What kinds of moral theories, or even just considerations, come into play for state-level action in trying to influence another nation's political election process, in terms of information/propaganda?

There's a lot of consternation about Russia's systematic influence campaigns in a variety of European and North American elections. To me, it seems like the people and governments of those countries are justified in being indignant about this. However, it seems equally clear that some forms of public (out in the open) diplomacy, that might affect elections, aren't affronts (or at least are not affronts at the same level).

What I'm looking for is a framework from which to assess the ethics of different actions in this area, at a finer level of detail than just utilitarianism or virtue ethics. For utilitarianism, what are the good(s) we are trying to maximize, and how do they relate to the different kinds of actions a nation might take to influence a foreign election? Similarly for virtue ethics, what are the "virtues" of a good nation.

Since this only makes sense in a framework of sovereign states, one way to look at this question is, to ask when the nation's sovereignty has been violated by a foreign nation's actions vis a vis their internal electoral process. Even if there are not relatively clear lines to cross, what are the features/dimensions on which to assess where one nation's actions sit.

Another feature of this is whether actors from a foreign nation have a different set of ethical constraints from domestic actors. E.g. maybe it is unethical (or less ethical) for foreign actors to buy a large amount of standard political commercial time; an action that is pretty typical for domestic actors.

To list some of the assumptions I've made here

  1. Such a thing a ethics exists within the sphere of international actions. If this seems like too much structure, my question is really about when is one nation justified in taking offense at, and thus taking some sort of response to, another nation's actions. (Note this can go the other way too: one nation takes what should be considered benign/standard actions and uses them as a (false) pretext for their retaliatory actions).

  2. I'm talking about elections, and assuming that they are to some reasonable degree free and fair. These require a fair bit of information exchange, which is why I think foreign communications/propaganda are a particularly salient class of actions to consider.

  3. I'm mostly thinking about state-level actions done by recognized government actors for political purposes even though in some cases the line between public (governmental) and private actors and actions might be blurred (the United Fruit Company provides a historical example beyond the situation of today)

  • @David Blomstrom: "to choose between Hillary and Clinton"? — Do you mean between Trump and Clinton? Otherwise I do not understand the sense of your sentence.
    – user26880
    Jul 25, 2017 at 23:14
  • @DavidBlomstrom this is a philosophy question -- these comments are focused on the real world aspects of a particular case, I'm looking for the bigger picture.
    – Dave
    Jul 27, 2017 at 13:29
  • But this grand image is pars pro toto contained in what @David Blomstrom says: Trump and Clinton represent the two aspects of the denatured bookkeeping modus, which has been explained here {part 1, § 3}. Blomstrom means that since these aspects (communism/Zionism of Clinton and capitalism/Zionism of Trump) are covertly one and the same, the USA is a Unity Party System as in the former German Democratic Republic. -- That's why he wrote "to choose between Hillary and Clinton", which was an unconscious cynical joke.
    – user26880
    Jul 27, 2017 at 15:12

3 Answers 3


Between nations such a thing is not seen as ethics, but as political theory. Philosophers often write on both subjects independently, and do not necessarily need to weld them into a single whole.

Kant's overall political theory, for instance, is based upon the notion of a cohesive national character, whereas his ethics would not allow for the idea of forcing someone into the expected mold, or of assuming that a given individual is a given way simply because of his nationality -- the former makes the person an end to governmental means, and the later discounts full autonomy of personhood and ultimate redeemability of the individual.

One of the major distinctions between types of political theory is what constitutes a nation. I think two different approaches make sense. Kant's is one notion -- that nationality itself is a natural phenomenon, and we should learn the rules from observation, instead of trying to create them. The other rational extreme would be Locke's -- that stated or traditional agreements are the only things that constitute relationships between nations.

The defense made by both Cold War players has always been the Lockean one: that international law is what it is, and that if there is no a treaty or other controlling agreement, such things simply are not crimes. Both the U.S. and Russia have a long history of propaganda wars and direct manipulation of elections throughout the world. From this point of view, if we have a case that is more severe that what is generally simply accepted, we should take Russia to The Hague and let a third party decide what the expectations are. But we clearly don't. We have done much worse to prospective Russian satelite nations not so very long ago. And we very seldom pay any price. (Although we have seen in Iraq, that we may have severely underestimated that price, and that we may not ultimately be able to settle the debts that we have.)

To the extent there can be a reaction, it should evenhandedly protect electoral politics across the board. But this would involve reifying the notion of propaganda and opinion manipulation, which would not forgive American manipulation of South American or Middle-Eastern politics. So there is likely no remedy to be offered to a major power in the habit of bullying, whether or not we appear to be reformed.

And what of the other approach?

If nations are seen as organisms with their own internal process, then intervening in that process deprives the organism of its autonomy. In politics, as in ethics, this is the ultimate sin for Kant. But nations are not as easy to kill. Even if they are denied individual identity, interfering with the evolution of the nation can only make for trouble later, because the organism itself will ultimately take the course it intended to take despite you, and in the process of regaining their original course, they may lash out at you and undertake pointless destruction.

Things like wars, be they of shells or propaganda, are then ultimately unwise, because they cannot ultimately be effective, except over time spans that ultimately do not matter, but they can create hatreds between peoples that can live for generations.

