To be or not to be… on the take

Dirty hands ethics problem on receiving funding from U.S. intelligence agencies

1 Motivation and background

I will soon be coming to the end of my studies, and what faces me now is what will I become when I “grow up”. Since my studies are in mathematics, computational engineering and computer science I mostly get asked whether I will continue with research at the university and be a teacher or if I will finally join the ‘real’ world and become a banker? These are relatively fair simplification on what lies ahead of me, given my prior background.

At least for the time being, I see myself continue doing research. The question is where? I would like to continue my research by becoming a post-doctoral scholar. Due to its limited size, Iceland generally lacks research institutes, save the universities, and the collaborative research teams in my field generally consists of only two persons. Therefore, I must look elsewhere for fruitful research opportunities.

My preliminary search under data mining, statistics, quantitative research, model validation, etc., for post-doctoral positions outside of the country have had me asking myself ethical questions about my research, not with respect to the nature of the research itself, rather than for whom are they serving. Most of the positions tailored to my education are either for all-women universities in male dominated Arabian countries or somehow related to warfare, where the latter is the main focus of this paper.

Deontological ethics (or Kantianism) states that I am duty bound to “do the right action for the right reason” (Shamoo and Resnik [2009, p.21]). Hence, once having undertaken a doctoral degree in my field, what are my right actions? Become an ‘evil’ banker or be unintentionally part of war efforts?

The outline of the paper is the following: in section 2 the good and bad aspects of doing war motived research is discussed, followed by a short discussion in section 3 about how that paradigm relates to Iceland, in particular with respect to banking. Finally, summary and main conclusions are presented in section 4.

2 U.S. intelligence agencies funded research

U.S. intelligence agencies give an enormous amount of money towards research. The National Security Agency (NSA) have been especially notable in their aid to the pursuit of knowledge. Their grant code ‘MDA904’ give just over 1300 hits on Google scholar. Assange [2007] argues that those researchers that are recipients to such grants are immoral for doing so, because their work will be (in)directly used in future warfare. Although, he gives very severe examples of university research being manipulated for the sake of war, e.g. covert torture research by the C.I.A.

Nevertheless, not all research done with grants from U.S. intelligence agencies are ‘bad’. Actually, that is far from being the case. Take for instance the Internet. In the 1950s the Internet began as point-to-point communication between the ARPANET network, which was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States Department of Defense for use by its projects at universities and research laboratories in the U.S. (Abbate [2009]). So one can argue that this technological breakthrough, which has had an immense impact in pursuit of knowledge, is directly due to the U.S. Department of Defense. One might also argue, had DARPA not funded this research, the Internet would still have come into existence, just at a later date, e.g. the National Physical Laboratory in the United Kingdom proposed similar data network in the late 60s, although it didn’t get the support it needed to become national (let alone international) phenomena.

Another classical example of the benefits and misuses of U.S. intelligence granted research is nuclear energy, i.e. the infamous Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos during the World War II, where the Allied forces developed the first nuclear weapons. After the cataclysmic results in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the Noble prize winning scientists that worked on its creation formally condemned it. J. Robert Oppenheimer — father of the atomic bomb — said after the blasts: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Although he, and those participating in making of the bomb, set out for solving something thought to be theoretically impossible — which is a great feat in science by itself — the horrific aftermath it produced was beyond their imagination at the time, resulting in immense regret for having been involved.

However not all was in vain, nuclear power is a direct by-product of nuclear fusion research done for the creation of the atomic bomb. Nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions, an environmentally friendly alternative to the World’s energy problem: it currently provides about 6% of the world’s energy and 13-14% of the world’s electricity, (see Nuclear power) and is gaining momentum.

Utilitarianism ideology states that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its usefulness in maximizing the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people (Shamoo and Resnik [2009, p.21]). Or similarly, minimizing the greatest amount of suffering, referred to as negative utilitarianism (Walker [1974]). It is straight forward that with respect to the mass murdering in Japan, the atomic bomb research should not have been undertaken from a negative utilitarian standpoint. However, one can argue, over time the present value for nuclear power research (obtained by aforementioned atomic bomb research) is from an utilitarian standpoint worth pursuing, due to serious threats because of global warming, carbon emissions, greater energy need in the world, etc.

When faced with conflicting actions with respect to different ethical motivations Walzer [1973] defines this sort of ethical problem as dirty hands, on page 174 he writes:

“But it is not easy to teach a good man how not to be good, nor is it easy to explain such a man to himself once he has committed whatever crimes are required of him. At least, it is not easy once we have agreed to use the word ‘crimes’ and to live with (because we have no choice) the dilemma of dirty hands.”

