The Practical Philosophy Group
Guest lecture

Ethics of espionage

In the course of clandestine intelligence operations, agents regularly harm innocent third parties by means of deception and manipulation. Under what conditions may such third-party harming be justified?

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Main content

In this talk I criticize a position independently defended by the philosopher Cecile Fabre and by the UK government. According to Fabre, the harm of deception and manipulating inflicted by infiltrators on third parties can be justified as a foreseen but unintended side-effect of an otherwise-just mission. Similarly, in its code of practice for covert human intelligence sources, the UK’s Home Office characterizes harmful interference with “persons who are not the intended subjects” of a covert operation as “collateral intrusion”. 
I argue that describing such consequences as side-effect harm or collateral harm obscures the fact that the harm (e.g. of deception and manipulation) is usually intentionally inflicted. Innocent third parties represent direct threats to undercover agents, insofar as they would jeopardize the agent’s mission should they realize the agent’s true identity. Other times agents must refrain from stopping  wrongful actions in order to keep their cover. In these cases, covert agents either intentionally harm, or intentionally allows harm to befall, third parties. Intentionally harming a person as means of serving a goal the person is not morally compelled to contribute to, is a particularly problematic for of agency. If this argument is right, covert intelligence operations are harder to justify than what prominent philosophers and governments alike have hitherto assumed.