The author of The Political Brain alleges, in regards to negative campaigns, or those that are primarily based on personal appeals rather than calculated facts:
“There is no relation between the extent to which an appeal is rational or emotional and the extent to which it is ethical or unethical. Every appeal is ultimately an emotional appeal to voters’ interests–what’s good for them and their families–or their values–what matters to them morally” (p. 14).
I think this whole question is important, not just at election time, but in terms of the ethics of social work advocacy, too, because, really, the kinds of claims that candidates lodge at each other during campaign season are not often that dissimilar than those lobbied (or, in some cases not) by opposing camps in a policy debate.
And it’s not a question that’s easily resolved, at least not for social workers, who have to wrestle with this even a little more than others who adhere to an ethic of honesty and integrity, but not necessarily to the strictures of the NASW Code of Ethics.
But, after spending quite a bit of time reading through our Code, and grappling with the literature (such that it is) on ethics and integrity in social work, I come back to the same place where I started, not too far from this author:
Negative campaigns are not necessarily unethical. They certainly can be, but so can “positive” ones, to the extent to which they are misleading, or unfair, which is certainly not the exclusive purview of “attack” tactics.
Our Code of Ethics requires more than just the factual honesty that is the key dividing line for many, though: we have a responsibility to respect the dignity and worth of every person, including the candidate (or elected official, or opposing advocate) in question, whose denigration might advance our cause.
But because we know that eliciting strong emotions is key to influencing opinion, and because of the stakes involved in the electoral and policy campaigns in which we’re involved, failing to use the most effective tools at our disposal could, in fact, be seen as even more ethically ‘suspect’ than an attack which is carefully constructed so as to be persuasive but not manipulative, powerful but not vindictive, and compelling but not “truthy”.
Obviously, in the electoral and policy arenas, social workers will have to make our own judgment calls about how to make these ethical decisions. But it’s clear that our Code of Ethics doesn’t mean to tie our hands so that we can’t, for example, expose the inconsistencies between a candidate’s voting record and stump speech, or label as racist the stereotypes emanating from the debate over Arizona’s anti-immigrant profiling bill.
There are certainly ample examples of unethical campaigning–unethical by anyone’s standards.
And then there are those, which, while technically true, would not meet social work’s standards, which require us to take into account the humanity of those who would be our adversaries.
And, then, there is the failure of some social workers to boldly speak truth to power, using the Code of Ethics almost as a shield, to save us from the uncomfortable work of going after those who seek to harm the populations our profession has called us to defend.
Now that’s unethical.