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National Issues

The ethics of campaigning

The first two primary contests have been filled with accusations of unfair play. Ted Cruz’s campaign was roundly criticized for implying that Ben Carson had ended his candidacy in the middle of the Iowa caucuses. Many in Iowa were upset about the mailers distributed by Cruz staffers insinuating that potential caucus goers’ participation rates would be publicized. The Sanders campaign has been attacked for publishing misleading information regarding newspaper endorsements.

At first glance, the negative reactions to these developments are not particularly surprising; all this behavior seems intuitively wrong, at least in the context of everyday morality. Yet there have been other instances of candidates engaging in usually frowned upon actions that were not met with outrage and anger. For example, Chris Christie probably wouldn’t have been praised if he had attacked Rubio’s robotic tendencies at a dinner party instead of a debate. And Sanders would likely be scolded if, in casual conversation, he continually implied that Clinton has been bought out by the banks.

That said, both Christie and Sanders have been commended for their assaults on their competitors (or, at the very least, few accuse them of playing unfairly). So what is the difference? Why do we censure some actions while tacitly accepting others as part of the rough and tumble nature of the political game?

One must nip an obvious answer in the bud: None of the activity referenced here is illegal. Even the Cruz mailers, probably the most borderline case, do not break any election laws. So if legality doesn’t determine ‘wrongness,’ what does?

Business ethicists have long wrestled with similar questions. University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath has argued that individuals in the marketplace have moral duties and obligations beyond simply following the law. Why? In short, the market is used to distribute goods and services because it maximizes social welfare; it is the best way of providing the material things that a community needs.

Accordingly, even though polluting a stream with a previously unknown (and hence unregulated) chemical may not be illegal, Heath argues that doing so is unethical. The market doesn’t exist so that some corporations and individuals might make massive profits exploiting market failures (by, for instance, dumping unknown pollutants into a stream instead of undertaking the costly process of disposing them in an environmentally friendly way.) Ultimately, it is utilized to maximize the material welfare of the society. Dumping a chemical in a stream may increase profits but because doing so exacts tremendous social costs (undermining the reason the market exists in the first place), a corporation shouldn’t do it, regardless of what the law does or doesn’t say about the action. Put simply, the legality of the issue is irrelevant; polluting a stream to increase profits is morally wrong.

What does this have to do with the current primary election season? Before answering this question, it is worthwhile to briefly examine some of the responses to the mailer controversy in more detail. After criticism about the misleading mailers, Cruz said: “I will apologize to no one for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.” Given that the Cruz campaign only sent mailers to Iowans likely to support him, one might take Cruz’s statement to mean he is unwilling to apologize for using every tool possible to win the primary.

Presumably, candidates enter primary contests to win them. Therefore, Cruz’s claim is certainly not unreasonable; he need not apologize for trying to do the thing that everyone knows he is doing. That said, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate condemned Cruz’s tactic because “it is not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.”

Pate raises an important point; while Cruz’s mailers weren’t illegal, Pate is essentially claiming that his campaign was acting unethically in distributing them. But why? What is the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses in particular, and elections in general? What are the unwritten rules (the ethics) of elections?

In short, winning is not everything in election season. The electoral competition doesn’t exist for Cruz (or Sanders or Rubio) to gain power, just as the market wasn’t adopted so individuals can get rich. Debates, town halls and campaign events are staged because they provide an opportunity for ‘the people’ to make an informed choice in the election booth.

One can, I think, make a strong case that manipulative mailers don’t further this end — they don’t provide voters with information that will help them determine who will best represent them in political office. So while the mailers, incorrect press releases and misleading endorsements might not be illegal, they undermine the spirit (the ethics) of competition. Thus, our intuition is correct: These actions are unethical and those who are upset about them have good reason to be outraged.

Elections can’t be a free-for-all. If presidential candidates use any (legal) means necessary to win, it becomes very difficult for voters to determine who is most qualified for the most important job in the world. Given how high the stakes are, ‘the people’ should demand that those running for office not only follow the law, but also act in accordance with the spirit or morality of political competition.

Isak Tranvik, from Minneapolis, is a graduate student in political science at Duke.


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