top of page
  • Reverend James Squire

The Ethics of the Griner Release

When does good news become bad news? President Biden and various people in his administration negotiated to have Brittney Griner brought home from a prison camp in Russia while leaving Paul Whelan, a U.S. Marine veteran who is serving a 16 years sentence on espionage charges that the U. S. considers to be false. Griner was arrested for carrying a small amount of an ill legal drug into Russia which is a crime under Russian law. Not many people were buying that she accidental put it into her suitcase in a rush when she was preparing to fly. Whelan committed no crime from the U. S. perspective while Griner admitted to the crime that she did commit. On the surface that is part of the argument from people who feel that Whelan should have been brought home before her as well as he had been in prison for a longer period of time.

The Justice Department had strong feelings against Biden exchanging Griner, a famous basketball player, for Viktor Blout, referred to as the “Merchant of Death” who traded arms throughout the enemies of our country. It took years to finally bring him to justice. This argument supports not doing the exchange as a “fair swap.” One Justice official called it “madness.” There is an unwritten rule in doing exchanges that you follow the guideline that you trade “like for like” in exchanging people who have the same criminal histories. Again, this was not done.

There is also the argument that doing swaps just causes more foreign enemies to continue to kidnap more Americans. This is another argument for not doing the exchange that is not equitable in nature. The exchange is for a basketball player and an arms dealer who could be responsible for more deaths even though Biden says that they will be keeping a close eye on him. He forgot how hard it was to catch him in the first place.

The ethical arguments for bringing Brittney Griner home are based in the fact that Biden made a strong proposal to bring both Whelan and Griner home with a swap. Biden tried to arrange a two for one deal which the Russians didn’t buy. They wanted more.

The Justice Department led by Antony Blinken considered a one for one trade. There was another prisoner, Marc Fogel, that they attempted to be considered in their trade.

One of the key elements for making this trade is found in my experience in fund raising that all institutions face. There are people who give sizable amounts of money to schools and other institutions that should be used in a particular way that reflects the interest of the giver. Let’s say someone wants to give $5 million to a school to be used for a wing of a building, but the school could really want to use the money for scholarships. If the giver says, “I want to give the $5 million for the wing of a building and not scholarships or I won’t give the money.” This happens more frequently than you think. Does the school just say, “Well, we don’t want your money in that case!” No, you take what you can get for you know that ultimately the gift will benefit the school. Perhaps that was the position that President Biden and Antony Blinken found themselves in this switch. This is the strongest argument for the Griner/Blout trade.

The strongest arguments against the trade in addition to the issues that I mentioned at the beginning involve utilitarian beliefs. What groups are identified as the most important group.

Those in favor of the Griner release see the primary group as Griner’s family and the basketball community as well as others. Those against the trade see their group as global in nature and harm already done to many and possibly done to many more in the future. You have to choose your identified group and what is the greatest good for the greatest number in that group.

But there is one other very important argument against Brittney Griner’s release. Whether we like it or not, it communicates that if you are famous and connected, all bets are off. Other prisoners such a Whalen don’t have that megaphone. You should notice that there is a group of people that think that this trade was unfair and was not just. One could conclude that the served/connected take precedence over the underserved who don’t have a voice. In my opinion this phenomenon is driving the concerns of conservative Americans. They see it as an arms dealer traded for a basketball player who is black. We can’t ignore the ramifications of race. There is also the reasonable person standard that 10 people not familiar with this situation would probably find the exchange as Russia getting much more than the U.S.

This decision to exchange Griner for an arms dealer has arguments that support her release and people who do not condone this action. It falls under the heading also of via media ethics where what you are doing is “wrong but necessary” or “the lesser of two evils.” Strong evidence is on both sides.

I would always tell my students that after their discussions about an ethical issue that I would tell them what I think about the issue. I think that it is wrong and should have been a decision to wait for a better deal with the Russians. That doesn’t mean that I don’t rejoice with Brittney Griner’s return. Utilitarian doctrine indicates that a decision should stand the test of time. What is missing in a profound way is how will we know that this is right or wrong? Dewey’s decision- making steps has a final step of the need to measure the right or wrong of your decision. We have heard nothing about a measurement or impact on the future.

In addition, we have the notion of the teleological suspension of the ethical. This means that what we do now will affect how we can make the same kind of decision in the future. This may lead to a “who will blink first mentality.” The Russians have already established that mentality in their thinking of suspending the notion of “we will not strike first in the use of nuclear weapons.” This is their attitude now and probably will be in the future. From a political ethics standpoint there are questions of power regarding the Griner exchange. Who had the power? How do I get it? Russia was clearly the power in the Griner exchange. We will face that attitude giving that up in all things moving forward. The Griner exchange has a larger meaning that I have not seen articulated. In essence, Russia thinks that we blinked now! Will that be our posture in the future? We cannot underestimate their propaganda machine!

15 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page