Philosophers On The Ashley Madison Hack

Philosophers On The Ashley Madison Hack


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 Timesfor 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):

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)


Jason Brennan

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.


Jennifer Frey

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 it​s 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.


Jonathan Ichikawa

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.


Hallie Liberto

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.


Kate Manne

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.


Evan Selinger

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.


D.E. Wittkower

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.


Discussion welcome.

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Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

The hackers clearly put many lives in danger – particularly closeted folks who live in countries where homosexuality is illegal or scorned (but also many others we could be overlooking). To ignore this while focusing on the issue of breaking one’s promises is pretty much the definition of missing the broader point in favor of emphasizing one’s favorite pet philosophical issue. We don’t know how many lives they’ve put in danger, but it very well could run in the hundreds or thousands.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I agree with Matt. I find it extremely troubling that our colleagues couldn’t ferret out better analyses of the risks to many entirely innocent people (setting aside the moralism about cheating–wanting a discreet way to arrange hookups doesn’t entail that one is cheating, either), particularly queer people who live in deeply repressive societies.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook a few days ago. I think the Grindr analogy is extremely important.

“What if you have a hobby that you think is totally fine, but you want some privacy in which to engage it? What if you’re doing nothing wrong, nothing illegal, but a puritan moralistic society might condemn it if given the chance? …how would you feel now if we laugh so much for the Ashley Madison hack…how safe would you feel in continuing to engage in your hobby?

The Ashley Madison hack should be troubling. There are a lot of innocent people being punished. The site wasn’t JUST for cheating: it was for discreet hookups. I’ve already posted a story about how it was used by queer people, especially those who live in repressive societies and countries where gay sex is a crime punishable by death.

So: if you’ve been enjoying the schadenfreude of the AM hack…fuck you. You’re an asshole.

I mean, what if some anti-gay hackers went after Grindr and released all that info? It’s still FULLY legal in many states to fire someone for being gay. WHAT’s the difference between those two cases? Don’t tell me that ‘well cheating is wrong, being gay isn’t’ because that’s begging the question. It was the same “cheating is wrong” moral judgment that led the hackers to do what they did.”Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

Sure. But not one? I think that says something about us.

And I’ll echo Matt once more: “To ignore this while focusing on the issue of breaking one’s promises is pretty much the definition of missing the broader point in favor of emphasizing one’s favorite pet philosophical issue.”

EXACTLY. Today is not a good day for philosophy, if this point is entirely missed, and people focus on what seems largely irrelevant given the harm likely to come to many entirely innocent people.Report

D.E.
D.E.
Reply to  Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

FWIW, even though this was not the focus of my contribution, I had the considerations you raise very much in mind, and tried to respond to them both in the way that I imagined a victim of this attack, and imagined other forms of informational vigilantism.

Regardless of whether I managed to reflect these considerations in my contribution, thanks for bringing them in, and doing so in a clear and focused way!Report

Robert McG
Robert McG
Reply to  Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I think it’s difficult to judge the scope and use of a site which one has never been on, so I’ve done a bit of websearching where Ashley Madison is concerned though I might still be off on a few details. I think Grindr (which is explicitly targeted to gay men) might be a poor example for comparison however; while the site is 86% men, ‘males seeking males’ was actually the smallest demographic, nearly half of the rest were ‘women seeking women’ profiles (who again, it should be noted drawing on 14% of the site). In that sense, while this does endanger some gay men in countries where homosexuality is illegal, I would be focusing my concern on the women seeking men demographic in this regard. I have only read one story of someone damaged by the leaks so far and he was seeking asylum in the US; though I would be interested in reading your story as well. Even then however, it should be mentioned that an overwhelming majority of members were affluent men who would be more worried about divorce, damage to reputation and etc. than repercussions of that magnitude. I would contend that it is quite possible the Hackers acted with this majority in mind (keeping in mind that some ‘men seeking men’ and ‘women seeking women’ are likely safely in the West, choosing to have an affair with their spouse with someone who happens to be of the same gender as them) rather than realizing the repercussions they might have on what constitutes a fairly small minority of the user base. Further, I feel at least slightly uncomfortable at the prospect we allow the wealthy to act with complete impunity because even bringing their actions to light might potentially bring significant harm on a minority.

