Opposition research is the gathering of information intended to damage or discredit political adversaries. While the intent to find damaging or discrediting information might seem to be morally problematic, it can also be morally neutral or even morally laudable. If the intent is simply to damage adversaries for political advantage, then this is certainly not laudable—but it need not be morally wrong. After all, the sport of politics is about winning and good might come from using opposition research to damage a bad adversary.
If the intent is to provide citizens with relevant and true information so they can make informed decisions, then this would be morally laudable. After all, true and relevant information would allow for better decision making and this would tend to produce better results than making decisions with false or irrelevant information.
While the motives of those ordering or conducting the research are certainly relevant to assessing their ethics, their ethics are distinct from the ethics of the research itself and the ethics of its results. This is because bad people with bad motives might do ethical research (for whatever reason) and end up doing good with their research. For example, a selfish politician who would do anything to satisfy their lust for the power they intend to exploit for personal gain might expose an even worse villain who is running for office. As would be expected, good people with good motives might engage in morally questionable research or end up doing great harm. For example, a researcher who wants the public to be informed might find information that helps defeat a bad candidate but miss the information on the far worse candidate who is elected and does great harm. As a final point about researchers, their ethics are irrelevant to the truth and relevance of the information they gather. To think otherwise, would be to fall into an ad hominem fallacy. In general terms, this is when an irrelevant negative assertion (or assertions) about a source are taken as evidence against their claim(s). This is distinct from considering the ethics of the researchers when assessing their credibility. After all, bias on the part of researchers reduces their credibility and is thus relevant when considering how confident one can be in the honesty of their claims (which is distinct from their being true) But, I must now set aside the ethics of the researchers and focus on the ethics of the research.
For this essay and those that follow in this series, it will be assumed that there are at least some moral limits to opposition research. Without this assumption, writing about the ethics of opposition would be limited to “anything goes.” One could refute this assumption by employing the approach of the ancient (and current) sophists. The ancient sophists argued in favor of skepticism, relativism and the view that all that matters is success (or winning, if one prefers). On this view, there would be no moral limits on opposition research for two reasons. One is that skepticism and relativism about ethics would entail rejecting a belief in objective ethics. The other is that if success is all that matters, then there are no limits on the means that can be used to achieve that end. What matters, in terms of opposition research, is acquiring (or fabricating) information that can damage a political adversary and thus increase the chances of success.
In terms of arguments in favor of their being moral limits, one excellent place to start is by considering the consequences of having limits versus not having limits. As noted above, good political decisions, such as deciding how to vote, requires that citizens have relevant, true information on which to base their decisions. Opposition research that provides or aims at providing relevant and true (or at least probably true) information would enable citizens to make better decisions and thus produce better results. In contrast, the limitless approach in which all that matters is victory will tend to produce worse results for the general good. There can, of course, be exceptions: a well-informed public might still make terrible choices and an utterly selfish person solely focused on their own power and wealth might end up somehow doing great good. As would be expected, the general debate over whether there should be ethical limits on anything would go gar beyond the possible scope of this short essay.
In the essays that follow, I will also make a case for there being ethical limits on opposition research. The gist of this argument is that if the essays are logically appealing, then that provides a reason to accept that there should be at least some limits on opposition research. The assessment of the ethics of the research involves considering three key factors: the methods used, the sources and the content. There will, as one might suspect, be an essay on each.