In thinking about many issues, especially those that involve foreign policy, I like to apply the ‘switch test’. This is where I reverse the roles of the participants to see what the reaction might be. It is a good way to see if people are basing their thinking on some universal principle equally applied or in a partisan way and judging an action purely on the basis of who is doing it to whom. Sadly, it is often the latter attitude that predominates.
For example, in the discussions on the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden, the public and politicians in the US seem to be particularly concerned about spying on American citizens and seem far less concerned about the US government spying on foreigners. The latter seems to be arousing remarkably little protest, although Europeans are expressing anger to their own governments about what the US is doing to them.
But are Americans basing this attitude on the principle that governments should be restricted from spying on their own citizens but should be free to spy on foreigners? If so, would they shrug off news that (say) the Chinese government had set up a massive spying operation that scooped up all communications by Americans?
I doubt that. Look at the anger over reports that the Chinese were hacking into US businesses. One can easily imagine what the reaction would be if the Chinese were shown to be scooping up all communications by all Americans. There would be a massive uproar, implying that they feel that governments should not be spying on foreigners. But then why are they not upset about the US spying on foreigners?
Another case is one I have mentioned before. Some are angry with Snowden for revealing information about the US spying on China. Now apply the switch test to that case. If a Chinese intelligence official revealed information about Chinese spying on the US, would we treat that as courageous truth–telling on the basis that people around the world need to know what their governments are up to? Or would we treat that person as a traitor who should be turned over to the Chinese authorities for punishment?
The switch test can be great aid in unearthing the motivations of people.