It seems almost akin to protecting a country club which systematically rejects female and minority members because they donate 5% of their income to supporting development in third-world nations. Certainly, the loss of this income could stall developments and thereby cause significant harm, but it seems a weak pretext to support a fundamentally corrupt institution on (Keep in mind, Ashley Madison’s motto is; “Life is short. Have an Affair.”).

Now the argument that cheating is morally wrong (or, “corrupt”) while being gay is not; I think Haille Liberto does much of the heavy lifting here for me though I might phrase it in less Kantian terms. If you are in an open marriage or are poly-amorous, I could see a parallel to Grindr, society frowns on these but I would not want to condemn these sorts of relationships in principle. It should be noted though that there are other websites which can be used in these situations which do not bill themselves specifically for affairs. Further, I think you are banking too much on good will to believe that this is more than a small minority on AM; most people who are there are deliberately misleading their spouses in a profound way and I don’t think Liberto is wrong in claiming that this undermines their consent within the relationship. For the vast majority of these users, Separation and/or Divorce are options. There may be some stigma attached with these, but I don’t think that’s unreasonable given that they would be breaking a rather serious contract and commitment. Afterwards, they would be free to pursue partners as they please without societal stigma; there is little sexual stigma on them dating members of the opposite sex. The stigma comes more from the choice to deceive their spouse than the choice to pursue a partner outside of the one they were married to. I think with AM it is particularly damaging that they choice to pursue their partner in a premeditated way; it is not the case that an affair blossomed with a friend/co-worker as an act of passion, which was then followed by deceit to protect themselves, but the members of the site made the sober choice to deceive in order to pursue the possibility of an affair.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
Reply to  Robert McG
6 years ago

I wasn’t focusing only on gay men. Grindr was just an important analogy. My criticism used “queer people,” which includes lesbian women.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
Reply to  Robert McG
6 years ago

I think it’s worth keeping in mind the massive numbers we’re talking about here. Suppose that 10% of users were not guilty of any significant moral wrongdoing. (My best guess is that this is a significant underestimation.) Suppose that 10% of those end up suffering significant harm. (Hard for me to guess on this one.) The ‘tiny minority’ of people we’re talking about here are 1% of 33 million customers constitute 330,000 people. That’s a lot of collateral damage!

(And of course, this is all setting aside the point I made in my contribution, according to which focus on the guilt or innocence of the victims misses the point.)Report

Robert McG
Robert McG
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

Now, we do need to get to the case of what constitutes significant harm; 330,000 is close to the entire number of Males seeking Males on the site. Further, about 30% of member emails are apparently invalid, presumably created by Spam bots. Most of those people will be in nations like American and Britain where being outed carries stigma but aren’t in danger of immediate harm. I won’t deny that there is definitely a demographic in danger because of this leak, but I would content it is far lower than 1%. Still, I do not want to justify this necessarily except that from the hacker’s perspective, this would constitute a very small minority that they might not have discovered through a pile of 33 million emails.

As to people who explored but never used the website, for instance; in this case, I believe many of those situations could undergo some damage control by showing their spouse that they never actually used the site. Indeed, most of the people checking the website will be those who already suspect their spouse of having an affair; if an otherwise loyal husband or wife signed onto the site but never used it, then there would not be much reason to search through.

Meanwhile, there is a significant amount of damage which cheating can do and I believe it is unfair to categorize it as though a victimless crime. I don’t think it is fair to treat the uncovering of such a large number of affairs and long record of deceit as something morally insignificant; the AM revelations might have brought about some good, allowing cheated on spouses to realize their situation and file for divorce taking on control of their own lives and perhaps allowing children to come into a more stable home environment. This isn’t necessarily equivalent to the potential danger of people using this app to keep their sexuality secret but I would argue that it is giving people a new lease on life. I would argue here that almost any action with information on this scale has the potential to harm some people; for instance, Snowden’s decision to reveal NSA surveillance might have damaged their ability to actually track some cells. However, the resulting damage from that has been fairly insignificant compared to the revelation there was such a wide surveillance program.Report

John T. Kennedy
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

Jonathan, you say it would be a lot of collateral damage if 10% of the users were innocent, but do you factor in the benefits of disclosure to those who were being cheated on, and the continued harm to them that would result from keeping the cheating private?

I think Hallie made a good case for the serious harm that was being done by denying the spouses of the cheaters the knowledge of where they really stood. Isn’t having sex with one’s spouse without informed consent a pretty serious wrong? Can we doubt that a lot of such harm was being inflicted on the spouses of AM clients?Report

joe
joe
Reply to  Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

“I agree with Matt. I find it extremely troubling that our colleagues couldn’t ferret out better analyses of the risks to many entirely innocent people (setting aside the moralism about cheating–wanting a discreet way to arrange hookups doesn’t entail that one is cheating, either), particularly queer people who live in deeply repressive societies.”

