A Philosopher's Blog

Is Manning a Hero?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 15, 2010
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The town of Berkeley recently considered a motion to declare Private Manning a hero. Manning is, of course, accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. While some see him as an obvious villain and other see him as an obvious hero, this is a matter worthy of some consideration.

The first point of concern is to provide a rough idea of what it is to be a hero. While I do not purport to be giving a necessary and sufficient definition of what it is to be a hero, I think that there are two core requirements.

The first is that a person must put herself at significant risk. Since risk comes in degrees is would thus seem to follow that there are degrees of heroism. This is intuitively plausible. For example, if I merely risk a minor injury, then I am only being (at most) somewhat heroic. If, however, I run a considerable risk of being horribly killed, then my potential heroism would seem far more significant.

Obviously enough, putting oneself at risk is not sufficient for heroism. After all, if a person drinks several Four Loko and runs out into traffic, he is putting himself at risk. However, he is not being heroic. This leads to the second core requirement.

The second requirement is the moral element. An act of heroism is, intuitively, an act that aims at a moral good. We would not, for example, call someone who undertook considerable risk to commit a murder or rape a hero.

As with the risk, the goodness can come in varying degrees. So, for example, if someone risks an injury by climbing a tree to rescue a cat, then she is being a little bit heroic. As another example, Ginger Littleton acted to try to save the lives of her fellow school board members which would make her rather heroic.

Naturally, there are all sorts of other factors that must be taken into account when assessing specific acts for heroism. For example, there is the matter of whether the person acted knowingly. As another example, there is the question of intent. However, I do not want to become bogged down in this point (I’ll leave that up to commentators) and will now switch to the main issue or whether Manning is a hero or not.

Since it has yet to be proven that Manning leaked the information, the discussion of his heroism (or lack thereof) is hypothetical. For the sake of the discussion, it will be assumed that he did leak the information. However, this is not to be taken as a claim that he did, in fact, leak the information.

Manning’s alleged leak does meet the first condition. Such a leak brings with it considerable risk (such as the possibility of an extended amount of jail time) and presumably Manning was aware of these consequences. However, the critical requirement is the moral requirement.

While Assange seems to regard himself on a moral crusade, it is not entirely clear what motivated Manning nor what Manning hoped to achieve with the leak. There has been some speculation that he leaked the information because of his dislike of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. If so, it could perhaps be argued that his leak was a moral protest against what he regarded as an immoral policy.

However, the information about Manning seems to indicate that he was unhappy about his job for various other reasons. As such, his leak might have been a case of a disgruntled worked who aimed at getting back at his employer. This is hardly an act of heroism.

The above is, of course, speculation. At this point it is not certain what motivated Manning nor what he hoped to accomplish with the alleged leak. As such, there seems to be little evidence of heroism.

In cases in which the potential hero’s intent and aims are unknown, it does make sense to try to assess the action itself as well as the consequences. For example, if someone rescues a drowning person from a frozen lake, then we are inclined to call her a hero-even if she slips away without revealing anything about her motivations or aims.

The ethics of the leak is, of course, a matter of great contention. Some people hold it to be an act of wickedness, on par with 9/11. Others hold it to be a morally upstanding act that strikes a blow against the evil of America in specific and states in general. Those who assess the matter more with reason than emotions generally seem to hold the leak to have caused some problems in diplomacy but to be neither a great good nor a significant evil.  As such, there does not seem to be  clear case for Manning being a great hero (or an epic villain).

At this point, the most likely narrative is that Manning leaked the information because of his dissatisfaction with his situation. The leak itself does not seem to have done significant good nor very significant damage. As such, it would seem that Manning is not a hero.

There are, of course, alternative narratives. Some that paint him as a hero and others that cast him as a traitor.

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39 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on December 15, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    I’m game; so, we’re assuming that Manning did exactly what he’s accused of doing.

    As I see it, Manning swore an oath to act in a certain fashion, and by breaking that oath, he betrayed his country.

    Now, I appreciate that ‘oathbreaker’ sounds like a pretty archaic pejorative, but I see that as a really serious thing. The world hangs together or falls apart based on peoples ability to trust the commitments made between them.

    My view is that a) no dishonorable act can be a heroic act, b) oathbreaking is always a dishonorable act, therefore c) no act of oathbreaking can ever be a heroic act.

    This bypasses the issue of morality in determining whether what he did was heroic, but I think it also preempts it.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 16, 2010 at 12:58 pm

      I would disagree with the b) premises. After all, there can be oaths that are morally wrong and hence it would be odd to call sticking with such an oath honorable. Odd, but not impossible.

      It also seems possible that an act could be both dishonorable in some ways, yet still heroic. Of course, this hinges on what is meant by “honor.”

