Last Tuesday, a group calling itself “Impact Team” followed through on its threat to release data it had stolen from Ashley Madison, an internet service that facilitates encounters between people interested in having extramarital affairs. The data included information on approximately 37 million people who had signed up for the site (see news reports at Wired and The New York Times, for example).
The event raises a number of issues regarding privacy, the effect of technology on our behaviors, the status of marriage, promises, moral culture and change, moral judgment, righteousness, punishment, and vigilantism, to name just a few. These are topics that philosophers have often taken up. Now that much of the whole world is discussing these topics in the context of the Ashley Madison hack, I asked several philosophers to briefly share some of their thoughts on the subject, raise further questions, and clarify some concerns. These philosophers are (in alphabetical order):
- Jason Brennan (Georgetown)
- Jennifer Frey (University of South Carolina)
- Jonathan Ichikawa (University of British Columbia)
- Hallie Liberto (University of Connecticut)
- Kate Manne (Cornell University)
- Evan Selinger (Rochester Institute of Technology)
- D.E. Wittkower (Old Dominion University)
I appreciate them finding the time, on rather short notice, to take part in this post. Their contributions are below.
The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to prompt further discussion among philosophers about issues and events of current public interest, and also to explore the ways in which philosophers can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to the public conversation. Others are, of course, welcome to join in. Additionally, if you come across particularly valuable relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere, please provide a link in the comments.
(image: modified reproduction of an ancient Pompeian fresco)
Most people believe what Ashley Madison did was wrong, because they profited from immorality. I agree what they did was wrong, but the problem wasn’t that they profited. Peter Jaworski and I have a book on commodification, Markets without Limits, coming out next month. Our thesis is that any service or good that you may give away for free, you may sell for money. The only types of goods and services that are not properly objects of sale are the things you shouldn’t do or have anyways. In our view, most of the objections to commodifying this or that are really objections to how the thing is sold, not what is sold.
So, for instance, we agree that child pornography and nuclear weapons ought not be bought and sold, but that’s because people ought not have them in the first place. If people were distributing these goods for free, it would still be wrong. And some problematic markets—for example, in surrogacy—can be restructured, say, by removing brokers or requiring surrogates to have had a previous child, so as to meet objections that they are exploitative or otherwise harmful.
Ashley Madison provides a nice illustration of our central thesis. Many people would regard Ashley Madison, Adult Friend Finder, and similar services as examples of “noxious markets”. Perhaps they are right to do so, though we should be aware that not everyone using these services is necessarily breaking a vow, or wrongfully breaking a vow. Nevertheless, the problem with Ashley Madison is not primarily that it helps people break promises for profit. It’s that it helps people break promises, period. If Jaworski and I were to set up the Help You Secretly Cheat On Your Spouse Charitable Foundation, an NGO that matches would-be paramours, the service would also be wrong. The wrongness here doesn’t originate in the market, in the buying and selling of the service. It originates in the activity itself.
In surveying the various books on the limits of markets, we find that about half of the so-called “contested commodities” or “noxious markets” that the authors discuss concern cases like Ashley Madison, where the good or service in question is something people should not have or do anyways. Sure, if some behaviors are wrongful or some products bad, then we generally don’t want to industrialize providing them. Still, we need to be clear what the issue is. Markets in bad things are bad because bad things are bad, not because markets are introducing badness where there wasn’t any.
Ashley Madison is a company that primarily serves men (90-95% of its users) who want to cheat on and lie to their spouses without having to face any consequences. The company has profited handsomely by promising full privacy to its customers, all the while attempting to mollify their consciences via a Twitter feed that promotes the gospel of adultery (It’s good for your marriage! Women love it too!). It’s an obviously despicable company—even its investors won’t name themselves publicly—and thus we might initially feel that the hackers were heroically dispensing justice by making good on their threat to release the private information of its users in order to shut it down for good. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a single aspect of this sad, shameful mess we can feel good about.