Rachel did you even read what they posted????

* “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.)”,
* “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. ”
* “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.”
* “nd, maybe most importantly, the hackers outed not only the cheaters, but many people who did nothing wrong”
*

“Today is not a good day for philosophy”

Oh god cry me a river.Report

gopher
gopher
6 years ago

“You are seated in a comfortable chair at a table with all of the other commentators. You have gathered to discuss an issue of mutual concern, and you are aiming to learn something from the conversation. Take off your shoes if you’d like. Wriggle your toes. Appreciate the wonders of everyday life in the twenty-first century. On the table in front of you is your favorite beverage. Through the window is your favorite view. And seated next to you is a child, who you brought with you for a lesson on how to discuss controversial issues with strangers. Are you imagining all of that? Okay, now…Report

Langdon
Langdon
6 years ago

This isn’t an exercise in identifying the greatest wrong or harm (for which I’m glad; such consequentialist endeavors are rarely edifying). So the charge that anyone is “missing the broader point” is entirely off base. The point is to discuss something that is philosophically interesting. Everyone has done that. The hyperbole on display here in the comments is sadly to be expected these days.Report

Jennifer Frey
Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I did talk about harms and I named them: suicide, extortion, loss of careers. I didn’t single out any group here because these harms will fall across groups.

I don’t understand why someone’s response would be to say “this is a bad day for philosophy.” If it’s a bad day for philosophy, that will be because this sort of breakdown of discourse occurs right out of the gates in a comment thread.

I have been off of philosophy blogs all summer. Now I remember why.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

You named harms only in relation to being outed as an adulterer, though. Indeed, the entire framing of your contribution was around adultery, thus ignoring the many ways in which people used AM in non-adulterous ways. My criticism isn’t that people didn’t talk about harms to those being outed: my criticism is that no one significantly mentioned the harms being done to *innocent* people not engaging in adultery via AM.Report

Randall
Randall
6 years ago

Some interesting posted responses. One thing that was not highlighted as much as it could have been was the intention of the hackers. They initially threatened to release the hacked data because they were concerned about the privacy policies of Ashley Madison—for example, Ashley Madison required their members to pay in order to have their information removed from their database, but even for those members who did pay, the information was not in fact securely deleted. (We can assume that the Ashley Madison security team knew that the information was not securely deleted, but this isn’t certain.)

Now, this certainly seems like extortion on the part of Ashley Madison: pay us money or we’ll keep your information and your profile. (Incidentally, I wonder how Brennan and Jaworski’s argument to the effect of there being no noxious markets handles extortionary financial exchanges.) Let’s suppose that that extortion was ethically suspect. Was it wrong of the hackers to threaten to release the data if Ashley Madison did not change their extortionary practices? Was it wrong of the hackers to actually release the data, given that Ashley Madison refused to give in to the hackers’ demands?

I’m not sure whether Ashley Madison or its members (or the families of the members) suffer more from the hack. (And, as has been pointed out by many commenters, the latter group is so diverse that it’s hard to determine the harm for each.) But to some degree, the members of Ashley Madison were collateral damage. They might not be totally blameless (though Ichikawa was right to point out the worries about victim-blaming), but I think that the moral status of the decisions by Impact Team are deserving of evaluation; I think that just focusing on the question of “how bad is it for the people whose information was released?” is missing something.

Thanks again for the responses; the “Philosophers On” series has been consistently interesting.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Randall
6 years ago

I do agree that the moral status of the decisions need some thinking through. For one, it seems that any activist group has a responsibility to think about the likely consequences of its decisions. I’ve been involved in plenty of groups that have direct action has a part of its mission/orientation. We’ve always taken it as a given that you talk about what will happen as a result of a direct action. The “Impact Team” appears to be ironically named, because it’s far from clear that they considered *at all* how their actions would impact various third parties.Report

Randall
Randall
Reply to  Matt Drabek
6 years ago

I think that Impact Team did consider how their actions would impact various third parties—they just thought that all *moral* responsibility for such impact would fall entirely on Ashley Madison/Avid Life Media, for not complying with their (in their minds morally praiseworthy) demands. (Or, at least, that’s what their initial hack statement suggested; I don’t know whether they actually believed it, or just thought it sounded like a good enough justification.)Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
Reply to  Randall
6 years ago

