and am entitled to polish my halo. If I don’t steal the iPod because I’m afraid of getting caught, then I may be doing the right thing, and I may be applauded for being prudent, but I shouldn’t be given any moral credit.

Highway Star

These musings are intended to frame a set of questions: What is the likely impact of ubiquitous surveillance on our moral personalities? How might the advent of the surveillance society affect a person’s moral education and development? How does it alter the opportunities for moral growth? Does it render obsolete the Kantian emphasis on acting from a sense of duty as opposed to acting out of self-interest? Such questions fall under the rubric of a new field of research called Surveillance Impact Assessment.

Here is one way of thinking: surveillance edifies – that is, it builds moral character – by bringing duty and self-interest closer together. This outlook would probably be favoured by philosophers such as Plato and Thomas Hobbes. The reasoning is fairly simple: the better the surveillance, the more likely it is that moral transgressions will be detected and punished. Knowing this, people are less inclined to break the rules, and over time they form ingrained rule-abiding habits. The result is fewer instances of moral failure, and patterns of behaviour conducive to social harmony. A brief history of traffic surveillance illustrates the idea nicely:

Stage One (‘the state of nature’): Do whatever you please – it’s a free for all. Drive as fast as you want, in whatever condition you happen to be in. Try to avoid head-on collisions. Life is fast, fun and short.

Stage Two: The government introduces speed limits, but since they are not enforced they’re widely ignored.

Stage Three: Cops start patrolling the highways to enforce the speed limits. This inhibits a few would-be tearaways, but if you’re clever you can still beat the rap; for instance, by knowing where the police hang out, by tailing some other speedster, or by souping up your car so the fuzz can’t catch you.

Stage Four: More cops patrol the highways, and now they have radar technology. Speeding becomes decidedly imprudent, especially on holiday weekends or if you’re driving past small rural villages that need to raise revenue.

At this point you can respond in one of three ways:

A) Fight fire with fire: equip your car with fuzz-busting anti-surveillance technology, and revert to your criminal ways.

B) Buy a car with cruise control and effortlessly avoid transgression;

C) Carry on as before, monitoring your speed continually and keeping an eye out at all times for likely police hiding spots. Those who choose this option are less likely than the cruise controllers to doze off, but they’ll find driving more stressful.

Stage Five: To outflank the fuzz-busters, police use cameras, and eventually satellite monitors, which become increasingly hard to evade. Detection and prosecution become automated, so speeding becomes just stupid. The majority now obey the law and drive more safely.

Stage Six: Cars are equipped by law with devices that read the speed limit on any stretch of road they’re on. The car’s computer then acts as a governor, preventing the car from exceeding the limit. Now virtually every driver is un upstanding law-abiding citizen. If you want to speed you have to really go out of your way and tamper with the mechanism – an action analogous to what Kant would call ‘radical evil’, which is where a person positively desires to do wrong.

It’s easy to see the advantages of each successive stage in this evolution of traffic surveillance. At the end of the process, there are no more tearaways or drunk drivers endangering innocent road users. Driving is more relaxing. There are fewer accidents, less pain, less grief, less guilt, reduced demands on the health care system, lower insurance premiums, fewer days lost at work, a surging stock market, and so on. A similar story could be told with respect to drunk driving, with breathalyzers performing the same function as speed radar, and the ideal conclusion being a world in which virtually every car is fitted with a lock that shuts the engine off if the driver’s blood alcohol concentration is above a certain limit. With technology taking over, surveillance becomes cheaper, and the police are freed up to catch crooked politicians and bankers running dubious schemes. Lawbreaking moves from being risky, to being foolish, to being almost inconceivable.

But there is another perspective – the one informed by Kantian ethics. On this view, increased surveillance may carry certain utilitarian benefits, but the price we pay is a diminution of our moral character. Yes, we do the wrong thing less often; in that sense, surveillance might seem to make us better. But it also stunts our growth as moral individuals.

From this point of view, moral growth involves moving closer to the saintly ideal of being someone who only ever wants to do what is right. Kant describes such an individual as having (or being) a ‘holy will’, suggesting thereby that this condition is not attainable for ordinary human beings. For us, the obligation to be moral always feels like a burden. Wordsworth captures this well when he describes moral duty as the “stern daughter of the voice of God.” Why morality feels like a burden is no mystery: there is always something we (or at least some part of us) would sooner be doing than being virtuous. We always have inclinations that conflict with what we know our duty to be. But the saintly ideal is still something we can and should aim at. Ubiquitous surveillance is like a magnetic force that changes the trajectory of our moral aspiration. We give up pursuing the holy grail of Kant’s ideal, and settle for a functional but uninspiring pewter mug. Since we rarely have to choose between what’s right and what’s in our self-interest, our moral selves become not so much worse as smaller, withered from lack of exercise. Our moral development is arrested, and we end up on moral autopilot.