Although the hackers were right to want to shut down Ashley Madison, their means to achieve this end were illicit. Just as one ought not succeed in school by cheating or land a promotion by blackmail, one ought not bring down a deplorable company by violating the rights of its paying customers and ignoring or downplaying the harms caused to them. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for liars and cheats, but it’s even harder to imagine that we would want our private, intimate choices—those that typically concern and expose the most vulnerable aspects of our lives, such as our sexuality—to be broadcast to the world. Adultery may be bad but it isn’t a crime, which means that in almost all cases it is none of our business. Impact Team has made it our business, and that is wrong.
Finally, let us not forget that the hackers have done real and irreparable harm. Millions have now been forced to wear a permanent scarlet A in front of a global audience. We are already seeing reports of extortion, suicide, and of course, ruined marriages and careers. No one should feel good about this, or take it lightly.
Here is a sadly familiar story: a teenage girl sneaks out of her parents’ house, goes to a party, and gets drunk. A man rapes her. Here is another sadly familiar story: a black man in the wrong neighbourhood shouts angrily at a police officer, who kills him. While this isn’t yet settled ground in the culture at large, I suspect that most reading here will agree that victim-blaming in cases like these is both morally repugnant and practically dangerous. It is morally repugnant because it undermines those who need empathy and protection, literally adding insult to injury; it is practically dangerous because it turns attention away from the perpetrators and the systems that give rise to them.
Victim-blaming comes in stronger and weaker forms—the stronger straightforwardly asserts that the victim is responsible for the harm undergone; we also recognize a weaker form of ‘victim-blaming’ where one focuses inappropriately on the victim’s actual or perceived wrongdoings: she shouldn’t have drunk so much; he should have been more deferential to the police officer. Whether or not these criticisms are true, they are highly inappropriate under the circumstances. Yes, it plausibly was wrong of the teenage girl to sneak out of her parents’ house and get drunk, but to focus on this fact under these circumstances is a significant moral mistake. Such criticisms suggest, even if they don’t assert, that it is the victim’s pragmatic or moral error, rather than harmful acts by another, that led him or her to suffer—and that is why this too is a kind of victim blaming.
The less one empathizes with the victim and his or her situation, the easier it is to victim-blame. Misogynists are more likely than others to emphasize a rape victim’s clothing choices; racists are more likely than others to emphasize a murdered black man’s criminal history. In the same way, I think, a deep-seated sexual puritanism has contributed to a problematic tendency to emphasize immoral behaviour of the victims of the Ashley Madison hack.
In case it needs saying—I hope it doesn’t—in the vast majority of cases, I do not think that the harm the Ashley Madison victims are suffering is equivalent to rape or murder; nor are Ashley Madison users systematically oppressed in the way women and black people are. But victim-blaming is problematic, even for lesser and more episodic harms. (Prudish scolding of the victims of last year’s photo hack—’don’t send nude photos if you don’t want them published’—was also victim-blaming.) And the harm done to many of the current victims is by no means trivial. Families are being broken up. People will lose jobs. It’s not at all hard to imagine that lives will be lost. For many, it is all too easy to trivialize these harms and blame the victims: ‘I have no sympathy for cheaters,’ or ‘the real victims are the spouses.’
While there are individual cases deserving of little sympathy—one name in particular comes conspicuously to mind—I think it’s a mistake to have this reaction in general, for many reasons. One is that many of the 33 million users whose privacy has been violated weren’t cheaters: they signed up, had a look around, and left and forgot about it; or they were just there for the thrill of thinking about the possibilities, with no intentions of any physical connection. Some were in ethical open relationships; some were closeted LGBTQ people who needed discretion. And even when we’re talking about the actual adulterers, it’s a serious lack of empathy broadly to vilify them or consider them unworthy of privacy protections. People cheat for many reasons, some of them very understandable.
Even in cases of unequivocal wrongdoing by Ashley Madison customers, violating their privacy is another harm, and not one to be celebrated. We shouldn’t let a reflexive moral disapproval overly influence our perception of what has occurred. Use of the passive voice is a clue: one focuses on the victim’s actions in saying that a woman drank too much and was raped; the more important description is that a predator raped her. In the same way, do not forget that there is a harmful actor in this case: it’s not that 33 million people joined a website for cheaters and were doxxed; a group called Impact Team hacked into a dating site and published the private information of 33 million people. Those customers are the victims of a harmful criminal violation, and focusing on their wrongdoing in this story is victim-blaming.