Ah. And you very well may be right about that. I did read some of their statements, and I found them to be a bit confusing. They had a lot to say about Ashley Madison’s (alleged, I suppose) retention of private info even after people have paid to delete it. But they occasionally took issue with Madison’s business model of profiting from adultery. I was never really able to figure out exactly how much the anti-adultery remarks were figuring into their moral calculus. Unlike the commentators in the original post, I think adultery is often overstated as a moral issue and that many cases of adultery are either morally irrelevant/neutral or not particularly problematic. And so I do not find “taking down the immoral Ashley Madison business” to be a particularly convincing consideration.

And so if the former (i.e., Madison’s practices concerning private info) were the main motivating factor, it’s really, really tough to see how one can push blame over to Madison for the impact on third parties. Now, if the latter (i.e., punishing adultery) were a major motivating factor, it’s a bit easier to see how one does that…but I think that punishing adultery is just a lousy motivation.Report

Randall
Randall
Reply to  Matt Drabek
6 years ago

Yeah, I agree with everything you write here. In fact, I don’t know whether Impact Team initially chose to hack Ashley Madison because they thought AM was a morally questionable company or whether they initially chose to hack AM because they could, and they justified their hack after the fact. Still, I think that Impact Team certainly made a big deal out of the fact that their hack was (in their eyes) right and good and morally justified because of some of AM’s questionable actions, including encouraging/profiting off adultery, and also including being exploitive with respect to their members. I don’t think they draw many fine distinctions there.

I think that the moral harms that stem from adultery specifically have probably been overblown in the discussion of this hack. (Though not, I think, by the commenters discussing it on this blog.) Insofar as the adultery is problematic, I think it is problematic insofar as it represents a willful violation of behavioral standards that one person led another to expect. (And, has been mentioned by many here, not every member of AM is guilty of that violation.) But Impact Team certainly used “you’re an adultery website!” along with the other justifications for their hack. Although I think that justification is uninteresting, I think that there are other justifications they tried to throw against the wall that are slightly more interesting to consider (though I agree with you that those justifications, interesting though they may be, don’t absolve Impact Team of the harms caused to the AM members).Report

D.E.
D.E.
Reply to  Randall
6 years ago

As to the intentions: it’s interesting to note that the hackers did not demand the shutdown of other properties of Avid Life Media—for example, their site for “cougars” or their site for gay men. But if the point is principled action against adultery and sex trafficking (two of their stated reasons), this doesn’t fit terribly well with the anti-extortion reason for the hack. But I guess they might be angry at the same people for more than one disparate reason, so I probably shouldn’t expect full consistency here anyhow.

Regarding collateral damage, the spouses and children of the victims should of course be primary considerations. As a secondary consideration, though: what effect will this have on the institution of marriage? I suspect that, if there is significant fallout with many respected people being outed as AM users, the hack may ultimately contribute to the normalization of adultery.Report

Randall
Randall
Reply to  D.E.
6 years ago

I think these are all good points. As far as I know, Impact Team didn’t compromise any of ALM’s other sites, so that might have weakened their position with respect to making demands. (I vaguely remember reading that Impact Team used ALM’s other sites as moral ammo for shutting down AM, but I don’t know if that is an accurate memory.)

I think there’s a common maneuver among hacktivists of claiming the moral high ground first, and then justifying all further actions on the basis of that. I think Team Impact did that also, to a large degree, and I agree that their justifications weren’t entirely consistent.

I’m more skeptical that the hack will contribute to the normalization of adultery. First, we have no idea how many members of AM—at least, the ones who correspond to real people—actually engaged in an affair through the site. But I don’t think that people are surprised by the numbers; I think people just enjoy the salaciousness of having names.Report

D.E.
D.E.
Reply to  Randall
6 years ago

Yeah, I could be totally wrong about contributing to normalization.

I read the initial statement as very judgmental about Ashley Madison and Established Men—which they described as “a prostitution/human trafficking website for rich men to pay for sex”—but value-neutral in the description of ALM’s other properties. I know this is basically beside the point (all the points, probably), but if anybody wants to read more of their initial statements, follow the link below. The screenshot in the middle includes the language I quoted.

http://krebsonsecurity.com/2015/07/online-cheating-site-ashleymadison-hacked/Report

Robert McG
Robert McG
Reply to  Randall
6 years ago

Hi Randall,

I was thinking the same thing in regards to the intentions of the hackers; though I suppose it is difficult to discern when they remain fairly anonymous.

