19 August 2010

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Secrecy

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing Secrecy.
However, I must confess that my short essay this week is more a draft
than my well thought out opinions on the subject. I am therefore not
trying to keep anything away from you if you cannot make heads or tails
of it. It's just the summer heat playing old harry with my thinking
process, once again.
See you Sunday,


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-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

Tertullian with Ignacio and friends: Every Thursday, from 19:30 to 21h,
at Moore's Irish Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal).

To be honest with you, I never really considered how important secrecy
is to philosophy before. It struck me when I started reading the entry
for secrecy on Wikipedia and a few lines down the article there was
this, "Animals conceal the location of their den or nest from
predators." QED
This basically means that the subject is vast and huge and anywhere we
start will be a drop in the ocean. Given this situation after looking
into the structure of secrecy I want to consider a very specific issue:
what is and is not legitimate for a government to be secretive about?
But first let's have a quick look at the make up of secrecy. As I see it
there are two issues here: 1) information and 2) morally. You might also
ask what about evolution since even animals use secrecy to survival in
the wild. Maybe, but I am assuming this in the context of information.
Indeed, how right was Sir Francis Bacon when he wrote that "knowledge is
power." If a fox knew where the moorhen is nesting he will have a feast
for dinner. And if the polar bear knows where the seal is going to
surface she will have a wonderful picnic for lunch. If we knew how the
stock market will play out tomorrow afternoon we'll make a handsome
killing to celebrate with champagne in the evening.
However, this sort of useful information is very hard to come by, let
alone predict. Indeed we normally do not expect this sort of information
to be shared that easily, if shared at all. In fact we all have
information that would be helpful to others but chose not to share with
anyone. For example, it makes no sense to share passwords of email
accounts or pin numbers of bank accounts. We normally don't share
intimate information about ourselves or our partner with outsiders.
Even trade practices and technology know-how are not quickly shared with
others. And we certainly do not expect our government to share military
secrets with those who wish us harm or who might be careless with our
But at face value this seems to fly against the belief that cooperation
is the best policy we can adopt to progress and survive. How can we
cooperate if we don't share information with others. If we discover some
efficient process to produce food abundantly, how can we, as rational
moral beings not share this technology with others?
However, this chain of thought assumes that we are being asked to share
our technology whilst everything else remains equal. But in cooperation,
indeed, the act of cooperation mean that not everything remains equal,
but rather we are now equally better off.
We might also argue, that competition means that we are better off a
cost for others. Indeed this is the idea behind the zero sum game. But
even the zero sum game assumes that other things remain equal. It seems
to assume that if I win and you lose that will be that and go home and
live happily after.
This idea is no less logical than the idea that once we share equally
our profits we can home and live happily after.
The chances are that our profits will soon disappear and that will need
replenishing. And losers will develop a better strategy to win next
time. The fact that we make a profit or the fact that we win or maybe
lose means that we now have a different set of information which can
change the course of future events.
I am using information here to include a wide range of epistemic states,
from data to knowledge. What matters for us is that we have the
information what we do with it is an other matter.
Sir Francis was right and our belief in the idea that knowledge is power
has been proven true many times since Bacon wrote those words. We can
thus far agree that we seem to have a right to our own information and
knowledge and that we also have a right to use such information. Which
of course, by default, we also seem to have a right to be secretive with
our cherished information. Think of our personal information and
knowledge as the ultimate in property rights.
Under perfect cooperation, morality and ethics, would probably not be
required since no one will be better off or worse off than the others.
And the benefits of progress would be shared with those in the cooperative.
However, we can understand why we need to have the concept of right and
wrong or good and bad if we live in a perfect competitive state, where
we always apply the zero sum game. The idea of taking advantage of
others would be very natural in a completive state and the concept of
injustice and unfairness would easily take root in this environment.
But here is the dilemma for us. How can our legitimately acquired
knowledge be the source of unfairness and injustice. Sure, if I knew how
to read the stock market correctly I would be taking advantage of the
situation. And if I indeed take advantage of my knowledge it would
probably be at the cost, indeed at a high cost, to others. But why
should that concern me?
Well, we can approach this in a pragmatic way and argue that it is ok
for us to take advantage of our personal knowledge, but no more. We
cannot however steal information, In the real world the situation is
complicated with such things as insider information and intellectual
property rights. Or maybe even compromise. I take advantage of my
knowledge and you take advantage of your knowledge. So how can we have a
moral dilemma if this arrangement does not give rise to injustice or
unfairness. After all this seems to be quite a reasonable arrangement.
The problem of secrecy is that it is a very attractive and impressive
tool we can use to take advantage of others with very little cost to us
in many cases. It is very efficient because it works 24/7 and it seems
that it does not cost us much resources. Keeping our mouth shut can be
all that we have to do.
Secrecy is ideal in competition because the raison d'être of competition
is the end product. And it is ideal because in the model of competition
there is always room, for example, to cheat or exploit weaker players.
In a zero sum game what matter is that we win. Competition does not look