      • Asur said, on December 16, 2010 at 3:20 pm

        As I see it, one is “honorable” to the extent that one performs whatever obligations one has agreed to assume–it’s the measure of personal integrity rather than, say, moral integrity.

        In the old D&D, it’s being Lawful whatever…you can be Lawful Evil just as easily as you can be Lawful Good.

        I offered ‘honorable, moral, and courageous’ as the criterion for a heroic act, and I think this is quite correct; the heroic must represent the very best of humanity, and it makes no sense to locate it in any action we would shrink from endorsing unreservedly–surely a dishonorable, a corrupt, or a cowardly action could not be so endorsed.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 16, 2010 at 11:06 pm

          Yes, in D&D terms one could be honorable and evil. The same could certainly hold true in real life as well.

          • Asur said, on December 16, 2010 at 11:28 pm

            Wait, wait, wait, hold up a second–do you mean that D&D isn’t real?

          • magus71 said, on December 17, 2010 at 5:23 am

            Well Asmodeus was Lawful Evil, but I doubt he’d be against torture. I make more of the distiction in this way:

            Serial Killers are classified in the following ways: Organized and disorganized. JacK the Ripper was disorganized, while Ted Bundy was organized. Jack was Chaotic evil; Bundy was Lawful Evil. Lawful and Chaotic describe more the means than the end. Google Bundy and Jack to see the differences in how they operated.

            • Asur said, on December 17, 2010 at 3:09 pm

              “Well Asmodeus was Lawful Evil, but I doubt he’d be against torture.”

              I’m wondering, do you mean that it’s not possible to be both honorable and pro-torture (or simply evil)? I just don’t see how honor can have a moral component to it given that we can accept and discharge obligations toward both good and evil ends–that would seem to imply that honor is amoral.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 19, 2010 at 7:24 pm

              Asmodeus is very pro-torture. But he sincerely regrets the need to employ such crude methods. If only everyone would accept the necessity of law, then there would be no need for that sort of thing. Well, except for those pesky paladins.

            • WTP said, on December 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm

              Perhaps Henry Louis can help here:

              “The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked and he has not been caught.”
              — H. L. Mencken

            • Asur said, on December 17, 2010 at 6:24 pm

              Hmm…so, WTP, the difference between a moral man and an honorable man is that the honorable man is more consistently moral?

            • WTP said, on December 17, 2010 at 10:59 pm

              Let’s just say an honorable man doesn’t feel the need to make a fuss about it.

            • magus71 said, on December 19, 2010 at 4:44 am


              I believe that moraility is an artificial construct. That doesn’t mean that all actions have equal value. I believe there is a time to reap and a time to sow, a time for peace and a time for war.

            • Asur said, on December 19, 2010 at 10:59 am

              Morality is essentially ‘how one should act’.

              If, as you say, all actions are not equal, then the nature of that inequality is ipso facto the nature of morality.

              I’m not sure how you intend morality to be an artificial construct, but if you mean that it is subjective in a non-trivial sense, then we’d best roll up our sleeves because I’m morally obligated to take that position to task.

        • magus71 said, on December 20, 2010 at 2:21 am


          What I mean is that you can’t hand me a bowl of morality. It’s not an emprical thing; only actions and reactions are empirical. And “morality” seems to change with whatever people happen to want to do at the time. There are actions that have desireable effects on people, and ones that have undesireable effects and many times we have to use the competing harms argument; it’s ok to do something bad if a worse outcome would happen if you didn’t do it. ;ie war and waterboarding.

          I believe there’s a time and a place for most actions, and that people hide behind the word morality to avoid tough choices and make themselves look superior, at least in come cases. You know–The Code Pink types. And bloggers.

          • erik said, on December 20, 2010 at 8:31 am

            You alllude to waterboarding.
            We get to a similar point that we arrive at when trying to determine whether pissants crawling over a crucifix is art or not. The “who determines” point. Who decides which of the “competing harms” is most acceptable? Billy Graham or Adolph Hitler?
            You’ve never argued against moral relativism on here have you?

            • erik said, on December 20, 2010 at 8:32 am

              Perhaps I should make the choices more distinct: Jesus or Adolph Hitler.

            • magus71 said, on December 20, 2010 at 11:40 pm

              I’ll repeat: Only actions are emprical. Not “morality.”

  2. T. J. Babson said, on December 15, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    What about Antigone? Her act would have been considered dishonorable by most.


    Two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have fallen, as will be remembered, at one of the gates of Thebes. King Creon allows Eteocles to be buried at once, that he might receive due honor among the shades; but he orders a herald to forbid any funeral rites or burial to the corpse of Polynices. “Let him lie unwept, unburied, a toothsome morsel for the birds of heaven, and whoso touches him shall perish by the cruel death of stoning.”