However, I really disagree with Ichikawa’s use of the term “victim-blaming” for this situation. I think it is clear that in certain minority cases, there were people victimized; Closeted LGTBQ persons (particularly in repressive areas), Poly-amorous people and arguably those who went through the pains of a registration process but never actually acted on any of these affairs. In the former two categories, I think it would be possible for the member to show their spouse how they had participated on the site and allow them to judge. Poly-amorous people would likely suffer relatively little in so far as the claim is that they did not deceive their spouse and did nothing wrong. Certainly there are still cases where this could cause strain, but I think this at least shows that the members of these groups damaged by this are a fairly small minority. Further, as I wrote above; males seeking homosexual relationships are the smallest demographic on the site by a significant margin, followed afterwards by women seeking homosexual relationships. Here, I will not make any ends about it that the damage to these persons is unfortunate. I don’t think there are many blaming these demographics.

My main concern however is that the perspective immediately shifts to these minority demographics on the site as though they were the only ones who had something at stake. I don’t think it’s uncommon that when an institution that is corrupt collapses or an exploitative industry falls, the apologists are willing to point towards a handful of people who will inevitably suffer in the shift and use that to defend the institution in the first place. In this case, it is sometimes worth standing back and gaining perspective on who and what the site was designed for and the damage which was done to the people who were wounded by this site’s general business practice in the first place. In the case of a cheating spouses who were the target demographic of the site; are they victims or have they been caught victimizing their spouses? If we were to use Ichikawa’s example of rape/sexual assault on an intoxicated person, the argument strikes me as closer to those who would consider the Perpetrator as a “victim” because getting caught in the crime cost them their partner and career prospects because then simply performed an “actual or perceived wrongdoing” which caused us to “empathize less with them”. There is a fine line between “vigilante” actions which out harmless but stigmatized secrets and simply exposing (but not punishing) what constitutes a major breach of contract.

While I will contend that the AM hackers largely did the latter with their exposure of the members list, but there is certainly a group of members in the latter category, who will suffer because AM hackers did not siphon through and judge each individual AM member’s case (which I’d say is unrealistic to be fair to them). As such, while I don’t think that this action is above criticism, I can’t help but feel that those who condemn it outright are ignoring the significance of the main action in favour of focusing on a handful of cases.Report

Randall
Randall
Reply to  Robert McG
6 years ago

The cheating spouses can be both victimizers and victims. If A makes a promise to B and then breaks that promise, A is a victimizer. But if person C, observing that broken promise, decides to engage in vigilante justice against A (on B’s behalf, but without B’s consent or endorsement), we might well worry that C’s vigilante behavior towards A makes A a victim.

In this case, of course, the cheating spouse A victimized the spouse B (let’s say), and company C facilitated A’s victimizing, making C also a victimizer of B (again, let’s suppose). Now Hacktivist D is engaged in vigilante justice (let’s say) and ostensibly punishing C but is actually punishing A and C, all on behalf of B (maybe?). I think that makes A both victimizer and victim, and while I think that A is blameworthy for the victimizing, I think that does not automatically make any harm done to A by D morally permissible, even if that harm is somehow done on behalf of the victim.

Now, I have of course glossed over all those “let’s say” statements. Is D’s action actually vigilante justice, or is it merely publicizing a breach of contract? While my initial reaction is to call it vigilante justice, I really do see the force of the “just making information public” claim; since I haven’t thought much about that, I’d just say I’d have to think more. It does feel to me, though, that Impact Team was intending to punish AM and, by extension, the users of AM. If that reading of their intention is right (recognizing, as you say, that’s difficult to be confident about), then their intention is not merely publicizing information.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

I wonder if we’re ignoring some important considerations involved in this sort of issue. It seems to me, for example, that it’s not implausible that there is a general society-wide political interest in protecting the privacy of individuals in non-criminal sexual wrongdoing (like infidelity), whereas there is no society-wide political interest in protecting the privacy of non-criminal corporate wrongdoing (say, Apple or Amazon’s methods of production)—in fact, quite the opposite. This is not to deny that ”it’s not my place to tell” doesn’t cause problems in lots of areas and sometimes cover matters that should be made public. Rather, it’s just to say that there is a prima facie difference between things like exposing non-criminal corporate-wrongdoing and expositing non-criminal sexual wrongdoing like infidelity.