at the methodology of how we come to win. Of course, you might object
that I am really giving a simplistic description of competition, if not
an erroneous description.
You might legitimately point out at the edifice of business and criminal
law that deal with those who cheat. But this is my point. Under
competition we always create counter measures against cheaters after the
event. As they say, we are always one step behind those who take unfair
advantage of the system.
In the same way that those who advocate that we gather all our personal
wealth in the town square and apply the Solomon code of dividing
everything equally amongst those present, are destined to oblivion.
Those who advocate that we look at the bottom line and not the
methodology are themselves probably destined to oblivion together with
the black box itself which competition seems to employ.
The issue is that competition, in its methodology has a built in flaw
because cheating is always possible to take place, even if we do punish
it after the event. Look at it this way, even if the law punishes drunk
drivers who injure others and even give compensation, this is irrelevant
if a victim loses their life or one of their limbs.
In the ideal state of cooperation, we start off with defining the
methodology, however, the methodology itself does not impose any limits
on how much wealth we generate nor will it make it possible to
discriminate against someone in the cooperative. You will also notice
that this ideal state only distributes the wealth it generates.
Of course, in the world we live in, not all competition is faulty since
we have a lot of evidence that, in its own way, has been useful and
brought a degree of development. Nor cooperation is perfect, we might
spend too much time on how to do things than actually doing them. Think
of the endless business and committee meeting many people have to attend
just to buy a paper clip.
Thus information is relevant for secrecy because information itself is a
very powerful tool that we can easily use to our own advantage. And
morality is relevant because in a zero sum game it is always open to us
to actually use any information we have to our own exclusive advantage,
but at a cost to others.
As I said at the beginning, I would like to consider the issue of what
is and is not legitimate for a government to be secretive about? I don't
think it makes much sense for us to go into great detail into which
document or which piece of information should be made public or kept
secret. For example, going into the merits of whether the deluge of
document s from Afghanistan should or shouldn't have been leaked to
In the real world governments, of course, have to compete with other
states not to mention the various interest groups competing for
attention. I imagine no one will object to the idea that, like the
moorhen, it makes a great deal of sense to be discrete sometimes.
However, as I have tried to argue, if the existence of a biological
system, such as a moorhen or a government, depends on the competitive
methodology then there is always an in built scope in the method to
cheat. Or to use some other term, maybe to act unfairly. Now, maybe, the
fox and the moorhen have no choice but to play the zero sum game and
maybe adopted courses of action that amount to cheating or tricking
their subject of interest.
The question we have to ask ourselves is what reasons do governments
have to be secretive? As far as legitimate information held by a
government the reasons are probably more or less the same as the moorhen
and the fox: survival, if not of the government, at least of the state.
Before I move on and develop this issue, I want to revisit the idea of
cheat. The meaning of cheating, as I have already discussed, is
basically to take unfair advantage of others. But in this meaning I want
to include hiding information, for example, relating to mistakes and not
just to taking advantage of others or, worse, using unethical methods to
obtain an objective.
The answer to my original question "what is and is not legitimate for a
government to be secretive about?"seems to fall into place. But to
really make this issue more focused, I really want to consider secrecy
by governments that involve their own citizens. Basically we can be at
ease with information that generally benefits citizens, the state, or is
basically beneficial all round. For example, tax policies that are being
planned. Indeed many governments apply taxes on certain goods within 24
hours to prevent hoarding or even to start collecting the money early.
However, because the government, like the moorhen, operates in a
competitive environment and given the scope to cheat, what is to stop
the government from being secretive about information that is harmful or
unjust to people? The problem with this question is that the devil is in
the detail.
But once again we might fall in to the trap of asking or trying to
identify what type of information can and cannot be harmful. For
example, does the government have the right to be secretive about
unofficial policies regarding the treatment of some diseases, or age
group? Not only is this way of thinking cumbersome but irrational. The
end might easily justify the means: i.e.: saving huge amounts of money
is more beneficial than telling people that that they are not going to
be treated. This follows the pattern of looking at the bottom line and
not the methodology?
As I have argued, for a reasonable or rational agent what matters is how
we get to the result since a valid methodology would not preclude
maximising the result. I would therefore propose that what the
government are not entitled is to keep any information secret that can
possibly show the actions of the state to be prejudicial to the
individual. It would be a start, anyway.
Whilst it is acceptable for a government to be secretive about the exact
amounts of money they intend to invest to improve a health service, it
is not acceptable for a government to be secretive about health policies
towards specific diseases, or policies towards certain groups in
society. It the first case, it does not make sense to be too liberal in
advance about the amounts of money the government is prepared to spend
since companies might adjust prices to take advantage of this money.
However, information that can show the government is abusing or
discriminating against individuals cannot be kept secret I have 319
stories and .
Of course, what should happen after we are given the information from
the government is an other matter.
All the best

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Secrecy

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