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surveillance morality

Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?

If we knew that someone else was watching us (or even the idea that someone out there could watch us), would we behave differently? Asked differently: if we knew that are CCTVs everywhere, would we behave morally better? This is the question Emrys Westacott deals with in Philosophy Now.

His brilliant prose of 3,500 words makes a case for how surveillance may not be all that bad. Although Westacott’s article does not necessarily propose all-intrusive surveillance on society, he presents us with an alternative way of thinking about surveillance.

Surveillance as the virtue of modernity

Surveillance refers to “a close observation of someone or something”. In the age of artificial intelligence and social media, surveillance is a buzzword for how societies are now becoming a social panopticon, with each watching the other—at all times.

There is a growing concern among—both democratic and non-democratic—societies that there is a growing intrusion of state surveillance on our everyday lives. Today, the state and the market control our ideas, thoughts, desires, and ability to differentiate between good and evil. Nowadays, “does surveillance make us morally better?” feels pertinent.

Westacott proposes two arguments for this question.

Kant’s way of doing morally better

In one interpretation, he discusses how Immanuel Kant used “categorical imperative” in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785. Kant proposes an ethical theory rooted in rationality. He argues that morality and moral principles must be based on reason rather than emotions and desires.

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, the only good thing is good in itself.

Goodwill is all things motivated by rational morality, regardless of consequences. If I don’t kill someone because I know it is wrong to do so, then that action is good in itself. That is the highest kind of morality. But, if I don’t kill someone because something is watching me do it—and I would be put in jail, that is not inherently morally good.

Looking at the world through this lens would invariably mean that if we think that surveillance makes us morally better, then we are not nearly morally good. We are just tweaking our actions because there are barriers to doing otherwise. Indeed, we may not do something wrong, but that does not mean that we will never do that something wrong.

Surveillance “might make us better, but it also stunts our growth as moral individuals”. From this perspective, surveillance does not make us any better than we already are.

Surveillance as the purveyor of good morals

There is another perspective to this question. To the question “Does surveillance make us morally better?”, the second school of thought answers YES. They argue, “Surveillance edifies—that is, it builds our moral character—by bringing duty and self-interest closer together”.

Plato and Thomas Hobbes’s thoughts resonate with this line of argument. They argue the greater the surveillance, the better we are likely to follow the rules and thereby detect all moral transgression. If you begin surveillance for long, people will invariably become law-abiding, rule-following, morally sound individuals.

surveillance as morally better
Photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash

To illustrate this, Westacott uses the example of traffic surveillance. He notes, at first, people were allowed to do whatever they wished. Drive as fast as you can. Then, the government of the day introduced certain speed limits. Then, cops began patrolling roads. Thereafter, more cops began doing so, now with radar systems.

After that, the police installed CCTVs. And finally, cars were equipped with devices that would invariably control the car’s speed and regulate your behaviour without your knowledge. What happened here? Today, there are very few accidents (at least hypothetically).  

As a result of controlled surveillance of the traffic system over time, there are now “fewer accidents, less pain, less grief, less guilt, reduced demands on the healthcare system, lower insurance premiums, fewer days lost at work, a surging stock market, and so on.”

Use the same logic on everything you see around you. Drink and drive. Bank robbery. Copying in exam halls. Today, technology has made surveillance cheap. Breaking laws has become risky.

Implications for thinking of surveillance as a morality enforcer 

Westacott’s essay then looks at how this application would be practicable. He does so by identifying reasons to dismiss Kantian deontology. Saintly ideals are dated, the author argues. What we desire is not what matters but what we do.

This means “excessive concern for people’s appetites and desires is a Puritan hangover.” Westacott notes: “Surveillance improves behaviour, period.” And that is all that matters.

More importantly, Westacott argues, Kantians should embrace surveillance because it leads to more duty. Surveillance merely replaces God—who was all-knowing, yet abstract—with CCTVs, who are all-knowing and concrete. But the result: it fosters good habits.

Westacott is also mindful of what happens when we apply surveillance over family, friends, and partners. One could easily use a surveillance mechanism in terms of state-citizen and employer-employee.

However, familial relations are built on trust, and surveillance merely represents a lack of trust. Therefore, you wouldn’t want your partner to monitor everything you do all day constantly.

Westacott notes:

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.

(Westacott 2010)

A case against the surveillance for morally better behaviour

While the author argues why surveillance could be a morality-enforcing mechanism, the essay is not bereft of problems. In this article, I suggest three such problems:

Governments of surveillance

First, surveillance sure deems us to do good things. But those who are in charge of the surveillance of society (mainly the police, government, and technological conglomerates), will they be morally better?

This question is crucial because it deals with the notion of power. Surveillance is very much intertwined with the notion of power. Those who know us control us. Those who can know us control us. REMEMBER: Pegasus.

“If you have not done anything, you have nothing to fear”. We hear this statement all the time. Law enforcement agencies always use this logic to use excessive surveillance. These surveillance mechanisms are then used by political elites all across the world to control people—their behaviour, their lifestyle, their eating habits, their health insurance, their sexual practices, and their social circles.

The more you know the people, the easier you can control what they know. Invariably, surveillance causes societies to be tightly controlled through technology. Sure, technology has made surveillance cheap, but it has made human control even cheaper.

Let’s use some surveillance examples. Now, say the government controls your vehicle’s speed. After that, it may control who you are with. After that, how do you behave in social circles? The point is not all surveillance is deemed good social behaviour.

And most of the time, surveillance is merely a façade for elites to control you under the garb of social morality. In authoritarian societies, surveillance is an everyday reality.

Surveillance and Trust

Second, surveillance is antithetical to trust. As societies grow more untrustworthy, there will be more surveillance of each other’s behaviours. A classic example is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each of us was turned against one another—controlling how others behaved, who they interacted with, what they wore, where they travelled, and what they did there.

A surveillance-based society is a society of trust deficit. Democracies sustain trust. Morality is not enforceable. It is inherent. By virtue of us being Anthropocene, we are all deemed to behave morally. Surveillance causes fear, even when it may be good in the long run.

But, as Keynes puts it, “In the long run, we are all dead.”

Surveillance as a business

Finally, surveillance as a business. You may have heard this sentence: “Data is the new oil”. This means that all you are is stored as data and sold to others. It is a business. What happens when authorities, private firms, and governments collect data? Is it used to harm us?

Maybe. In today’s era of the internet, with or without our knowledge, our location, travel records, browser histories, and digital behaviour are recorded and sold to others. We are under constant surveillance due to technology. Surveillance hasn’t changed drug trafficking, terror attacks, or petty crimes.

The criminals now use blind spots to escape surveillance at the cost of civilian lives. But, at the same time, surveillance has become a source of money today. Using this logic, one may argue that, rather than surveillance causing morality, it has become a tool to erode morality.

Now, does surveillance make us morally better? I do not think so.

Cover Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash


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1 thought on “Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?”

  1. You mentioned it briefly, but God does sees everything; and we will all stand before Him one day to give account of our deeds whether good or evil. So, I agree with your conclusion: Surveillance does not make us morally better. If it did, we would be more reverent of our Creator and seek to keep His moral laws. That said, only a supernatural change of the otherwise incurable human heart will produce a morally better person. As the Apostle John concluded: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19

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