Purity vs Pragmatism?

Now I expect many people’s response to this sort of anxiety about moral growth will be scathing. Here are four possible reasons for not losing sleep over it:

1) It is a merely abstract academic concern. Surely, no matter how extensive and intrusive surveillance becomes, everyday life will still yield plenty of occasions when we experience growth-promoting moral tension: for instance, in the choices we have to make over how to treat family, friends, and acquaintances.

2) The worry is perfectly foolish – analogous to Nietzsche’s complaint that long periods of peace and prosperity shrink the soul since they offer few opportunities for battlefield heroics and sacrifice. Our ideal should be a world in which people live pleasanter lives, and where the discomfort of moral tension is largely a thing of the past. We might draw an analogy with the religious experience of sinfulness. The sense of sin may have once helped deepen human self-awareness, but that doesn’t mean we should try to keep it alive today. The sense of sin has passed its sell-by date; and the same can be said of the saintly ideal.

3) The saintly ideal is and always was misguided anyway. What matters is not what people desire, but what they do. Excessive concern for people’s appetites and desires is a puritan hangover. Surveillance improves behaviour, period. That is all we need to concern ourselves with.

4) Kantians should welcome surveillance, since ultimately it leads to the achievement of the very ideal they posit: the more complete the surveillance, the more duty and self-interest coincide. Surveillance technology replaces the idea of an all-seeing God who doles out just rewards and punishments, and it is more effective, since its presence, and the bad consequences of ignoring it, are much more tangibly evident. Consequently, it fosters good habits, and these habits are internalized to the point where wrongdoing becomes almost inconceivable.

That is surely just what parents and teachers aim for much of the time. As I send my kids out into the world, I don’t say to myself, ‘I do hope they remember they have a duty not to kill, kidnap, rape, steal, torture animals or mug old ladies.’ I assume that for them, as for the great majority in a stable, prosperous society, such wrongdoings are inconceivable: they simply don’t appear on the horizon of possible actions; and that is what I want. This inconceivability of most kinds of wrongdoing is a platform we want to be able to take for granted, and surveillance is a legitimate and effective means of building it. So, far from undermining the saintly ideal, surveillance offers a fast track to it.

Scrutiny vs Probity?

This would be a nice place to end. A trend is identified, an anxiety is articulated, but in the end the doubts are convincingly put to rest. Hobbes and Kant link arms and head off to the bar to drink a toast to their newly-discovered common ground.

But matters are not that simple. Wittgenstein warns philosophers against feeding on a diet of one-sided examples, and we need to be wary of that danger here. Indeed, I think that some other examples indicate not just that Kant may have a point, but that most of us implicitly recognize this point.

For instance, imagine you are visiting two colleges. At Scrutiny College, the guide proudly points out that each examination room is equipped with several cameras, all linked to a central monitoring station. Electronic jammers can be activated to prevent examinees from using cell phones or Blackberries. The IT department writes its own cutting-edge plagiarism-detection software. And there is zero tolerance for academic dishonesty: one strike and you’re out on your ear. As a result, says the guide, there is less cheating at Scrutiny than on any other campus in the country. Students quickly see that cheating is a mug’s game, and after a while no-one even considers it.

By contrast, Probity College operates on a straightforward honour system. Students sign an integrity pledge at the beginning of each academic year. At Probity, professors commonly assign take-home exams, and leave rooms full of test takers unproctored. Nor does anyone bother with plagiarism-detecting software such as Turnitin.com. The default assumption is that students can be trusted not to cheat.

Which college would you prefer to attend? Which would you recommend to your own kids?

Or compare two workplaces. At Scrutiny Inc., all computer activity is monitored, with regular random audits to detect and discourage any inappropriate use of company time and equipment, such as playing games, emailing friends, listening to music, or visiting internet sites that cause blood to flow rapidly from the brain to other parts of the body. At Probity Inc., on the other hand, employees are simply trusted to get their work done. Scrutiny Inc. claims to have the lowest rate of time-theft and the highest productivity of any company in its field. But where would you choose to work?

One last example. In the age of cell phones and GPS technology, it is possible for a parent to monitor their child’s whereabouts at all times. They have cogent reasons for doing so. It slightly reduces certain kinds of risk to the teenager, and significantly reduces parental anxiety. It doesn’t scar the youngster’s psyche – after all, they were probably first placed under electronic surveillance in their crib when they were five days old! Most pertinently, it keeps them on the straight and narrow. If they go somewhere other than where they’ve said they’ll go, or if they lie afterwards about where they’ve been, they’ll be found out, and suffer the penalties – like, their cell phone plan will be downgraded from platinum to regular (assuming they have real hard-ass parents). But how many parents really think that this sort of surveillance of their teenage kids is a good idea?

