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A Modern Pascal's Wager for Mass Electronic Surveillance

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journal contribution
posted on 01.01.2014, 00:00 by David DanksDavid Danks

Debates about the moral permissibility of mass electronic surveillance often turn on whether consequentialist considerations legitimately trump relevant deontological rights and principles. In order to establish such overriding consequences, many proponents of mass surveillance employ a modern analogue of Pascal’s wager: they contend that the (negative) consequences of no surveillance are so severe that any probability of such outcomes legitimates the abrogation of the relevant rights. In this paper, I briefly review Pascal’s original wager about whether to live a pious life, including two classes of objections that were almost immediately leveled against his argument. I then show that analogues of those objections apply straightforwardly to the modern versions of Pascal’s wager. Mass electronic surveillance might be ethically permissible or even obligatory in some circumstances, but the details matter in ways that are systematically ignored or assumed away in a Pascal’s wager-type argument. Careful consideration of the complexities of our modern situation is required to decide whether consequentialist considerations override deontological principles in this domain.


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