One key factor in the ethics of opposition research is the ethics of the methods. The idea is straightforward: ethical methods are obviously acceptable, while unethical methods are obviously problematic. The challenge is developing consistent principles that can be used to sort out the ethical from the unethical. Since there are far too many possible methods of opposition research to address one by one, I will focus on commonly used general methods and leave the small details to others (or future essays).
A general method that is obviously ethical is gathering information through publicly accessible methods. One obvious example is accessing publicly available voting records. Other examples include gathering other information accessed through publicly accessible methods, such as requests for public documents, searching through public sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. As a final example, interviewing people who agree to be interviewed would, in general, be an ethical method. As probably has been noticed, there is considerable overlap between methods and sources, but there are important distinctions that require considering them separately. Methods are, after all, how one gets the information. Sources are where it comes from. While methods are used on sources, there can be a difference in their ethics. An ethical method might be used to get information from a morally problematic source or an unethical method might be used to gather information from a morally unproblematic source of information.
Research methods become potentially more morally controversial the further one strays from publicly accessible methods. To use an analogy, looking at what a person is doing in public is (generally) not morally problematic. Peeping into their house from the sidewalk raises some moral concerns and hiding cameras in their bedroom is clearly wrong. As the analogy suggests, the methods become more morally problematic when they involve breaching the wall of privacy. While it might be tempting to regard all such methods as immoral, it will be argued that this is not the case: there are morally acceptable methods that breach the wall. To use an analogy, reporters engaged in legitimate reporting can justly break the walls of privacy in some cases.
In some cases the desired information is not accessible by public means, but is still morally accessible. For example, it would be acceptable to interview private sources who willingly and knowingly talk to the researchers but would be unwilling to be interviewed in public view on the news.
In other cases, the methods used to breach the wall of privacy would often be morally unacceptable. Likely examples include hacking, bribing sources, theft, and gaining information from sources by intimidation or deceit. While these examples provide some limited guidance, what is needed is a more general principle. It is natural enough to seek guidance from the law.
While legality is not the same as morality, the use of illegal methods such as hacking, theft, threat and bribery and so on are clearly morally problematic In many cases of illegal methods, such as theft and hacking, there are independent moral arguments that establish such actions as wrong (over and above their illegality). It is, however, possible for morally acceptable methods of information gathering to be against the law. For example, a repressive state might pass laws severely restricting information gathering by those outside the government. As another example, laws that hide the identity of campaign contributors or that impose draconian non-disclosure agreements on government staffers that go beyond the legitimate requirements of state security). As such, the law is not a perfect guide to morality—but it does provide a useful starting point.
Because so much information is now stored digitally, one method of considerable moral concern is that of hacking (broadly construed). For the sake of simplicity, this can also be taken to include such things as phishing and other such methods that are not, strictly speaking, hacking. As such, this broad method includes the various means of gaining access to digital information without the permission of the owner.
These methods that breach the wall of privacy could be morally justified on utilitarian grounds. To illustrate, if a candidate was a secret pedophile who had child pornography on his laptop, then it could be argued that hacking into his laptop would be morally justified because doing so could help keep a pedophile out of power (and perhaps help put them behind bars).
Another option is to argue that the citizens’ right to know justifies the use of means that would otherwise seem unethical. To use an analogy, a person’s privacy rights do not (in general) permit them to hide their crimes from the police. There can, of course, be clear exceptions in cases involving tyrannical laws or oppressive policing. Likewise, a political candidate (broadly defined) does not have a right to privacy when it comes to their misdeeds that voters have a right to know. For example, it could be argued that opposition researchers would be acting ethically by seizing or stealing state documents from a corrupt politician that prove their corruption.
The obvious counter to such reasoning is that opposition researchers are not law enforcement or even moral enforcement. They are simply members of the public and thus lack any special moral right to use such methods to breach the wall of privacy. If they suspect that something truly bad is occurring, they should refer the matter to the appropriate authorities. The danger of citizens taking such research into their own hands is illustrated by the case of a concerned citizen who decided to investigate rumors that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were operating a slavery ring in the basement of a pizza shop. During this “investigation” no one was hurt, but the “investigator” fired shots. As such, if something is bad enough to seem to justify using morally problematic methods, then the matter should be referred to the police (assuming they are not corrupt) and, where appropriate, to the press.
At this point the reader might be wondering whether getting information from others who acquired it through questionable means is morally acceptable. This, and other related issues, will be addressed in the next essay on the ethics of sources.