Surveillance Suggestions

What do these examples tell us? I think they suggest a number of things.

First, the Kantian ideal still resonates with us. If we regarded the development of moral character as completely empty, misguided or irrelevant, we would be less troubled by the practices of Scrutiny College or Mom and Pop Surveillance.

Second, the fear that surveillance can actually become so extensive as to threaten an individual’s healthy moral development is reasonable, for the growth of surveillance is not confined to small, minor or contained areas of our lives: it seems to be irresistibly spreading everywhere, percolating into the nooks and crannies of everyday existence, which is where much of a person’s moral education occurs.

Third, our attitude to surveillance is obviously different in different settings, and this tells us something important about our hopes, fears, expectations and ideals regarding the relationship between scrutinizer and scrutinizee. The four relationships we have discussed are: state and citizen; employer and employee; teacher and student, and parent and child. In the first two cases, we don’t worry much about the psychological effect of surveillance. For instance, I expect most of us would readily support improved surveillance of income in order to reduce tax evasion. But we generally assume that government, like employers, should stay out of the moral edification business.

It is possible to regard colleges in the same way. On this view, college is essentially a place where students expand their knowledge and develop certain skills. As in the workplace, surveillance levels should be determined according to what best promotes these institutional goals. However, many people see colleges as having a broader mission – as not just a place to acquire some technical training and a diploma. This broader mission includes helping students achieve personal growth, a central part of which is moral development. Edification is then seen not just as a happy side-effect of the college experience, but as one of its important and legitimate purposes. This, I think, is the deeper reason why we are perturbed by the resemblance between Scrutiny College and a prison. Our concern is not just that learning will suffer in an atmosphere of distrust: it is also that the educational mission of the college has become disappointingly narrow.

Finally, most of us agree that the moral education of children is and should be one of the goods a family secures. If not there, then where? So one good reason for parents not to install a camera over the cookie jar is that children need to experience the struggle between obligation and inclination. They even need to experience what it feels like to break the rules and get away with it; to break the rules and get caught; to break the rules, lie about it and not get caught; and so on. To reference Wordsworth again, in his autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude’, the emergence of the young boy’s moral awareness is connected to an incident when Wordsworth stole a rowing boat one evening to go for the eighteenth century equivalent of a joy ride. No-one catches him, but he becomes aware that his choices have a moral dimension.

This is not the only reason to avoid cluttering up the house with disobedience detectors, of course. Another purpose served by the family is to establish mutually-satisfying loving relationships. Moreover, the family is not simply a means to this end; the goal is internal to the practice of family life. Healthy relationships are grounded on trust, yet surveillance often signifies a lack of trust. For this reason, its effect on any relationship is corrosive. And the closer the relationship, the more objectionable we find it. Imagine how you’d feel if your spouse wanted to monitor your every coming and going.

These two objections to surveillance within the family – it inhibits moral development, and it signifies distrust – are connected, since the network of reasonably healthy relationships provided by a reasonably functional family is a primary setting for most people’s moral education. The positive experience of trusting relationships, in which the default expectation is that everyone will fulfill their obligations to one another, is in itself edifying. It is surely more effective at fostering the internalization of cherished values than intimidation through surveillance. Everyone who strives to create such relationships within their family shows by their practice that they believe this to be so.


The upshot of these reflections is that the relation between surveillance and moral edification is complicated. In some contexts, surveillance helps keep us on track and thereby reinforces good habits that become second nature. In other contexts, it can hinder moral development by steering us away from or obscuring the saintly ideal of genuinely disinterested action. And that ideal is worth keeping alive.

Some will object that the saintly ideal is utopian. And it is. But utopian ideals are valuable. It’s true that they do not help us deal with specific, concrete, short-term problems, such as how to keep drunk drivers off the road, or how to ensure that people pay their taxes. Rather, like a distant star, they provide a fixed point that we can use to navigate by. Ideals help us to take stock every so often of where we are, of where we’re going, and of whether we really want to head further in that direction.

Ultimately, the ideal college is one in which every student is genuinely interested in learning and needs neither extrinsic motivators to encourage study, nor surveillance to deter cheating. Ultimately, the ideal society is one in which, if taxes are necessary, everyone pays them as freely and cheerfully as they pay their dues to some club of which they are devoted members – where citizen and state can trust each other perfectly. We know our present society is a long way from such ideals, yet we should be wary of practices that take us ever further from them. One of the goals of moral education is to cultivate a conscience – the little voice inside telling us that we should do what is right because it is right. As surveillance becomes increasingly ubiquitous, however, the chances are reduced that conscience will ever be anything more than the little voice inside telling us that someone, somewhere, may be watching.

© Emrys Westacott 2010

Emrys Westacott is Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University in Western New York.

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