So when one is faced with a sort of lose-lose situation, which action should one take? Then this a ‘simple’ question of what are you willing to have on your conscience. Going back to the topic of this article, this would be equivalent to asking oneself if one should steer clear of U.S. intelligence agencies funding because that would directly associate oneself with immoral actions? Or should one use their funding for the sake of preservation and acquisition of knowledge? That is to say, given the assumption that the research is worth pursuing in its own right, irrespective to what others might do with the findings.

3 Iceland’s banking environment

The discussion from the previous section focuses on research and its involvement in U.S. war efforts, but how would that transfer to an Icelandic paradigm? What comes to mind is the banking industry.

There is a definite shift in social regard towards the banking industry in Iceland before and after the credit crunch in 2008. Before, when all was good, it was a glorified institution, which and almost everybody would praise. In 2007, the president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, gave the leaders in Icelandic banking industry a highest honor for leadership in exporting Icelandic finances (i. “fyrir forystu í útrás íslenskrar fjármálastarfsemi”), namely Sigurður Einarsson and Björgólfur Guðmundsson. Now, after the crisis there is speculation about whether it is possible to revoke the medals on account of being guilty of misconduct in business. Moreover, the entire financial institution has been tainted by the crisis. It is almost as if all words relating to ‘banking’ is now associated as a profanities.

In particular, when I talk to my fellow post graduate students in similar fields about pursuing a career in banking, there is a certain stigma about it. The general consensus within my scientific community is that is immoral and basically ‘selling out.’ Therefore, on those grounds, it is possible to associate this unappealing profession yet fundamental pillar in Icelandic society as a similar paradigm to the U.S. intelligence agency. So one can use the same arguments to justify undertaking a position within the banking industry in Iceland as was done in section 2 in justifying receiving grants for U.S. intelligence agencies.

It used to be ‘okay’ to be in banking, only slightly frowned upon, because one could be doing something more worth while. However, nowadays, with the credit crisis so ever present in our minds, a career in banking is very taboo and almost shameful. For instance, almost all of the students that started a Masters degree in financial engineering (a fashionable degree before) before the crisis have now changed disciplines, at least in name, despite their thesis topic remaining the same. So when confronted about wanting to work for the banks, due to its regard within the community, it is in the author’s opinion somewhat more difficult to wanting to be a part of, even though in the pursuit of knowledge the fields of machine learning and data mining the banking environment can be very rewarding, especially since they can offer research teams to collaborate with in departments such as risk analysis, quantitative research and trading support, etc.

It seems to be a double standard, and moreover it is counter-intuitive that what should be a more ‘natural’ worse alternative such as something related to warfare could somehow be a more desirable choice than a career in banking, just due to its social context in Iceland.

4 Main conlusions

The majority of this article goes over the pros and cons over receiving funding from U.S. intelligence agencies, with respect to ethical justification based on utilitarian standpoint. However, in Iceland, there is not much tradition or debate on war. In the case when war is believed to be a moral necessity in some cultures, hence it is hard for ‘peace-loving’ Icelanders to relate, let alone fully grasp, the ethical implications of warfare. So the focus of this article has been almost solely in favour of pursuit of knowledge, at the expense of its possible immoral misuses. However, an attempt to transfer this problem to an equivalent paradigm in Iceland, i.e. banking industry, shows that social conventions start to play a bigger role and can outweigh the pursuit of knowledge.

Finding funding for scholarly research is non-trivial. The grants are scarce, and nowhere near to satisfy the demand. Especially in some fields, such as abstract mathematics, it is difficult to justify the financial or social impact of such research, in order to get the attention of the grant’s advisory board. However, the U.S. intelligence agencies have taken a keen interest in such fields, alas for their ulterior motives, which is in aid of the acquiring knowledge within the field. Without funding, the research staggers. Direct funding propels research, which propagates into further acquisition of knowledge which from an ethical point of view is something worth striving for.

Shamoo and Resnik [2009, p. 27] stress that “[..] sharing of data and results is an ethical obligation in science because it promotes collaboration, cooperation, and trust among researchers, and because sharing is supported by the general rule to help others.” But once the results have been published, it is in the public domain. There is nothing to hinder others to continuing the research on their own accord. However, there is no guarantee that these other rational individuals will act according to the same moral principals as oneself. They may have a completely different rational on what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ But is that enough justification to drop a research project, because someone might misuse it? Although, in the case of U.S. intelligence agencies funding, one might predict its subsequent uses might not be to one’s taste.


Janet Abbate. Inventing the Internet. MIT Press, 2009.

Julian Assange. On the take and loving it, October 2007. URL

Adil E. Shamoo and David B. Resnik. Responsible Conduct of Research. Oxford University Press, 2 edition, 2009.

A. D. M. Walker. Negative utilitarianism. Mind, 83(331):pp. 424-428, 1974. URL

Michael Walzer. Political action: The problem of dirty hands. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2(2):pp. 160-180, 1973. URL


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a PhD student that sews whilst her code compiles...

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