The Ethics of Using Information Attained by Unethical Means

Photo: Jason Scragz

I love attaining knowledge, but here is a puzzling question – is it ethical to use information gained in an unethical way? If so, are we just supposed to turn a blind eye to how it was obtained and move on? If not, are we just supposed to forget the knowledge we gained and pretend it never happened? Neither option jumps out as the right answer, so let’s inspect a couple examples.

Using the Information
How about an extreme example – let’s take a look at the Nazis, some of the least ethical people ever. They did a whole series of messed up experiments on human prisoners that resulted in thousands of deaths and countless more ended with dismemberment, disability, or at the very least emotional torment. Just to give you an idea, some of the tests were carried out to find out the the effects on the human body of extreme cold and heat, mustard gas and other poisons, altitude, and drinking salt water.

Today we know a lot about the limits of the human body because the Nazis forced thousands of people past the limit and did not stop until they were dead. For example, we now know that you die from hypothermia when your body temperature reaches approximately 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers today openly use the Nazi experiment data and are determined to see good come from all the deaths by using it to help others in the future. Here is a good essay examining the ethical debate of using this data.

Forgetting the Information
The official stance of the United States judicial system is to forget the information. Of course you can’t tell someone to forget something and actually expect them to do it, but you can keep it from being used in court. The most well known example of this is the Fourth Amendment prohibition of illegal search and seizure. If the police don’t have the proper warrants to search for evidence or do not alert you of your rights, whatever evidence they find cannot be used against you in court. It’s like it never happened. This of course discourages illegal searches from happening in the first place.

You Decide
It is up to you whether you try to create good from the bad by using the unethical information or rather throw it out so as to not promote the wrong behavior. Win-Lose or Lose-Win.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Using Information Attained by Unethical Means

  1. jessem says:

    If you think about the more extreme examples.. using information obtained via unethical means for good helps to honor those that were hurt in the process. While the US government might have us believe we are condoning those actions, does helping someone survive a blizzard (hypothermia) mean we think the Nazis actions were correct? Certainly not. But it does mean that one life lost unnecessarily in the past can help to prevent suffering for someone in the future.

    It gets more complicated for me when you think about everyday examples. Take a poor kid in school who sneaks a peak at a classmate’s exam and uses the information gained through unethical means for the greater good (one more kid is going to a good college). Dumb example because it’s completely self-serving and doesn’t directly benefit anyone else, but when the ‘good’ isn’t ‘that good’ and the ‘bad’ isn’t ‘that bad’ it becomes a lot less clear…

  2. kasey says:

    i like the arguments and the article. i have no answers to offer. but here’s some food for thought. i’d like to invoke the words of peter park’s sage grandfather “with great power comes great responsibility.” well information is power and by transitive property you could rephrase to read “with more information comes more responsibility”. let’s use the nazis and their horrific actions in another example.

    because of the nazis we have a powerful piece of information: human beings, when driven by fear, engaged in groupthink, and led by a “cult-of-personality” are capable of doing unthinkably inhumane acts. this isn’t news now, and it wasn’t news pre-Holocaust. BUT, it is unique in that it was (arguably) the first act of its kind to happen since the advent of modern media (e.g. radio, 1910; TV circa 1935). And thus, the post-WW2 society was uniquely situated to leverage a rapidly evolving media to communicate, disclose, warn, and ultimately, INFORM the masses about these atrocities. And we have accomplished that. You learn about the Holocaust in grade-school here in the U.S. I went on a class field-trip to the Museum of Tolerance in LA when I was in 8th grade. I cried the whole way through it…it was terrifying. When I was in Budapest, I went to the Museum of Terror that recounted the many sick and varied violations of human rights that occurred during the Holocaust AND the Cold War. And when I was in Munich I went to visit Dachau, the first camp; like many camps it has been turned into a museum. It has rooms and rooms full of posters, interactive videos, and exhibits explaining the events leading up to WWII, Holocaust, and post-Holocaust Germany. You can walk into the rooms (or Blocks?) where the prisoners slept…essentially one on top of the other. There are cremation rooms too–and those are hard to look at it.

    All of these are examples of how we are taking information obtained, if not unethically, at the very least through an unethical event..for an ethical purpose: to educate people, promote tolerance, and warn future generations about what CAN happen. I think in this case it would be UNethical not to use the information.

    Finally, what about ethically obtained information, for instance nuclear physics–fission and fusion, used for unethical purposes? It’s a two-way street. Information is power–use it for good.

    Also here is a quote I found by David Bohm, one of the homies from CAL who helped develop the atomic bomb, “the universe is an unending transformation in flux whose previous states we are not privileged to know.”

  3. jessem says:

    Peter Park-ER Kasey… Peter Parker

    I would also argue that in the case of nuclear reactions, whether or not it was obtained ethically, the sole purpose was to build a terrifically devastating weapon. We accidentally learned how to generate loads of energy and use that for good as a by-product.

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