    Antigone tells these gloomy tidings to her sister Ismene, and informs her of what she has resolved to do:

    “In spite of the orders, I shall give my brother burial, whether thou, Ismene, wilt join with me or not.”

    In vain her sister bids her keep in mind the ruin of their house:

    “We twain are left alone, and if we brave the king’s decree, an unhappy death awaits us. Weak women such as we cannot strive with men; rather were it seemly to bow to those that are stronger than ourselves. The dead, who lie below, will deal leniently with us, as forced to yield.”

    Pathetically noble is the response of Antigone:

    “Gladly will I meet death in my sacred duty to the dead. Longer time have I to spend with them than with those who live upon the earth. Seek not to argue with me; nothing so terrible can come to me but that an honored death remains.”

    • Asur said, on December 16, 2010 at 12:35 am

      Ooh! Okay. So, I see three essential components to a heroic act: 1) it must be honorable, 2) it must be moral, and 3) it must be courageous.

      Now, there’s no question that Antigone fulfills #’s 2 and 3, it’s 1 that’s the issue.

      If she gave her word not to give Polynices a burial, then even though just and brave, she was dishonest and thus did not perform a heroic deed.

      If, however, she did not make that promise (nor an umbrella promise like agreeing to obey all of the king’s orders), then her act was honorable, just, and brave–and therefore heroic!

      So, going against authority is not dishonorable unless you’ve pledged not to do so, which may well not have been the case for Antigone if King Creon was a Rule by the Stick sort of fellow.

      You’re suspiciously well-cultured, WTP.

      • Asur said, on December 16, 2010 at 12:36 am

        Or TJ, as the case may be! 😀

        • WTP said, on December 16, 2010 at 3:40 pm

          I’ll take that as a compliment. Can’t speak for TJ, though…

  3. chamblee54 said, on December 15, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    I strongly suspect the Pvt. Manning is taking the rap for others. Also, why would a Private have access to these materials?

    • erik said, on December 15, 2010 at 10:01 pm

      An interesting question which I haven’t heard the answer to as of yet. Good grief, he’s a PFC! He’s cannon fodder. . .Or would have been in a world where cannons were common in warfare. If this breach is easily identified and explained, someone better get onto getting the general problem contained ASAP.

      • magus71 said, on December 16, 2010 at 8:42 am

        The breach was not “easy” but it is very possible. No conspiracies needed at all. Privates with proper security clearences have access to a lot of info, especially in the Intel Analysis job. None of the stuff that Manning released was TOP SECRET, only SECRET. And there’s plenty of stuff he didn’t release because he couldn’t. But he was an Intel analyst, and in order to do that job, you need info. Also, like any other mess-up, someone failed. Counter Intelligence persons should have picked up on the breach, however CI is notoriously understaffed; something else I’m trying to get changed.

        But I have long argued that 18 year olds should not be given TOP SECRET clearances. if banks won’t give them loans because they have no history, why should we give them access to vital national security info?

        The are also things called Special Access Programs, which not only require a certain clearance levels, but also have “read on” caveats that may look like this: TOP SECRET/DARK HORIZON. One would need to have a TOP SECRET Clearence plus be on a special list allowing one access to the DARK Horizon project etc.

        Never the less, there are many yound PFCs with TOP SECRET clearances who don’t do what Manning did.

        • T. J. Babson said, on December 16, 2010 at 8:56 am

          I was not surprised that a PFC would have access to sensitive information. However, I was surprised that the State Department would give anyone in the DoD access to its internal correspondence.

          • magus71 said, on December 17, 2010 at 5:26 am

            Yes, we have access to any “cables”. But those aren’t really internal. if someone at State wants to keep things internal, he merely emails anotehr person on SIPR Outlook. SECRET Outlook.

            State Department cables are part of intelligence analysis. To make it any other way would regrow the old pre-9-11 problems similar to how FBI and the CIA didn’t trade info. We also now have access to FBI reports.

        • erik said, on December 16, 2010 at 10:06 am

          Thanks for the explanation. It all makes me question just about every vetting process in the military, the government, homeland security, etc.

          The fact that many or most don’t do what Manning did doesn’t ease my mind. Relatively speaking, not many who drive actually text while driving, but the ones who do create much of havoc in winter conditions. And basically all they get is minimal training and a driver’s test to start out.

