"DUTY-BOUND": The Deontological Ethics of Propaganda

by MKRam on June 9, 2015 - 3:50pm

Propaganda, according to Brittanica’s online search engine, has been defined as a “dissemination of information – facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, lies – [meant] to influence public opinion” (Smith). Through propaganda, accepted (as well as unaccepted) virtues and values are conveyed through the use of symbols through artistic and non-artistic means (such as music, fashion, film, currency, etc.) to have them follow a particular set of actions, attitudes, or beliefs that a propagandist deems acceptable or “right” (Smith). A propagandist can be compared to Thrasymachus’ idea of the unjust, yet prosperous tyrant who is respected and feared, as suggested in Plato’s Republic (Deigh 4). It has been and is still used by many propagandists all over the world as means of imposing their values on the public. It was made popular in WW1 and WW2 by multiple nations, encouraging the public and the soldiers alike. This can be exemplified through war propaganda encouraging soldiers of involved nations to fight for their country, and was also used to antagonize Jews in Nazi Germany through posters, and other means (with Hitler as the propagandist). It is also used today in political campaigning and by modern day radical groups (notably ISIS, who ironically receive praise for how masterful their propaganda films are). But regardless of the cultural context, all propaganda places an emphasis on power. What people are exposed to in these displays of art and in society is a blend of words and images that move them and influences their morality as well as warns them of the consequences should they refuse to follow. It is all based on the respected propagandist’s values and beliefs. However, how ever could these people tell whether following these rules were morally right or wrong? That’s where the idea of ethics comes in.

The idea of propaganda is similar to religion in that people are encouraged to follow and believe in this "superior" set of values whether they believe it or not, only propaganda has far more negative connotations. The intention with both is to have people devote themselves to adhere to their set of predetermined rules, and to do this, art is employed. Art has always been used as a persuasive mean. It has been used for centuries, presenting and telling stories that govern human behaviour, values and decision-making. The same applies to modern advertising techniques, where every aspect of design is important if one desires the public’s attention, as well as present social/ethical standards. This explains the employment of psychologists as consultants for manipulating human behaviour. In effect, the goal for both would both be having people feel “duty-bound” to respect them by establishing a set of moral maxims, ultimately employing a deontological ethic upon their subjects. A deontological perspective is defined by following a set of rules deemed acceptable by one or many moral maxims, such as those of higher authority (religious leaders, moral leaders, employers, etc.), reason, or Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative which dictated that what is ethical is based on what a person believes everyone should do based on a set of formalistic rules, principles and maxims (Merrill 25, 27).

In effect, people will simply follow the ideals being imposed upon them so they are deemed ethical. They also act out of fear that they will be alienated if caught doing something deemed unethical. It is therefore through actions that people are duty-bound to fulfill regardless of their point of view. This system is governed by the fulfillment of actions, not in consideration of consequences as a teleological system would dictate.  Its focus is also different from that of virtue ethics, where an emphasis is placed on character; an “agent” in question.

Now, a teleologist may argue against this in response to a variant of Kant’s categorical imperative, which states that no person should be used as a means to an end, but simply as an end (Merrill 25). They might argue that the propagandist may contradict this, as they employ agents to carry out the propaganda as means of achieving their perception of a “greater good” for his people. However, when one considers that through the information spread by the propagandist can develop into moral maxims (of a particular group), then his intention becomes deontological, as in religion. Furthermore, it could also be argued that virtue ethics can be rooted in the character of the propagandist, but this falls in contrast with the deontological idea that the propagandist might himself feel duty-bound to follow through with his actions.

Works Cited:

Deigh, John. “What is Ethics.” 345-LPH-MS: Media Ethics. Ed. Sarah Waurechen. Montreal: Eastman. 2015. 3-15. Print.

Merrill, John C. “Overview: The Theoretical Foundations of Media Ethics.” 345-LPH-MS: Media Ethics. Ed. Sarah Waurechen. Montreal. Eastman. 2015. 17-46. Print.

Smith, Bruce Lannes. "Propaganda." 27 April 2014. Brittanica. Web. 7 June 2015.



I really agree with the issue of propaganda from a deontological point of view. Enforcing a moral or a view on someone is simply taking away that person’s right to choose. You made a good case for it and explained it excellently. I really liked how you tied in modern day advertising. I would never have associated it with propaganda. I guess that is wishful thinking that we don’t have issues such as propaganda in the society we live in today. I didn't get a clear understanding about "the employment of psychologists as consultants for manipulating human behaviour." Maybe it could have been explained a little bit better or in more detail. I also really like how you brought in the aspect of fear of alienation. Although I liked that you compared deontology with teleology and virtue ethics, you could have gone more into details about virtue ethics. Overall a very interesting article.

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