Ethics, Values and Campaigning: a Reflection

Is it ethics and values that motivate campaigning for a cause? What is the difference between believing that our cause is right, and being self-righteous? What part do ethics and values play in the way in which we pursue our cause, as well as the cause itself? Should civility be a core value of civil society? Is it ethical for a charity campaign to be motivated partly by the need for money and supporters?

If these questions interest you, read on!

  1. A few days’ ago I was lucky enough to be in a group considering this topic in the appropriate surroundings of the Friends’ Meeting House, Euston. We had been brought together by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s excellent Social Change Project, whose contact details are given below. Here are reflections that I have taken away.
  2. Is it ethics and values that motivate campaigning for a cause? They are a precondition but not sufficient by themselves. Some people who share much the same ethics and values as activists may be into service delvery, watch a lot of TV, or be absorbed in study or family instead. Others may end up campaigning for different, even conflicting things. For example, the two sides in the dignity in dying debate may share important values but have systems of beliefs and experience built on them that lead them to contrasting views about the best path to long term human flourishing. Others again may have quite different priorities: one person who campaigns on children’s rights can have broadly the same ethics and values as another who is preoccupied with environmental degradation. So anyone who says “I campaign for this cause because of my ethics and values” is saying something partly true but incomplete. Your experience of pain and joy, role models, religion (or lack of it), beliefs about what will change the world for the better and how best to achieve it, and subjective enthusiasms, all play their part, too.
  3. Similarly, believing passionately that our cause is right is not the same as being self-righteous. Our opponents are human beings who disagree with us but may well share many of our ethics and values. They may be just as well motivated as we are. They may have more experience than we do in some ways and understand considerations that we ignore in our own ways of thinking (which may sometimes be group think). We cannot assume that they are morally inferior. Too many of us campaigners, however, do sometimes fall into self-righteousness. If we do, we help justify the hostility of our opponents.
  4. Yet a clear sense of ethics and values, explicitly defined and publicly stated, is an important anchorage for campaigning organisations, as for others.
  5. For otherwise, there is no standard of behaviour against which the organisation as a whole and individuals within it can be held accountable. The history of campaigning includes examples where an ostensibly “successful” campaigner has left a trail of humiliated or angry colleagues and supporting staff because, fixated on the moral end, he or she has behaved badly to actual human beings in the same cause. We are only too conscious of this trap in the post Harvey Weinstein era. Explicit ethics and values help to align the public cause with organisational culture and personal behaviour.
  6. Equally, they help guard against a discrepancy between means and ends. If, for example, we contravene our stated beliefs in truthfulness and fairness, our causes will be vulnerable to being discredited. If we misrepresent or dehumanise our opponents, we invite them to do the same back to us and to others. Do we manipulate statistics, oversimplify what we know to be complex, cherry pick evidence that supports our message and ignore what does not? This is particularly important in the era of fake news, alternative facts and the coarsening of public discourse in rival social media echo chambers. If we lower our ethics and values to compete like with like, we shall lose out to the most ruthless and unprincipled.
  7. This is very difficult, because we want our communications to grab attention in a crowd. We need money. We may want to motivate our supporters and recruit new ones by engaging their emotions. We cannot bury our appeals in pedantic qualifications. But there is no good alternative to working hard for impact within a robust framework of ethics and values. The charity sector has learned this the hard way through the fundraising scandals, where excellent ends were let down by unethical means.
  8. The group pondered the helpful question posed a while ago by Karl Wilding of the NCVO: should one core value of civil society be civility itself? Is it realistic to deplore and excoriate the behaviour of institutions, such as predatory Corporations that commit environmental or human rights abuses, without assuming that the human beings working in them are inhumane and unethical as individuals? Is it ever justified to abuse and curse our opponents or political leaders as individuals as part of expressing the anger that drives many of our campaigns? Is it naïve to aim to be always civil, however passionately we believe in the rightness of our cause, particularly if we feel we are fighting a “war”? These deserve careful reflection as we define the shared ethics and values underpinning our organisations and campaigns.
  9. One other issue caused us some difficulties. There are particular ethical issues surrounding the role of campaigns on the part of medium and large charities. This is because such campaigns sometimes have mixed motives. They are partly trying to do what it says on the tin, such as (for example) bring about a better deal for some oppressed group, but at the same time they are trying to recruit new supporters and raise money in order to fill the charity’s tin. It is partly about sustaining a business model for the organisation and its wider cause as well as about the specific campaign. Fundraising and brand considerations, as well as policy analysis of need and impact, will be brought to bear on the choice of campaign. And in some cases, when the fundraisers and brand experts say so, one campaign will be dropped after two or three years, because another is needed to sustain the brand and the finances even if the previous one is unfinished. This all has its good side if it makes great organisations sustainable while promoting their cause in different dimensions, but the risks of lack of transparency, or causing cynicism about the motivations of campaigns, are there, and need managing in the light of the charity’s statement of ethics and values.
  10.  Similarly, for a wider range of campaigning charities, if I make a gift aided donation to a particular urgent campaign appeal, is it transparent enough to me if the gift aid goes not to the campaign but to the general running costs of the organisation (as it sometimes does)? This is another set of issues where what is right and in the best interests of the cause is not always straightforward and where a statement of ethics and sturdy values can be an essential compass
  11. If you would like to follow or contribute to The Social Change Project’s developing thinking on these questions – and other aspects of changing the world through non-party political activity – please go to their website at .



Andrew Purkis.                                                                  November 2017.



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