Persons of Conscience and the Laws of Robotics


Richard Thieme

The Three Laws of Robotics

I have been listening a lot lately to persons of conscience.

What do I mean by “persons of conscience?”

Let’s take a cue from Jeffrey Wigand. Wigand, made famous by the film The Insider, is the man who called the tobacco industry to account for its homicidal lies and deceits. In a recent interview in Time Magazine, he was asked why he objected to the term “whistle blower.”

What does it imply? he asked.  A rat or a snitch. It’s pejorative, isn’t it?

I prefer the term “person of conscience,” he said.

So let’s use “persons of conscience” to mean people in corporations, the military,

government agencies, religious organizations, whatever, who share this trait:

They find it impossible to keep quiet any longer about actions that torture their consciences.

They may have been silent until that moment, knowing that speaking up violates the first law of robotics, but then a variety of circumstances conspire to end their silence.

The First Law of Robotics? Yes. With a little revision, I think, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from I, Robot can be adapted for this discussion.  For our purposes, the first law (revised) states that a robot may never injure the organization to which it belongs or, through inaction, allow it to come to harm.

In other words, to work successfully in an organization, everyone to some degree has to become robotic. The norms of the organization eclipse the promptings of one’s own conscience, slowly obscuring them until – the organizational ideal – the darkness is complete and the conscience is permanently eclipsed.

Every organization has written and unwritten rules. Written rules are given to new employees through briefings, manuals, handbooks. Unwritten rules are communicated in whispers and by example. Unwritten rules govern the real behaviors in the culture and embody its unspoken norms. Unwritten rules come first, written rules second. If one does not obey the unwritten rules, one is not promoted or retained or, if one is kept on, one’s life can be made miserable.

The second law of robotics states, a robot must obey orders given by the organization, except when such orders conflict with the first law. In other words, the written rules or orders of a superior can be ignored if the robot knows a higher superior wants them ignored.

The third law of robotics states, employees must protect their own existence so long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law. In other words, be as ethical as you like in other areas of your life but don’t let it interfere with what you have to do in here.

“Robotic” is not too strong a term to characterize the behaviors I am discussing.

All organizations assimilate people into cultures. The anthropologist Margaret Meade said that it took another full year to learn as much as she learned in the first week when she entered a new culture. That’s a measure of how quickly we pick up cues. Corporate cultures communicate the rewards and consequences of doing the right and wrong things. Right and wrong are defined in relationship to the well-being and survival of the organization.

Institutional survival and individual conscience at some point come into conflict. The optimal behaviors of any institution are framed in reference to success, which usually means  profitability, and that means defeating others in a competitive marketplace. Those optimal behaviors can never be completely congruent with the integrity of an individual. The same applies to not-for-profits of all kinds where profit is measured in psychological gain or competitive advantage. “Not-for-profit” does not necessarily mean low salaries or an undersized cash flow.

So human beings who are assimilated into organizational cultures are inevitably turned into robots in varying degrees if we mean by “robot” a person who follows automatically the organizational program rather than his or her conscience. Following one’s conscience, after all, is what makes a human being human.

A CIA veteran described the agency as sixty per cent bureaucrats who sustain the structures, thirty percent imaginative people who dream up all sorts of creative projects, and ten per cent sociopaths who are willing to do anything to carry out those projects.

A sociopath does not have a conscience. Sociopaths don’t go to confession. They never feel sufficient distress to articulate a boundary between themselves and the organization. Their identities seamlessly fuse with corporate ideology, their will with its will, and behaviors become mechanical. They will, as my source said, do literally anything on behalf of their agency, their company, their government, their country.