Imagine that someone hacked into a different private website – maybe one related to a corporation or medical practice – and exposed some serious moral wrongs done to innocent people. Say the exposure hurt the members’ reputations and future business prospects. Sure, the hackers violated people’s privacy rights. However, our reaction, as a philosophical and (mostly) liberal audience would probably be somewhat laudatory: go hackers!
Now, when people secretly cheat on their partners, there are some grave wrongs afoot:
- They break significant promises.
- Undeceived, a spouse might choose to make an exit plan from the marriage, or perhaps pursue his or her own rewarding extramarital relationship. The deception undermines the spouse’s autonomy, in that it removes his or her capacity to deliberate and make choices using all of his or her reasons.
- Deception can undermine sexual consent. Imagine a woman who consents to have sex with her partner believing he is monogamous – and wouldn’t consent if she knew the truth about his infidelity. Her partner is then having sex with someone who has not consented to sex under its actual conditions (see Dougherty 2013).
So, why do we scorn the Ashley Madison hackers, but not the hackers who expose, say, corporate wrongdoing?
One concern I’ve heard is: maybe some users of the site were in honest, polyamorous relationships. I doubt that many poly people – so committed to honesty – would look for partners on a website like Ashley Madison. I also doubt our concern for this small group explains much of our reaction.
I think that when it comes to cheating, there is a deeply engrained public mores: It’s not my place to tell.
We wouldn’t refrain from telling an animal-lover that her pet-sitting nephew was skipping visits, often leaving her cat hungry, or that she was being served food by her friend that wasn’t actually vegetarian. Why is cheating different? Because sex is private?
Using “privacy” as a reason not to protect or empower victims – this has bad results for women. Women have historically occupied the domestic, “private” sphere. Consider:
- It’s only relatively recently that we started to treat domestic violence as a public matter.
- Susan Okin (1999) pointed out that “multiculturalism” is often used to justify legal protections for domestic customs that subordinate women.
- Amartya Sen (1990) called our attention to thousands of little girls in India, starving because they are fed last, only after their brothers have had their fill. But we’d never legislate the order in which children get fed. That’s a private, domestic issue.
We still tend to treat sexual assault and sexual harassment as private. Women who talk about their victimhood in public are accused of gossiping, or of cruelly ruining a man’s reputation. When sexual wrongs are considered “too private” for public scrutiny, that privacy hurts women. And I worry that our particularly angry reaction to these hackers (versus other hackers) is one that stems from this attitude about the privacy of sexual wrongs.
The hacking of Ashley Madison was pretty clearly wrong. Among other things, the level of wrongdoing involved in cheating seems insufficient to justify the massive invasion of privacy here; the cheated-on spouses have been humiliated along with the cheaters; and, maybe most importantly, the hackers outed not only the cheaters, but many people who did nothing wrong. (E.g., the AM members who were in poly relationships, had certain arrangements with their partners, were just noodling around on the internet, or were momentarily tempted but thought better of it in the end.)
Probably the most interesting issue the hacking raises is the problem of moralistic pile-ons in the age of the internet. Even if the hacking had been justified, the subsequent outcry sounded to my ear a lot like crowing, i.e., loud, shrill, and generally unpleasant. I think about it like this: the concept of moral goodness or character contains the makings of a hierarchy, insofar as there are better or worse ways of acting and being, morally. This subsequently gives rise to a distinct hierarchy among people, with the moral saints at the top, and the Hitlers and Hannibals at the bottom. There is nothing troubling about the existence of this hierarchy in itself – it simply reflects moral reality, I would argue. But it does give rise to a troubling instance of a general psychological tendency, where people (usually unwittingly) try to boost their own position relative to other people. In this case, this often takes the form of assuming the moral high ground, and looking down on others loftily. The general tendency is a narcissistic one; so I call the specific tendency moral narcissism, to distinguish it.
