Several readers of yesterday’s post–on the topic of lying to expose some truth–raised the practice of undercover investigations as a counter example to my thesis, asking if I would consider undercover work unethical for the same reason I have qualms about deceptive activists.
Yes and no. I wouldn’t say that the undercover agent shares the deceitful activist’s relativistic allegiance to ideology–their goals are significantly different–but working undercover, to the extent that it means lying and being mendacious, has its immoral aspects.
Lying, as I use the term here, means speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error. It’s a form of violence because it harms the hearer’s ability to know, undermining the condition of her judgment and decision. It leads to distrust and to the decay of social bonds. Lying is fundamentally wrong on the basis that our lives ought to be lived in accordance with the truth.
This sense of lying comes into play in undercover work. The undercover agent intentionally leads others into error about who she is. This deception affects those deceived: their actions in response to the undercover agent, to the extent that they are based on a lie, are not actions done in accordance with the truth. The deception also affects the deceiver, placing her in a situation in which she acts against the truth of who she is, perhaps even against her conscience, in order to maintain the deception. Stories about undercover agents make for damn good drama precisely because of the morally compromised position they are in.
Admittedly, neither of these affects renders undercover work unjustifiable, but they do mean that there’s a moral cost to every undercover deception. Such deception is never morally desirable, even if, in some circumstances, it may be morally understandable. The justifiability of undercover deceptions hinges on whether lying, as I’ve defined it, is intrinsically immoral.