Everyone who has worked in an organization knows what I’m talking about. The CIA may seem like an extreme example because the agency is chartered to break laws so long as its actions are sanctioned by a power elite.  But I think it’s a good benchmark of organizational behavior particularly in relationship to powerful trans-global supra-national companies because the power elite in any organization determines the behaviors that are sanctioned, they are always behaviors that serve the organization’s objectives, and they often break or skirt the law in letter or in spirit. (An exaggeration? I picked up the Wall Street Journal on March 2, 2005 and read: (1) Citigroup hopes to emphasize ethics as an antidote to recent major scandals; (2) former workers at Halliburton are being investigated for conspiring to rig bids, an offshoot of the larger bribery scandal in Nigeria; (3) Titan Corp., a defense contractor, agreed to pay $28.5 million to settle allegations that it covered up illegal payments in six countries including millions to influence a national election; (4) GE intends to exploit developing markets, nothing new there, just a statement of fact congruent with what I am describing; (5) more than 500 public companies reported deficiencies with internal accounting controls – all this in a single section of a newspaper dedicated to advancing corporate agendas.

That’s the water in which we all have to swim.

But such institutional behaviors are not restricted to trans-global corporations. The stated purpose of an organization is irrelevant to its behaviors; its “mission statement” is irrelevant. A church, for example, may not only talk about the importance of a conscience but also successfully inculcate and reinforce a conscience in members – but then insists that one’s conscience be exercised exclusively outside the closed world of the Church. The recent pedophile scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, much of which is still hidden and protected by systemic processes that created the scandal in the first place, is an example. Catholics I know who tried to alert authorities years ago were ignored or punished for their efforts. Except within narrow limits, they still are.

Religious and other hierarchical structures like the armed services always promote individuals to the degree that they support the institutional culture and its norms. Each promotion up the ladder is in direct proportion to the person’s commitment not to change or challenge anything in the system. By the time someone arrives at the top, they have proven themselves faithful custodians of institutional norms.

“What were you doing in Chinatown?” Evelyn Mulwray asks Jake Gittes in the classic film of the same name.

“As little as possible,” he replied.

“The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?”

“They do in Chinatown.”

Indeed they do. Except that Chinatown is the world.

And if they don’t do “as little as possible” …  there are consequences.

A “whistle blower” in the Department of Energy told me he had to go to court numerous times at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars each when he challenged the department about human safety issues. He won every time but knew he would always be sued so he could be used as an example. The communication to employees is: you may prevail but we’ll make your life a living hell even if you do.

People approach him quietly, he said, thanking him for what he did, often saying they would do the same if … they did not have a mortgage; or family; or were not afraid of what would be done in return.

An organization does not and can not have a conscience. Only an individual human being can have a conscience.

That’s why persons of conscience are always perceived as threats. To speak the truth of one’s conscience against the myths of a culture is subversive.

That does not mean that persons of conscience are innocent. Far from it. They have participated in whatever behaviors come to haunt them and know it. But a point comes when the balance tips and the aggrieved conscience can no longer remain silent. They speak up to relieve their own cognitive dissonance; they speak up to transcend in the moment of speaking their own past behaviors and the culture that fostered them; they speak up to affirm a standard of accountability that, if not articulated, can never be recognized. The power of nonviolent resistance to injustice resides in the quickening of the conscience of people watching. That strategy is predicated on the existence of universal moral truths. Those truths translate to the standard of accountability we are discussing.

Persons of conscience reclaim their humanity by speaking out even when they know the consequences will be ridicule, rejection, destruction of their livelihoods or careers, even death. When the stakes are sufficiently high or the culture is one that supports illegal actions including killing, assassination may well serve as an object lesson to those left standing. Assassination is the ultimate form of censorship.

Neutralization, however, does not always require that extreme measure. Forcing a person of conscience onto the margins where they can be ridiculed or dismissed is simple in a society where the media controls what people believe is real.

Inside the organization, persons of conscience will be called snitches, rats, traitors, or worse. It depends on the organization. If it’s a corporation or government agency, you’re a whistleblower, the opposite of a “team player,” and you’re shunned. If it’s news media and you’re a journalist, you’re a “muckraker” or “a conspiracy theorist” and you’re reassigned from the city desk to the strawberry festival. If it’s a country, you’re a traitor.

Everyone sooner or later is faced with the choice of whether or not to be a person of conscience – the moment when a robot can transform itself into a fully human being.

Or not.

