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Question 152: May a spokesman defend something he considers wrong?

I am director of communications for a nationwide, nonprofit membership organization. Since I unqualifiedly share its good purposes, and since its leaders believe in honest communication, I seldom encounter moral problems in my work. But recently a controversy has arisen among members of the organization, and the leaders probably will resolve it in a way I consider both wrong in itself and unfair to a substantial portion of the membership. While I could resign over the issue and my wife is inclined to think I should, I cannot see how a public protest by me would have any good effect. Therefore, I would rather continue to serve this organization, provided I can do that without moral compromise. But I am not sure that I can.

The source of the problem is that certain members, including well-known public figures, have taken positions and supported movements that, judged by the organization’s own standards, are morally unacceptable. Considering their statements and actions inconsistent with continuing membership, other members have sought their expulsion. The leaders, who could expel those under criticism, agree that they are in the wrong. In confidential discussions, I have argued that their expulsion is morally required, despite the price the organization would pay, both by reducing its membership and in terms of public opinion, which generally would side with those expelled. But the leaders not only are reluctant to pay that price but also are coming to think—sincerely, I believe—that they do not have the right to judge the erring members’ wrongdoing incompatible with membership. I consider that view mistaken, but it is plausible, since the same problem exists throughout the wider community in which the organization is based, and the leaders of that wider community, while aware of this widespread misbehavior, have done virtually nothing about it.

If the leaders decide as I expect, it will be my job to communicate their decision as favorably as possible, both to our members and to the press. In what ways may I defend the leaders’ decision, assuming they sincerely consider it right while I consider it wrong? In particular, without lying, how can I help them communicate their sincerely held views that I consider mistaken?


This question calls for application of the norms regarding truthfulness and for judgment on cooperation in an action the questioner judges to be objectively wrong. Formal cooperation with the leaders’ objectively wrong actions must be avoided, but at least some material cooperation will be permissible. The intended end of that material cooperation can be understanding and acceptance—as distinct from approval—of the decision by members who will disagree with it, since that end is not bad in itself and can serve the organization’s true good. In at least certain sorts of situations, the questioner, without personally asserting anything he believes false, not only can help the leaders articulate their views but act as the organization’s spokesperson in presenting its position.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Your question would be easy to answer if your organization’s leaders were insincere, for then honest communication would not serve their purpose and your duty would be clear: to refuse to share in their wrongdoing and, if necessary, resign. But the leaders apparently are doing their best to make a morally correct decision, and you have good reasons—your commitment to serve this organization whose good purposes you share—for wishing to carry on with your work insofar as your conscience permits. So, while legalistic minimalism always is to be avoided, you rightly wish to find a way through this moral thicket, and I shall identify some distinctions that may be helpful.

Granting, as you do, the plausibility of your superiors’ view, you first should reconsider the matter at issue. Plainly, it is not simple and straightforward, and the organization’s leaders, not you, have the authority to make the decision. Is it possible that their judgment is correct and yours mistaken?

If the leaders make the expected decision and you remain convinced it is wrong, you could ask to be excused on this one occasion from fulfilling your usual responsibilities. No doubt the organization could find someone to replace you temporarily if you were taken ill. If the leaders value your services and are themselves as conscientious as your narrative suggests, they might agree that your absence would be no less appropriate in this situation and let you take a vacation or, at least, a leave of absence without pay while someone else handles this matter.

What if your request to be excused is rejected, or you think it better to handle the problem yourself? Then you must judge to what extent and in what ways you may deal with the public relations problems resulting from what you believe to be an objective violation of the organization’s common good and an injustice to members who sought the expulsion of those publicly doing wrong.

To make this judgment, bear in mind that when what one does contributes to others’ objectively wrong action, one must entirely avoid sharing their wrongful intention. Thus, in helping the leaders deal with the public relations problems resulting from their decision, you may share their intentions only insofar as you believe these to be objectively right. And some of the leaders’ intentions may be objectively right, since the wrong will be in their decision itself, which will be prior to and distinct from any public relations effort regarding it. Therefore, the first question you must try to answer is: In what respects will the measures the leaders wish taken to support their decision be truly morally acceptable? In trying to answer this question, we must bear in mind that the leaders’ sincerity, though decisive for their responsibility in the matter, does not settle your responsibility.

The answer will depend on the shape the public relations effort takes, and you must do your best to shape it. From your statement of the facts, it seems that the public at large is likely to approve of the decision, but some members of your organization are likely to resist it. I shall assume it will be better for the organization as a whole if the decision, having been made, is generally accepted—that is, if members who disagree remain loyal members and do nothing to oppose the decision inconsistent with the organization’s constitution and procedures. On that assumption, the members’ understanding and acceptance of the leaders’ decision, as distinct from their approval, will be objectively good, and you may intend their acceptance as the purpose of your public relations effort. Consequently, you must try to persuade the leadership to let you make the case, not that their decision is objectively correct, but that they have done their best and even those who consider the decision mistaken should recognize that the organization’s good now requires closing ranks. This approach not only will allow you to function as spokesperson without violating your conscience but will mitigate the antagonism of members who share your disappointment with the decision.