(Of course, this will depend on what sort of (sexual/corporate) things are non-criminal AND I’m not saying that these sort of considerations can’t be overruled.)Report

Langdon
Langdon
6 years ago

The label “innocent” has been used to describe some users of the site. Innocent of adultery, perhaps. But every user will be giving money to a business whose stated aim is to facilitate adultery. Given the availability of numerous other sites for hooking up in all sorts of ways, I don’t see how any user of this site can be seen as entirely innocent.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Langdon
6 years ago

Believe it or not, some (probably few) of us were simply curious about the site, not married, nor with any intention of hooking up with adulterous partnered people. I never paid for anything on the site, nor gave it my credit card information, and thought I had deleted a quite short-lived account.Report

Langdon
Langdon
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Fair enough. I didn’t have cases like this in mind so shouldn’t have made such a universal claim. The cases I had in mind were the one’s others were highlighting which involved people who were actually using the site to find people. I don’t see how anyone who gave money to the site hasn’t done something morally wrong.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I think what’s most interesting about both the overall tone of the OP (beginning with a libertarian, then with a majority, including the far from libertarian, basically agreeing) and of the comments is that it reveals the deep, ugly, truth of the contemporary political scene: so-called progressives are liberals in the pejorative sense: they care above all else about the freedom of privacy, property, and markets. The new internet left of ultra-identity politics is egalitarianism as capitalism, everyone’s equal to buy and sell themselves, and liberty is the absolute right over the commodity that is oneself.

As Marx put it: “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. “Report

Sarah
Sarah
6 years ago

Everyone is going after team impact, but did anyone read their statements? Avid media did not protect the privacy of their customers. They were charging people for the service of deleting all their data, but just took the money and did nothing. It seems to me the point of this hack was to expose the shitty business practices of avid life media, who was straight up stealing from people basically, and not taking adequate steps to protect peoples’ privacy. The cheaters having their info released was essentially collateral damage.Report

Randall
Randall
Reply to  Sarah
6 years ago

If Team Impact’s actual goal were simply to protect the data of the members of Ashley Madison, they went about achieving that goal in comically bad fashion. Moreover, calling the release of the information “collateral damage” does not in itself absolve Team Impact of wrong-doing.

Avid Life Media engaged in some morally questionable practices, among which were 1) not adequately protecting customer information from external hackers, 2) requiring customers to pay to have their information deleted, and 3) failing to actually delete information for people who do pay to do so. I think there isn’t much debate about whether those are bad things. (Perhaps someone thinks that customers should have no expectation of privacy, and so think that 1 is not all that bad. And perhaps someone thinks that there is a legitimate market to be had in requiring customers to pay to have information deleted. But those are both fringe positions, I would think.)

Since there isn’t debate about whether ALM was a bad company (they were), the questions then focus on the harder spots: did Impact Team do anything wrong, and did the members of AM do anything wrong? I think that’s why people are focusing on those questions, rather than on ALM/AM.Report

Randall
Randall
Reply to  Randall
6 years ago

Sarah, just to clarify, I know you didn’t write that Team Impact was trying to protect the members of Ashley Madison; you wrote that they were trying to expose Ashley Madison’s bad data practices. But I don’t know anyone who doubted that AM really was hacked in the way that Team Impact suggested, and even if people did doubt, Team Impact could easily prove how bad AM’s practices and prove they had access to all of that data without also releasing the entire database. Team Impact deliberately chose to handle things the way they did, and the moral implications are much more debate-worthy than AM’s business practices, I think.Report

D.E.
D.E.
Reply to  Sarah
6 years ago

I considered this as well—but then the point is what? That the business wronged its users by not protecting them? Then the doxxing further victimizes the victims on whose behalf the hack was supposedly done—and a select few victims doxxed would have shown AM’s poor data practices.

I wrote about this further in an article with Passcode, the cybersecurity blog of the Christian Science Monitor:

“While I’m not defending the group or perpetrator behind the Ashley Madison data breach, the company’s practice of only deleting customers’ most intimate data for a fee is strikingly similar to revenge porn. What’s more, Ashley Madison is able to protect its users from being exposed through the DMCA because it claims ownership over users’ photos and conversations in order to charge an extortion-like “administrative fee” for a full account delete.

