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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Campaign Ethics

Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman

These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by former Senior Fellow Judy Nadler and former Communications Director Miriam Schulman.

Why are campaign ethics important?
What ethical dilemmas do campaigns present?
Resources on campaign ethics

Why are campaign ethics important?

The ethical principles that apply generally to public life-rules about conflicts of interest, access to government, integrity, etc.-also apply to campaigns for political office. Why, then, treat campaign ethics as a separate topic? In practice, political campaigns represent one of the circumstances most likely to bring out the worst in people. Many candidates seem to subscribe to the theory that almost anything is allowable in order to get elected, because once in office, they will be outstanding public servants. Others, confronted with bad behavior on the part of their opponents, feel they must also cut moral corners just to compete.

So before we look at the specifics of campaign ethics, it's worth exploring why ethical campaigns are important. For this, we have to start by asking the purpose of a political campaign. Ideally, a campaign clearly outlines the positions and character of the candidates so that voters can make informed decisions about whom they wish to see elected. Any tactic that interferes with this clarity-deception, financial influence, etc.-would then be unethical, even if used by a candidate with the best interests of his or her electorate at heart.

An "ends justifies the means" rationale for unethical campaigning ignores the fact that the means become part of the end. Unethical practices such as lying are rarely confined to campaigns. As philosopher Sissela Bok has written,

The failure to look at an entire practice rather than at their own isolated case often blinds liars to cumulative harm and expanding deceptive activities. Those who begin with white lies can come to resort to more frequent and more serious ones....The aggregate harm from a large number of marginally harmful instances may, therefore, be highly undesirable in the end-for liars, those deceived, and honesty and trust more generally.

Unethical campaigns reinforce cynicism and negative feelings about government that can stymie officials once they are elected.

Campaigns, therefore, do not confer any special immunity from principles just because they are particularly challenging arenas in which to behave well. As Steve Johnson, character education director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, puts it, "We have to learn to deal with the times when it's hard to be the kind of person we want to be."

What ethical dilemmas do campaigns present?

Most ethical dilemmas arising from political campaigns can be grouped under two headings: Campaign communications (including advertising) and campaign finance.

Campaign Communications

A crucial issue in this area is campaign advertising. Some commentators have couched this in terms of positive and negative campaigning, but these terms can be confusing. Not all positive pieces are truthful and not all truthful pieces are positive. It may be more useful to think in terms of ethical campaigning. Ethical campaign ads are based on the candidate's qualifications and positions. They are honest and respectful of the opponent's point of view.

To advocate for such campaigning is not to argue that candidates must always say nice things about each other. Certainly, a candidate's record, whether in public office or in other occupations, is fair game. Indeed, ads that contrast the positions or voting records or endorsements of candidates can help voters make informed decisions. These ads are perfectly acceptable as long as they remain respectful, fair, relevant, and truthful. Such ad campaigns must be distinguished from unfair attacks or "hit pieces." An ad campaign would be unethical if it relied on name-calling, innuendo, or stereotyping. Attack ads, even those that may be truthful, can be problematic when released late in a campaign so that the opponent has an insufficient chance to respond.

Does the opponent's private life come within the limits of ethical campaigning? That depends on its relevance to the job, which can be debatable. For example, some voters think a candidate's marital fidelity is relevant, revealing important information about the person's integrity. Others argue that it is not germane to public business. Another question in this regard is a "statute of limitations" on youthful indiscretion. To illustrate, some argue that teenage marijuana use does not reflect at all on the mature behavior of a 50-year-old running for city council. But what about youthful membership in the Ku Klux Klan or the Weather Underground?

Just as candidates may suffer by association with such groups, people running for office will want to associate themselves with more popular civic organizations. Of course, candidates are free to seek and publicize endorsement by these groups. But candidates should take care not to imply endorsement where none exists. They should not use tactics such as creating campaign brochures with photos of people who have not endorsed them or selectively-and deceptively-quoting from articles that may otherwise have been critical.

Candidates should also try in so far as possible to take responsibility for independent groups making representations on their behalf. If such a party is disseminating false information, it is not enough for the politician to say, "They're not part of my campaign."

Campaign Finance

The many proposals for campaign finance reform all have an ethical subtext: They seek to make campaigns-and the government produced by those campaigns-more fair. Here's how that may play out:

Access: In a democracy, each person is supposed to count equally. The wealthy should not be able to purchase more access to politicians through big campaign contributions. Laws governing campaign finance are meant to prevent such inequities and should be respected-not only in letter but also in spirit. Donations from people asking for a quid pro quo should be returned.
Integrity: Campaign funds must be fully accounted for and not used for personal expenses such as vacations or trinkets. The financing of the campaign should be transparent. Candidates should be scrupulous in identifying as campaign expenses public relations efforts such as goodwill ads, dinners, etc. Significant in-kind contributions-food for a large rally, for example-should be noted. Candidates should not accept contributions from people or groups whose views or actions they would otherwise find unacceptable; depending on the candidate that might include businesses such as tobacco or pornography.
Freedom of Choice: Everyone should have the right to support the candidate of his or her choice. No candidate should coerce employees or others to work on his or her behalf. Candidates who are already officeholders should not use any public resources on their campaigns including staff, materials, phones, or facilities.


Resources on Campaign Ethics


May 2006


Oct 23, 2015
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