My question concerns the ethics of mass influence, specifically when the intention is to help bring about positive consequences and the means of influence is manipulative. It seems to me that mass communication that is designed to manipulate public opinion is likely to be harmful to reason and rational inquiry, not to mention that it treats people as objects or pawns, it smacks of elitism (which if warranted requires justification), and in some case it can lead to social polarization and even violence. But grandpa here also wonders if he has held onto youthful idealism for far too long, and that maybe a realist would accept that anyone who wants to do good in the world on a large scale has no choice but to at least sometimes engage in some degree of manipulative mass communication, and that this is as ethically justifiable (depending on the situation) as deceiving Kant’s murderer at the door. I’ve searched in vain for philosophical commentary on this specific issue, and I would be particularly interested in hearing from or about philosophers who defend the occasional or frequent manipulation of public opinion on consequentialist grounds.

I'm surprised that you weren't able to find some philosophical material on this issue: The topic of the morality of political communication is an old one (Plato's Allegory of the Cave can be read as a commentary on political manipulation). Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent ( is a well-known exploration of political manipulation, though perhaps not very 'philosophical' in its approach. More recently, Jason Stanley has defined propaganda as "“manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” and argued that such manipulation undermines democracy. ( This recent collection of articles ( may prove useful to you also.

I think you capture the case against manipulation in the public realm quite well: Your case against it has a decidedly Kantian ring — that individuals have the right to the information necessary to form reasoned opinions on matters of public concern, and manipulation prevents them from doing this, as well as arrogating to manipulators the right to shape public discourse so that such discourse will tend to validate their (the manipulators') preferred point of view. Such manipulation thus treats the rational agency of the manipulated as merely a means to the ends of the manipulator, i.e, securing the assent of the manipulated to whatever policy, ideology, etc., the manipulator favors. Patricia Greenspan ( emphasizes that manipulation has a social dimension: manipulators assume the right to question "a basic assumption of interpersonal trust in groups that make claims on their members on grounds of fraternity among reasoning agents."

You ask specifically about consequentialist justifications for manipulation. Certainly it's easy to imagine how manipulation by political elites could be justified on consequentialist grounds. Arguably, Plato's Republic defends political manipulation on consequentialist grounds, namely that done well, such manipulation will engender loyalty to the state, which both promotes and reflects justice in the state. In more modern terms, there would appear to be circumstances in which political elites manipulating the public through misinformation, propaganda, etc. would be morally justified on consequentialist grounds. If the public's support is necessary in order for (say) the state to wage a just war against a hostile enemy, then (someone might argue) manipulating public opinion to support that war is morally justified if the good consequences of doing so outweigh the bad.

My suspicion, however, is that savvy consequentialists will try to deflect this reasoning by drawing attention to unnoticed or underappreciated bad consequences. When faced with the objection that their views has morally untoward consequences, many consequentialists respond by arguing that their view does not have such consequences — that in fact empirical realities are such that (in this instance) political manipulation doesn't have the best consequences. It may appear to have the best consequences in the short term, but of course, all consequences, short- and long-term, have to be taken into account. And once we do so, it seems the like the actual or potential bad consequences grow in magnitude. If the manipulation is exposed, the public will have reduced confidence in its leaders or its government; how can it trust government leaders' or elites' claims in the wake of such manipulation? (I'm not a political scientist or a sociologist, but it does seem to me that the post-Vietnam era in the U.S. has been an era of steady decline in public trust of political leadership precisely because of past government or media manipulation.) The risk of damage done to public discourse over the long run, a consequentialist might argue, is greater than whatever gains might ensue from this or that act of manipulation in isolation.

So while the non-consequentialist or Kantian against political manipulation is fairly straightforward, there's also a surprising consequentialist case against it too. This isn't to say that consequentialists might endorse political manipulation on some occasions. But they are likely to be more hesitant about it than it appears at first glance.

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