The Good, The Bad, & The Unethical: The Ethics of Propaganda

Marisa Eileen Fernandez


Propaganda has been solidified in history, becoming more widely used in the early to late 1900s. Whether you recognize it or not, there are certain images and characters from past and present propaganda campaigns that have been embedded in your brain. From Rosie the Riveter to Uncle Sam, propaganda has become a part of popular culture. Now in the present era, propaganda is all around us. It is in our schools encouraging us to recycle our water bottles; it is on TV urging us to vote for a certain candidate; it is pumped out by the government reminding you to register to vote. The question is not whether this is effective or not, but whether propaganda in itself is ethical. Looking at Kant’s moral thesis, the use of propaganda is unethical. According to Kant’s Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative, an agent should never be used merely as a means to an end and should be treated as an end in herself. Propaganda is defined as a persuasive technique employed by a government or other agency where said government or agency puts out partial truths or lies in order to manipulate the public to act or think in a certain way and to produce an outcome which is in favor, directly or indirectly, of the government or agency. But how do different types of propaganda persuade moral agents, and which propaganda campaigns, if any, are considered more acceptable? This paper looks at multiple case studies of propaganda such as Nazi propaganda during World War II and American propaganda used during the Cold War, and weighs in on which of these, if any, are morally acceptable.


Immanuel Kant; Propaganda; Ethics; Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative

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