From this point of view, the rules depend upon who you are. Interfering with an election in some other country is not the same offense as it is to the United States. Our national identity is to be, perhaps after France, the cradle of modern democracy, and to be the first constitutional democracy to work in a modern context. From that point of view, we do not need a stable framework about defending the sovereignty of elections overall, except when they are in countries that fear on their own terms for the stability of their own internal process. At the same time, the insult is huge -- as it strikes directly at the 'center of gravity' for American identity.

So the natural reaction is not going to be rational or measured. It would not surprise me if the U.S. takes this very personally, and we see a future president dedicated to resolving the claims to independence of Chechnya, Crimea, and the Ukraine, by international intervention or direct war.

  • 1
    I could hardly expect the penultimate para. come from a researcher in philosophy. Thereby you kinda subscribe to American exceptionalism by appeal to the notion that US is the cradle of modern democracy. But that notion could be countered in many ways. There are intellectuals who argue that US is rather a plutocracy or corporatocracy that renders democratic institutions ineffective. And in actual history, US interventions in foreign countries are seen to be motivated by imperialist motives disguised under humanitarian, democratic pretexts. The outcomes have also often been disastrous...
    – infatuated
    Jul 19, 2017 at 16:50
  • @infatuated That is talking about cultural identity, so whether we are lying to ourselves or not is beside the point. And I am not talking about the motives of U.S. intervention anywhere in the answer, so 'correcting' me about it is kind of odd.
    – user9166
    Jul 19, 2017 at 20:17
  • 1
    @infatuated, The motives that you mention are important, since they are a reflection of the true character of this US democracy. — On this basis, jobermark's sentence "... the rules depend upon who you are" (in the 9th §), becomes kind of odd, too, since it disappears thereby in a flash.
    – user26880
    Jul 19, 2017 at 23:15
  • @Zeus, it does not appear out of a flash, it is a natural consequence of Kant's position given above. The national character is as assumption of his entire political philosophy and different nations, with different characters will follow their own rules much the way autonomy gives individuals the right to follow their own rules unless there is some general rule that supersedes it. I am being consistent, not capricious.
    – user9166
    Jul 21, 2017 at 17:08
  • The national character is also defined from within, and not by external judgement as is autonomy. (I have noted elsewhere, that that way lies Nazism. If your national character is too much of a lie, you do have problems. And America does have those problems. But that does not apply to this question in any logical way.)
    – user9166
    Jul 21, 2017 at 17:31

In a tit-for-tat cold war of attrition and subversion between global powers (and geo-political adversaries) I'm not sure "morality" is the best criterion here in general to evaluate the situation before us.

For one thing, a "moralist" account kind of implies there is some transcendental law we could discover which would tell us, for instance, that it is always wrong to interfere in a sovereign nation's electoral process.

On this point, just as a matter of fact: the electoral process in the United States wasn't itself hacked, as far as we can tell. Rather: people's minds were hacked through a concerted disinformation campaign.

As for the ethicality of your own citizens (allegedly) collaborating with a foreign adversary to help guide the spread of disinformation towards specific districts with an eye towards gaining an electoral advantage -- this seems clearly over any kind of reasonable line (and may well be illegal.)

But as for dueling nation-states, locked in an elemental geopolitical struggle, it seems to me morality in the "everyday sense" is rendered largely derisory.

To try to briefly respond to the larger concern here with some resources -- Derrida is one of the sharpest thinkers on the "founding absence" of international law (at least in the sense of "global order"; Derrida suggests there is no international law as such.) This absence is maybe characterizable as one sense of "globalization" -- a linking-together through gaps, stratification and exclusion, which can only take place because international-legal conditions are missing: that is, the workable, effective, practical arrangements that would be the precondition of any thinking of any planetary ethics, in a unified political, social and legal sense. SEP's entry on the thinker offers some brief but intriguing points in this direction:

Derrida thinks that today, “in a time of terror,” after the end of the Cold War, when globalization is taking place, the fragility of the nation-state is being tested more and more. Agencies such as the International Criminal Court, the demand for universal human rights encroach on nation-state sovereignty. But the result of this universalization or “worlding” (“mondialisation” is the French word for globalization) is that the concept of war, and thus of world war, of enemy, and even of terrorism, along with the distinctions between civilian and military or between army, police, and militia, all of these concepts and distinctions are losing their pertinence.


I would recommend reading around page 358 of this article by Lea Ypi: Sovereignty, cosmopolitanism and the ethics of European foreign policy

Far from establishing the normative superiority of individuals over states, cosmopolitan right protects organized territorial entities from the violent or manipulative moves of powerful countries ... But critics ask: how can one take seriously cosmopolitan right in the absence of institutional guarantees that it will be applied? This is where the prospect of a social contract regulating interactions among sovereign states becomes crucial for the analytical understanding of cosmopolitanism. Kant alludes to it in the very definition of the concept: ‘this right, in so far as it affords the prospect that all nations may unite for the purpose of creating certain universal laws to regulate the intercourse they may have with one another, may be termed cosmopolitan (ius cosmopoliticum)’.

I hope this helps in answer to your question.


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