Moral Decency Requires That I Betray You

Moral Decency Requires That I Betray You
Chris Bray

Is a dumb promise still a promise?

In one of the first published accounts of the conflict between Boston College and the federal government regarding oral history interviews of IRA members, a theology professor at the college, Stephen J. Pope, argued that the promise of confidentiality made to interviewees was “at best, naive, and at worst, manipulative.” In this version of events, the project went off the rails at the very beginning: researchers should not have extended a promise of confidentiality to cover information that “has such grave significance for society.” But there’s still plenty of freedom for academic researchers to protect the confidentiality of work that has no significance for society, so no worries.

If we can trust the Boston Globe‘s account, the theologian also made a legal argument. As the newspaper summarizes it, the researchers “should have known that what their subjects told them could potentially be used in court, Pope said. The law does not recognize the authority of academics and journalists to keep information confidential, he said.” I doubt the truth of that last statement, in such a broad form, and I doubt that Pope believes it — I suspect some nuance was lost in the interview process.

In any case, there are certainly some procedures by which the federal government will agree to protect the confidentiality of research data, even from law enforcement officials. I’ve been hoping to see a post somewhere by someone like Eric Muller or Orin Kerr, academics who have worked as federal prosecutors and can bridge these two different worlds. Please post links in the comment section if you’ve seen well-informed recent commentary on the law that regulates the confidentiality of academic research.

Beyond that, though, I’m fascinated by the moral claim that researchers are socially obligated to break promises when they can help the police. Beth Haile, a recent BC PhD and an assistant professor of theology at Carroll College, makes this case in remarkably stark terms at the group blog Catholic Moral Theology:

“Turning over the tapes is, I think, respecting the need for truth and justice in the maintenance of the common good. It is unfortunate that a promise of confidentiality must be broken, but in this case, it seems that the promise itself was contrary to the common good.”

I have many objections to this argument, in general and in the particular circumstances present here, but I’ll just offer a few, for now. This information only exists because of the promise of confidentiality; interviewees who have never spoken about their participation in the IRA finally agreed to do so precisely because they understood that their discussions would be held back until after their deaths. If it serves the common good to get at hidden truths about the events of the Troubles, the destruction of confidentiality is profoundly destructive of that common good: when the subjects of historical research understand that historians can be made to work for the police, there will be no more oral history of controversial topics. If you wish to insist that government should be allowed to drink from this well, you have to notice the possibility that the well will probably go dry the moment they do it. How does that destruction of sources serve the common good?

It seems to me that in Haile’s formulation, the only way to serve the common good in Northern Ireland is to prosecute bad actors; the police are the only moral actors of consequence, and truth for truth’s sake has no weight against truth for the sake of state-administered justice.

This proposed chain of positions, actions, and consequences — researchers possess truthful information about potentially criminal events, so they must give it to the police, so the common good may be served — precisely captures everything that academia is not supposed to be. The premise of academia is that knowledge serves the public good, even if nobody goes to prison. That premise dies when academic researchers hand over their notes and tapes to the government for a criminal investigation.

The police should do their own investigations, and academics should do theirs. Muddle that border at considerable expense.