top of page
  • Pranav Joshi


Updated: Feb 27

"All warfare is based on deception."

Sun Tzu, War and Peace[1]

Sun Tzu's words here resonate through time and space, as most wars fought so far would have at least some elements of deception. Perhaps the most known and visible tool of deception is espionage, which is also popularly known as the 'second oldest profession in the world.' However, can espionage be explained through the theories of political philosophy?

This essay precisely intends to do this by looking at espionage from within the lens of utilitarianism. It will commence with a succinct explanation of the concepts of espionage and utilitarianism. Further, the two concepts will be linked and explained through the movie "A Call to Spy". The particular feature case from the film will be that of Ms Noor Inayat Khan[2], one of the celebrated spies of the United Kingdom. Ultimately, the essay will conclude by concisely summarising the points raised in the paper.

To deal with the fundamental question, 'what exactly is meant by espionage,' according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, espionage is the:

"Process of obtaining military, political, commercial, or other secret information by means of spies, secret agents, or illegal monitoring devices."[3]

Though espionage has existed for almost all of human existence, it became widely popularised after World War II. As books (Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, John De Carré) and movies (the James Bond franchise) generated interest in the otherwise insulated world of spying, it led to more creations dealing with different times under the genre of ‘espionage/spy thrillers.’ In common parlance, espionage generates polarising responses, namely either patriotic or morally compromising. In my comprehension, though, espionage should be seen from a different dimension too; the dimension of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is a theory under political philosophy that primarily deals in ethics, something which is not commonly associated with espionage. It was initially postulated by Jeremy Bentham[4], who defined a utilitarian action in a hedonistic (maximisation of pleasure) comprehension. Furthermore, John Stuart Mill extended the definition by adding another element to it, which was the reduction of pain. Following is the definition that J.S. Mill gave:

"The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure."[5]

The utilitarian further gets divided based on the application of the theory: Those who propagate the theory's application on a case-to-case basis (Act Utilitarianism) and those who prefer to apply a known precedent generally (Rule Utilitarianism). Their definitions are as follows:

Act utilitarianism"An act is right insofar as its consequences for the general happiness are at least as good as any other alternative available to the agent."[6]

Rule utilitarianism"An act is right insofar as it conforms to a rule whose acceptance value for the general happiness is at least as great as any alternative rule available to the agent."[7]

Building on both kinds of utilitarian thoughts, I would use the Two-Level utilitarian[8] model, which I interpret as follows:

Level one – Intuitive Utilitarianism

When the act is conducted by the agent based on decisions which are not taken through careful calculations of available alternatives, but rather by applying the precedent rules in their decisions. This definition is derived essentially from Rule utilitarianism and should be applied in the first instance while decision-making.

Level two – Critical Utilitarianism

When the act is conducted by the agent based on decisions taken through careful calculations of the available alternatives and the proportional consequence of their respective decision. This definition is derived essentially from Act utilitarianism and should be applied only when intuitive utilitarianism cannot provide a way towards a satisfactory decision.

After carefully laying the framework for espionage and utilitarianism, it is now when the link between these two can be established. In general, a spy operating in a foreign territory (in our case, even hostile territory) has already thrown themself into considerable risk. At the outset of being alert, the spy is also supposed to assist their home country in gathering, processing, and passing on valuable information that will build a stronger case for them. During this intense multitasking, it is unfair to expect the spy to take time and patiently analyse every decision that they are about to make. In such situations, it is helpful for the spy to rely on intuitive utility, as experiences create precedents that assist in quick and accurate decision making.

However, there might be specific situations in which the intuitive utility does not guide towards a decision. This is true, particularly in those circumstances where the lines get blurred to present a conundrum. Under these circumstances, the spy needs to take some time and prudently consider the available alternatives and the corresponding proportional consequences generated from each of those choices. Once this is done, they will make a decision which will be inherently utilitarian.

It is imperative to take these points into an example, and I am using a film as a reference case for the same. The film, titled 'A Call to Spy'[9], focuses on the stories of three exceptional women (one supervisor and two spies) during World War II. Based on factual accounts and authentic sources, the movie begins by showing the circumstances under which women were recruited under the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – a special force created by Winston Churchill (the then PM of Britain). The film exhibits the heroic characters undergo their training, operate under hostile territories, and meet their respective ends (one spy survives, and the other gets caught).

Mainly from the film, the story of Ms Noor Inayat Khan is what the essay intends to illustrate. Born in Inayat and Pirani Khan's affluent family, she was an educated woman with an unusual spiritual bent. In the film, she is introduced as a patriotic woman working in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force before getting recruited in the SOE. Initially, she has conflicts in her mind between her pacifist spiritual upbringing and the manipulative training that she is undergoing. Nevertheless, she acquires her skills and goes to France, which at the time, was occupied by the Nazi regime.

From the enemy territory, she sends crucial information in codes that facilitate British military operations and enhance intelligence gathering on the Nazis. She passes all her information while playing a game of chase from the enemy police. After narrowly escaping a couple of times, unfortunately, she gets caught by the police and is sent to torturous imprisonment. Her life ends with her execution through the Nazi military.

Noor Inayat Khan is a celebrated spy, and her story is worthy of being a legend. Her story has many elements that share familiarity with other espionage tales, and so do the dilemmas that come with the job. Through her example, the essay explained the two-level utilitarian model, which was churned out of the Act and Rule utilitarianism. These divergent ideas were coming from the modified definition of utility that John Stuart Mill has propagated; the modification was done to the initial definition that Jeremy Bentham gave. Conclusively, the essay has explored the act of espionage through the utilitarian perspective and has provided an affirmative method to do so.


Scholarly Articles/ Books

1. Basu, Shrabani. Spy Princess : the Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Stroud: Sutton, 2006)

2. Bitton, Raphael. "The Legitimacy of Spying among Nations," American University International Law Review. Vol. 29, no. 5 (2014): 1009-1068

3. Breen, John G. "The Ethics of Espionage and Covert Action: The CIA's Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program as a Case Study", Arthur D. Simons Center for Interagency Cooperation, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas,(2016):71-79

4. Carrion, Stephanie. "Ethics of a Cold War Spy", International Journal of Intelligence Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 1, (2013):21-33

5. Doty, Reece. "How can Human Intelligence Collection be Morally Justified ?" (Master's thesis, University of Kansas, 2018)

6. Miller, Richard B. "Actual Rule Utilitarianism." The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 106, no. 1 (2009): 5-28.

7. Singer, Marcus G. "Actual Consequence Utilitarianism." Mind, New Series, 86, no. 341 (1977): 67-77.

8. Watson, Ronald E., "Spying: A Normative Account of the Second Oldest Profession" (PhD Thesis, Washington University, St. Louis 2013)


1. A Call to Spy. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher. IFC Films: United States. 2020. (Accessed March 6,, 2021

2. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Espionage." Encyclopaedia Britannica, June 5, 2017. (accessed March 8, 2021)

3. Mill, John Stuart. "Ethics. "Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Accessed March 119, 2021

4. Shalini Langer, A Call to Spy movie review: Radhika Apte starrer is un-showy and un-bombastic, (Accessed Marc15, 202121)

5. Tzu, Sun. "Top 25 Espionage Quotes." AZ Quotes. (accessed March 16, 2021)

Cover Image Credits: GETTY

About the author: Pranav Joshi is a postgraduate in Public Policy and aspires to be a doctoral scholar. His focus lies on studying international and domestic politics, and linking theories with contemporary policy issues.

22 views0 comments
bottom of page