Even if the leadership agrees to shape the public relations effort in this way, however, they are likely to wish to communicate their own sincere view to at least some members and some segments of the wider public, and to work for approval, not merely acceptance, of their decision. If so, you will be enlisted to help communicate what you consider false and achieve what you consider wrong. The relevant questions will be: (1) Can you help communicate positions you consider false without personally asserting them? (2) What can you do without sharing the leaders’ objectively wrong intention? (3) Will some other grounds morally exclude doing what you can? I shall begin by considering together the first and second questions.

Doubtless part of your work will be preparing materials, such as a press release and a letter from the leaders to the members, and part will be communicating directly with the press and members, either in conferences, or by individual conversations or letters, or both. These various activities may present somewhat differing problems.

In preparing materials to be issued in the leaders’ name or in the name of the organization as such, you may state the decision, explain it, and point to the leaders’ grounds for it. Though those grounds will include the leaders’ reasons for approving the decision, you need not intend to induce members to approve it. Rather your intention can be to help the leaders communicate their own view, so that members will accept the decision not merely as a fait accompli but as the leaders’ sincere, even if mistaken, attempt to do the right thing. Moreover, if you draft a letter to be signed by one of your superiors, you can without lying include in it statements you believe false but the sender believes true. For you do not assert any of the statements in the letter, but only formulate them as a proposed expression of what your superior wishes to communicate.

Probably your role as spokesperson also will require you to defend the decision in other ways, involving direct communication on your part. Your own objective, of course, must remain limited to the legitimate one of gaining understanding and acceptance for the leaders’ decision rather than approval of it, and you may not seek approval for the decision as a way of gaining acceptance for it. Within this framework, will you be limited to saying only what you believe true? Obviously, without lying you can write and speak in the third person, presenting the matter as a whole from the leaders’ point of view, while also asserting without qualification propositions you personally consider true. But can you go beyond this? Provided it is clear to those addressed that you are communicating as spokesperson, I think you can, at least when addressing an indeterminate group—for example, by issuing a press release, sending a newsletter you write to the membership at large, or speaking before a press conference or a general membership meeting. In these circumstances, those addressed do not—or, at least, cannot reasonably—expect to be getting your personal views but those of the organization, since you are speaking not for yourself but for it. Therefore, it seems to me, you may speak in the first person, using not I but we, without thereby referring to yourself, and so without personally asserting elements of the organization’s view that you consider mistaken.

Could you take the same approach in replying over your own signature to individuals’ letters or in conversing with individuals or small groups especially interested in the problem and decision? In some instances, especially in correspondence, you might be able to make it clear that you are expressing the organization’s position without personally asserting it. But in others, I think, such situations will prove more problematic. The closer relationship existing between the parties to such communications makes it less likely they will distinguish between what you personally think and what you assert in your role as spokesperson. If you try to maintain the distinction, that is likely to indicate that your personal view differs from the official position, and that may provoke questions about your view. These, of course, you could decline to answer, but that would tend to lessen your effectiveness as spokesperson on the matter. Therefore, I think you should try to avoid answering letters over your own signature and engaging in conversations with individuals and small groups. Considering the decision’s obvious importance to the organization and your difference with the leaders, they may be willing to do these things themselves—of course, with your help in drafting letters and so on.

With respect to the third question—whether what you can do without sharing the leaders’ objectively wrong intentions might be morally excluded on other grounds—it seems likely to me that this probably will not be the case. In the first place, as has been explained, you can intend an acceptable end and avoid sharing the leaders’ objectively wrong intention. The leaders no doubt will go beyond the goal of the public relations effort and seek approval for their decision. But given your clearheadedness and commitment, you are not likely to be tempted by your involvement to choose to do anything you judge wrong. In the second place, the risk of scandal is lessened by the facts that the decision will already have been made and that the wider community’s leadership already has taken a similar stance in respect to the problem. In the third place, if you are right in thinking that your resignation and public protest would have no good effect, your work on this matter will not affect your capacity to bear witness to the truth about it, since one cannot both serve as an organization’s spokesperson and openly oppose its leadership. Finally, your cooperation with the leaders very likely will not be unfair to anyone. If you did not carry out the public relations effort, the leadership surely would find someone to replace you, and that person would be less likely to shape it toward only the limited goal of gaining acceptance for the decision.

You might wonder: “What if the situation were different in only one respect —I doubted the soundness of the leaders’ decision rather than considered it mistaken? Might I then promote not only its acceptance but approval?” No. Unless you judge the leaders’ decision more probably morally sound than not, you must proceed on the assumption that it may well be unsound and so entitled to no more than acceptance.