          It’s easier to think that the info he was “privy to” (being a ‘priv’ate)though vast, is not of nuclear significance.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 16, 2010 at 1:06 pm

            It is a general problem. To use an analogy, the cleaning folk at my university have access to my office. As such, they could get into my exams as well as the graded material I keep there. So, as part of their normal job, they could get to information that they probably should not have. Also, as a professor I can get into any student’s academic records at my school. While having that information for advising is legitimate, I can get addresses, phone numbers and I used to be able to get social security numbers.

            While it is possible to really lock things down, there is the practical problem of the difficulty of balancing security with convenience. And, of course, no amount of security can substitute for having trustworthy people.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 16, 2010 at 1:00 pm

          In fact, most would not.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 16, 2010 at 12:59 pm

      Apparently the security methods are in need of overhaul. From what I saw in the news, the system was fairly open on the inside. As such, a private could get to the data.

      • WTP said, on December 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm

        When I worked in a secure area back in the late 80’s, a guy I worked with was about to walk into that area with a sealed box of sealed cassette tapes. Several people spoke up about it and one supervisor gave the guy a real chewing out. In the guy’s defense, he did not know that the room had just switched from black to red..or so he said. There are areas where I work where we cannot take our cell phones, and we are all civilians. When I first saw this story back in what, October or so, I was amazed that someone in the military could nonchalantly bring in something as unnecessary to their job as a cd player. I would think everyone in that office would be in some serious trouble. Not just his supervisor/CO/whatever but also whoever worked with him and didn’t question what he was doing.

        • erik said, on December 16, 2010 at 4:50 pm

          Yes. You’d think someone would have questioned something. The process magus described doesn’t fill me with confidence that everything possible is being done to prevent preventable leaks of truly potentially dangerous information. Magus says “someone failed”. Sounds familiar. What was the phrase after 9/11? “Failure to connect the dots.” And your story of the guy with the box of cassette tapes.

          The argument against what I’m about to say is obvious and someone is immediately going to yell “bureaucratic logjam” etc . But here goes. If we assume, as some here have, that the private and Wikileaks leaked “important” information which should not have been leaked, then it seems to me at least one, maybe two or three layers of security are missing or failing with regard to important security information. And I don’t feel particularly secure about that. . .

          • magus71 said, on December 17, 2010 at 5:34 am


            You’re suddenly worried about the security of the nation when it seems easy to blame the much hated security system for messing up? I think you have more fun in finding blame here than in actually worrying about the problem. Afterall–this has never happened before, and steps have taken place to mitigate it happening in the future.

            Someone always messes up somewhere. There are always new holes to be filled. That’s how we learn. But to place blame but then defend Assange seems a bit dishonest.

            • erik said, on December 17, 2010 at 7:56 am

              “Suddenly”? Is that your interpretation? I hate “the security system”?
              “I think you have more fun in finding blame here than in actually worrying about the problem.” Your interpretation.
              Are you saying we can deal with a problem without first getting to the real source of the “blame” ? ” Blame game” is a political bumper-sticker used by both sides when they get antsy. You’re just fiddling around the edges of eliminating a problem until you can fully assess the blame. Commissions, like the 9/11 Commission, don’t ignore the issue of blalme. Does Bin Laden bear the blame for terrorism? Or is it something much more complex? If the former, then killing him’s the answer. If the latter, we’d better get cracking on studying specifically where the blame falls and working to solve the problem. In other words, so you don’t misinterpret me again, I don’t think you can solve the problem and ignore the blame.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 16, 2010 at 11:05 pm

          I think he was “playing” the CD on the PC.

        • magus71 said, on December 17, 2010 at 5:30 am

          I’m assuming that what manning did was download a bunch of stuff from a sharedrive. It’s not unusual to have CDs in SCIFs but you’re not supposed to have things like MP3s, thumbdrives etc. Most of the computers have the write capability disabled except to a few people.

          • WTP said, on December 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm

            Magus, not clear, off the top of my head anyway, on how getting stuff in and out of a SCIF is supposed to work, but when I recently had a patch release of software, I know that after it was burned onto a CD it went to our security guy who had to do some sort of magic to “clear” it before it could get into our SCIF. Now this is all civilian contractor work but it has always been my (naive?) impression that there would be at least as much, if not more discipline in a military environment. There are areas where I work that are secure, but not technically SCIFs, into which people cannot bring a cell phone if it has a camera on it. It seems quite odd to me that someone could casually bring a CD into a true SCIF. If everyone thought he had Lady GaGa on it, they at least knew he was bringing in a CD, something that could easily be recording material, into the area. Seems odd to me that if thumbdrives, etc. are verboten, surely uncleared CDs should be kept out too.

            This aspect of this story is rather frustrating to read about as I have wasted hours trying to get test data that has absolutely no intelligence value out of a SCIF, while at the same time this bozo was walking in and out of one with such sensitive data.

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