I think there was a lot of moral narcissism on display in the aftermath of the hacking, where people tacitly tried to maintain or cultivate a sense of their own moral superiority by pouring scorn on those who got outed. Even if the substantive content of our moral criticisms is correct, we need to think hard about when and how to air them. Plausibly, we should often refrain from joining a pile-on when there’s already a critical mass (so to speak), or there’s otherwise little to be gained from doing so (allowing for our own legitimate need to air certain grievances). I also think we should be suspicious of our own motives in naming, shaming, and blaming. Are we doing this because we think it really needs doing? Or are we merely grandstanding? Even if we think that we’re doing the right thing, are we doing it for the right reasons, or out of a sense of petty malice (say)?
The obvious rub is that it’s hard to say any of this without committing the very sin I’ve just posited. So it seems like the challenge will be to somehow find ways to criticize other people in a humble rather than hectoring spirit – by acknowledging our own status as actual or potential sinners, or admitting that there but for the grace of good fortune go we. I know I’m not above gloating when people who did something which is ethically anathema to me get their comeuppance. But maybe I should try to be a bit more circumspect. Maybe we all should.
The Ashley Madison hack is a powerful event that has brought the ethics of obscurity to the front page. Obscurity, as Woodrow Hartzog and I have argued, refers to the ease or difficulty in obtaining and interpreting information. In this case, things are easy peasy. You don’t need even to look through a database to learn if someone has entered into the digital arena that’s built for cheating. Websites have been created to do frictionless detective work for us. And the media is rushing to bring these services to our attention.
On an individual level, folks will have lots of reasons for engaging in Little Brother style surveillance. Curiosity, concern, and schadenfreude are all motivators. Unfortunately, when individuals hurriedly pursue their own agendas, the big picture gets blurred: technology doesn’t diminish obscurity on its own; decisions made by policy makers and everyday citizens play an important role in obscurity erosion.
In this case, as with others like it, when folks collectively gravitate towards hacked material, a strong social signal is sent that perusing hacked data is acceptable practice; and this, in turn, incentivizes further hacking. After all, there’s little reason to bring hidden information to light if nobody wants to examine it.
Since obscurity protections give citizens the “breathing room” necessary for exercising critical faculties and developing subjectivity, we should be wary of shortsighted behavior that can compromise the long-term goals democracy should aspire to achieve and preserve.
Hacking was involved in this attack, but “hacking” does not encompass the moral terrain on which this action was taken—we should be calling this “the Ashley Madison doxxing.” Usually doxxing refers to the release of personal data on an already-identified person, such as the publication of the real name and address of a Twitter user, internet forum commenter, or already-real-named journalist or commentator. This is usually done in order to facilitate attaching physical-world consequences to online actions, by, for example, making a student’s racist tweets present to her school administrators, coach, and parents; by making an employee’s online harassment available to his employer; or by encouraging and facilitating offline harassment of feminist commentators through death threats and swattings (filing a false report in order to get a SWAT team to break into someone’s house and threaten them and their family with deadly force).
Doxxing is usually an individual attack, but it’s still the right way to think about the action taken here against the AM users. The point is to punish and deter actions deemed undesirable by linking online and offline information on those engaged in these actions in order to bring negative consequences upon them.
This kind of informational vigilantism should be of interest to us as philosophers because of what this tells us about identity, politics, community, and justice in our newly digital environment—and, of course, it should be of interest to us as ethicists as well. To get a sense of the range of decisions and consequences involved, consider one realistic but hypothetical example of a victim of the current doxxing: a user who signed up during a time of deep despair, who never had an affair, and who managed to repair her marriage—but who is outed as a user five years later before her spouse, children, and employer. Now consider also the great multitude of other things, besides adultery, which serve as supposed justification for vigilantism form any and all political positions. Most of us do not have as much to hide as those having extramarital affairs, but how are we to negotiate self-presentations between and among our constitutive communities when context collapse is not only threatened by accidental overlaps (e.g. running into a co-parishioner at the gay bar; Facebook friends in common with our new supervisor) but by purposeful politically-motivated attacks (e.g. doxxing a database from Planned Parenthood; a politician’s donor database; everyone involved in an anti-discrimination class action lawsuit; etc.)?
I’m sure the other contributors here will identify some of the other reasons, but this is one reason at least why we need to stop talking about whether the victims “had it coming” or “were asking for it” and start talking more about what we do with personal information about others, and whether we want our media and our individual choices to support the re-emergence of public shaming as social regulation.