The Righteous Need Not Apply

I said that persons of conscience are not innocent. Neither are they virtuous. They have simply reached a threshold at which the pain of violating their consciences is greater

than the pain of anticipated consequences. They have no moral high ground but they do speak the truth of a moral universe that convicts those who hear it. They may be narcissistic in their crusading, their motives may be mixed, but that’s not the primary question: the question is, Are they telling the truth?

Persons of conscience speak out not only to help others but to save themselves, to reclaim their integrity in the act of declaring the truth. They don’t say, this is what YOU are doing; they say, this is what WE have been doing and it can’t go on.

That’s why they’re dangerous. Persons of conscience threaten the status quo.

Gary Webb

Gary Webb, a journalist who had won a Pulitzer Prize, wrote hard-hitting investigative stories over seventeen years that never resulted in dismissal or serious threats. He wrote that he came to believe that the system worked, that “muckraking” was encouraged and rewarded.

Then he was made “radioactive” by the industry for disclosing connections between the CIA, drug cartels, and arms for the Contras. That’s when he realized, he said, that his earlier stories were tolerated only because they were not important enough to suppress.

When his work became threatening, he was taken down. He never recovered from the sentence decreed by a hidden court and never worked in journalism again, the only work he ever wanted to do. He became deeply depressed and killed himself.

The truths he disclosed about the CIA did not even touch the deeper levels of truth that were later revealed. The truth of his accusations were apparently unimportant because they were subsequently admitted. The most shocking revelations can be

neutralized by the passage of time. Project Northwoods, for example, a treasonous scheme involving attacks on our own troops and cities was devised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff; because it was disclosed decades later (by James Bamford in Body of Secrets) it was greeted with silence instead of outrage.

The important thing was for Gary Webb to serve as an example to other journalists thinking of challenging “the great Wurlitzer” as the CIA Public Affairs Office was called.

I know I am not describing conditions that will change. This is the human condition. So long as people need the rewards of corporate affiliation, they will be robotic to a degree. There will always be a cost to having a conscience. Persons of conscience who expect gratitude will be disappointed. To speak out is like putting real cash on the table instead of playing a game with Monopoly money. That can be dangerous and is likely to be played out not in a parlor but on a balcony, say, in Memphis, when genuine conspirators, tangled together in the many motivations of why people hate, focus their common interest through the crosshairs of a scope.

Or, as with Gary Webb, they so erode your reasons for living that you pull the trigger for them.

What We Have Inherited

Knowing what’s at stake, we can’t blame those who choose the expedient path.

An accountant for a trans-global corporation recently came to me in distress. He had objected to moving twenty million dollars from a legitimate account to one where it did not belong. His wife who also worked for the company was told by her boss, your husband doesn’t seem to understand how business works.  He’s not a team player, is he?

They knew what that meant. Because I knew his boss, I said I would raise the subject confidentially.

When we were alone, I said to his superior, “I want to bring something up–“

He smiled. “Don’t tell me you’re going to ask if we cook the books.”

“I am.”

“Richard,” he said, “Richard, of course we do. We all do. How do you think we hit our numbers quarter after quarter? Through planning and execution?

“You want to know what a company is worth? Forget stated earnings. The only way to gauge a company’s health is cash flow.

“The rest is a myth, written for the Street.”

My friend still works for the corporation but learned his lesson. Now, when asked to move money, he moves money.

The next example might sound silly—because it has been made to sound silly.

We have been conditioned to laugh when someone suggests that the food we eat has a connection to the obesity epidemic. Black has been turned into white. As an exercise in perception management, think about how you have been led to believe that it’s absurd to suggest a causal relationship between our health and what we eat.

A local chemist who worked for a food conglomerate asked, “Do you know why it’s so hard to eat just one Oreo cookie?”

“All that sugar and fat?”

“No,” he said. “Because [at the time he was speaking] we have isolated seventeen different appetite stimulants and we put them all in Oreos.”

Sounds like nicotine boosting to me. But suggest a share of responsibility for those who do it, who hope you’ll quickly consume any package you open, and people laugh.

Rather than fight a losing battle, he left the corporation to found his own healthy bread company.

The Big Picture

Technology is a force multiplier at the macro level for those who thrive on disguising the truth and punishing those who tell it.

