Now that the ethics of methods and sources have been addressed, I now turn to considering the ethics of the content of opposition research. The objective is to provide some general guidance about what sort of content is morally acceptable to research and use against political opponents.
Since the objective of opposition research is to find damaging or discrediting information about the target, the desired content will always be negative (or perceived as negative). While there is the view that if one has nothing nice to say about someone else, then one should say nothing, the negative nature of the content does not automatically make such research unethical. To support this, consider the obvious analogy to reporters: the fact that they are on the lookout for negative information does not make them unethical. Finding negative things and reporting on them are legitimate parts of their jobs. Likewise for opposition researchers. As such, concerns about the ethics of the content must involve considerations other than the mere negative nature of the desired content.
One obvious guide for ethical content is that the information must be true. This does raise an obvious epistemic problem: how can the researchers know that the information is true? Laying aside the classic epistemic problems of skepticism, this is a practical question about evidence, reasoning and credibility—which go way beyond the scope of this essay. However, a general ethical guide can be provided. At a minimum, the claim should only be accepted and used if it is more likely to be true than false. Both ethics and critical thinking also require that the evidence for a claim be proportional to the strength of the claim. As such, very strong claims require equally strong support. Ethics also requires considering the harm that could be done by using the claim and the greater the harm that could be done to a person, the greater the evidence needs to be. This guide is at odds with the goal of the research, since the more damaging the claim, the better. But, ethics requires balancing the political value of the weaponized information against the harm that could be done to person who might be innocent of the alleged wrongdoing. This is not to say that such damaging information should not be used, but that due caution should be used.
This approach is analogous to guides to the use of physical force. Justifying the use of lethal force against a person requires having very strong reasons to believe that person is a threat and that the force must be used to stop them. To the degree that there are doubts about the threat, the justification for the use of force is reduced. Likewise, damaging information should be used with due caution to try to ensure that an innocent person is not unjustly harmed. For example, if someone is accused of running a gang-rape ring in high school and college, then there would need to be strong evidence supporting such a damaging claim.
There is, of course, considerable debate about when the use of force is justified, and people often take into account the perception of the person using the force (such as how scared or threatened they claimed to be). The same would apply to the use of damaging information and there will be considerable disagreement (generally along ideological lines) about whether the use of damaging information is justified or not. And there will be debates about how the people assessing the claim see the claim’s plausibility. Despite these issues, the general guide remains: the evidence needs to be adequate to justify the belief the claim is true. The use of information that does not meet even the minimal standard (more likely to be true than not) would clearly be unethical. In other cases, there can be considerable warranted debate about whether a claim is adequately supported or not. In addition to the concern about the truth of the information, there is also the concern about the relevance of the information.
The general principle of relevance is obvious enough: the content must be relevant to the issue at hand. In the abstract, relevance is easy enough to define: information is relevant if it bears on the person’s suitability for the position/office/etc. For example, if the opposition research is against someone running for senate, then the content must be relevant to the person’s ability to do the job of a senator properly and effectively. What should be considered relevant will vary from situation to situation.
One problem is that when it comes to particulars people can have very different notions of what is relevant. For example, some might consider the high school and college behavior of a candidate for the Supreme Court to be relevant information while others might disagree. As another example, some might consider a candidate’s sexual activity relevant while others might see consensual sex of any kind between adults to not be of concern.
One way to solve this problem is to use this principle: whatever would influence voters (if true) is acceptable to use. While this seems to be entailed by the citizen’s right to know, it provides a very broad principle. In fact, it might be so broad as to be useless as a guide. After all, voters can be influenced by almost any fact about a person even when it would seem to have no relevance to the office/position/etc. in question.
That said, there is also the problem that many offices and positions have little in the way of requirements. For example, the office of President has only the age and nationality requirements. Because of this, using the requirements of the office/position/etc. to set the limits of information would be far too narrow. What is needed is a guide that is not too narrow and not too broad.
One option would be to go with the established norms for the office/position/etc. For example, while the requirements to be President are minimal, there (used to be) expectations about what the person should be like to be fit for office.
The problem with using the norms is that this seems to embrace relativism and allows for a potentially unchecked race to the bottom as norms are broken and replaced. As such, there should be some restrictions on what is ethical content that goes beyond the norms of the day. Developing a full moral guide goes beyond the scope of this essay, but a general guide can be offered. The guiding principle is that the content should be relevant to the office/position/etc. while also considering what would reasonably be relevant to the voters.