I said in a recent interview with the Linux Journal, “The convergence of enabling technologies of intrusion, interception, and panoptic reach, combined with a sense of urgency about doing counter-terror and a clear mandate from the White House to do everything possible and seek forgiveness afterward rather than permission in advance has created a dire but often invisible set of threatening conditions.”

That’s an abstract way of saying how bad it has become. What does it imply? That the Bill of Rights no longer means what we once thought because the context of our lives has changed dramatically. That many men and women on the front lines in government and intelligence work often find their consciences aggrieved but their options limited. The lived implications of that contextual change go unexamined. We live as if the Bill of Rights in our heads is still viable despite a technology revolution that has made life transparent and magnified the power of those who control the technologies in a climate of fear that now justifies torture, assassination and unilateral military action.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to an expert.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, a former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), eight months before the White House appointed him the Homeland Security Department’s top intelligence official, told a public forum at Harvard last year that the government would have to “abridge individual rights” and take domestic security measures “not in accordance with our values and traditions” to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States.

“Set aside what the mass of people think,” he said. “Some things are so bad for them that you cannot allow them to have them. One is war in the context of terrorism in the United States. Therefore, we have to abridge individual rights, change societal conditions, and act in ways that heretofore were not in accordance with our values and, like giving a police officer or security official the right to search you without a judicial finding of probable cause.”

“Is that going to change your lives?” he asked. “ It already has.”

Or this: A Pentagon effort to persuade Congress to allow military intelligence agents to work undercover in the United States met resistance in the House of Representatives when the provision was left out of the highly secretive intelligence funding bill but the Senate’s version of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2005 still includes the provision, which exempts Department of Defense intelligence agents from a portion of the Privacy Act, a 30-year-old law that outlaws secret databases on American citizens and green-card holders.  The bill would allow Pentagon intelligence agents to work undercover and question American citizens and legal residents without having to reveal that they are government agents.

Hundreds of stories like those stream across my desktop daily from global sources. Typical recent headlines are:

Bush Can Hold Citizens Without Charges

The Surveillance Industrial Complex

The secret history of secrecy: the closing of the American government.

Spy imagery agency takes new role inside United States after Sept. 11

No change in US torture policy

44 percent of Americans favor curtailing some Muslim rights

Many Americans think the Bill of Rights “goes too far,” say polls

I asked a veteran in the intelligence community, “Do you think we’ll ever get the Bill of Rights back?”

“Probably not,” he said. “Unless some Watergate-type scandal wakes people up.”

So I asked a veteran journalist if a story like Watergate would be covered the same way today.

“No,” he said. “People accept just about anything. Stories of torture, crimes, cover-ups, whatever. The media is owned by a very few people whose self-interest fuses with the power elite. Newspapers and networks distract us with scandals, sex stories, silly celebrity gossip, everything they can use to prevent people from thinking seriously about what’s going on.

“Even if the stories were written, they would be ignored.”

So I asked an official at DOD, “Is there any meaningful accountability in the intelligence community to an ethical standard? Or to an external reference?”

“No,” he said.

The bottom line: Individuals of conscience struggle anonymously inside agencies long steeped in secrecy to try to establish accountability so citizens can be safe from egregious abuses of power. Those abuses, they know, are happening and at the least, unintended consequences can blow back into our lives.

Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, defined the state as that entity which had a monopoly on the sanctioned use of violence within its borders. But borders are dissolving and the field of action today is a boundary-blurring amalgam of military, intelligence and corporate structures that transcend national interests or prior alliances. Violence is sanctioned in effect anywhere inside those indeterminate structures that a threat is said to exist.

When the victims of that violence are defined as enemies because they threaten a power elite, because they are persons of conscience who just won’t get with the program,

the lesson is clear: if you can, live with the pain of a violated conscience. Don’t speak out if you can avoid it. Play golf, go to movies, worry about the mortgage.

But if you reach that tipping point—if you can’t stand being silent for one more minute—then count the cost. Before you speak, count the cost.

And then as if your life, as if your humanity depends upon it, break those rules and set yourself free.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This