“In both cases, and in the case of revenge porn as well, property rights determine whether or not intimate details of people’s lives can be published against their will.

“To protect people in a digital environment, we need to promote legislative approaches that recognize and respect conversations, sexting, and selfies not as objects but as human activities; as asynchronous and digitally transferrable moments of a person’s life, deserving of respect and care.”

I’ll try to put a link in:
http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Passcode/Passcode-Voices/2015/0721/Opinion-Ashley-Madison-hack-reveals-need-for-new-approach-to-guard-intimate-dataReport

Andrew Sepielli
6 years ago

Some quick thoughts: On the whole “why are they writing on this and not that?” business — I am, in fact, a consequentialist, but I agree that what Langdon’s calling “consequentialist endeavours” are, indeed, not always not most edifying. Perhaps those criticizing these writers might allow a distinction along these lines; to wit, between writing the most edifying piece one can, and writing a piece on the most important issue (which may not, of course, make any real impact at all on that issue).

For what it’s worth, I find it most interesting to think about this hack as an (unjustified) expression of (justified) frustration with the options liberalism allows us for dealing with these new social challenges brought about by technological advances. The folks at Ashley Madison seem to me to be doing something seriously wrong, at least prima facie. And yet the responses available to us as citizens in a “democracy” — to the AM people, to all of these “revenge porn” schmucks — are limited to such enticing options as cowering in fear, shaking our fists in anger, and twisting our own moral outlooks such as to preserve our “belief in a just world” (i.e. victim-blaming).Report

Optibloggist
Optibloggist
6 years ago

An aside in response to Jennifer Frey’s comment about philosophy blogs.

I know blogs have been really destructive and stressful in the past, but it’s nice to think we’re capable of having a productive and informal internet gathering of philosophers- even if we’re not all best friends with each other forever for life.

So thanks to you and everyone else who contributed to this post. I think this sort of collaborative exchange moves the philosophy internet culture from a destructive and unpleasant one to one that’s constructive and fun to be a part of.

And for the record, I have no idea who’s best friends with whom or anything like that. Also, for the record, I’m just lending support for everyone- not advice, as I don’t have any.

Okay, I’m sure this comment will get made fun of by someone somewhere. That’s fine. I admit, it *is* pretty dorky.

As you were People.Report

Kathryn
Kathryn
Reply to  Optibloggist
6 years ago

Sometimes I like to think about what would happen if everyone in the philosophical blogosphere got together around a campfire and sang Kumbaya. (I’m not making fun of your comment, I’m being serious and thereby demonstrating your comment, if it is dorky, is much less dorky than it could be.)Report

Roxanne
Roxanne
6 years ago

The hackers have done something very, very wrong — the massive actual and potential harms to those (innocent of morally wrong infidelity or not) included in the data dump and the people with whom they share their lives is obvious.

But, what if the hackers used the data in a way that avoids the concerns arising from concerns about publicity, innocence, and exploitation? Suppose that instead they analyzed the data to identify only those cases in which a married person used AM to actually have physical sex IRL with someone outside of marriage [I take it these would be the least controversial cases of wrong-doing, but not the only cases], and then offered the adulterer the opportunity to come clean with his/her partner prior to notifying the cheated-upon spouse of the infidelity with a simple: “Our data shows that your spouse has had physical sex IRL with someone outside of marriage. Please let us know if you would like the details.”

In such a case, would it be the hackers’ place to tell? While I have the same worries about silence and secrecy around sexual wrongs that Hallie Liberto brings to our attention, I think it would still be wrong for the hackers to expose the betrayers because many of the harms remain. Limiting the exposure to only the people in the marriage still puts the lives and mental health of the betrayer and betrayed and their kids at risk. How could anyone but perhaps a friend, family member, or therapist begin to be in a position to understand whether there would be a right time/place/manner/reason to expose infidelity?

Should the secrecy/silence/complicity in deception around sexual wrongs end? Yes, but not through irresponsible exposure by strangers.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

One interesting issue that wasn’t really touched on in any of these sets of comments concerns just why, and just when, cheating is wrong, or particularly wrong. I think we tend to oversimplify things in two directions: one error is to suppose that cheating means that the relationship was fundamentally flawed. A commenter above echoed the conventional wisdom that if someone wants to step out on a monogamous marriage, he or she should do the honest thing and get divorced first. But many people in happy marriages who love their partners cheat, and I don’t think that in all or even most such cases, it would have been better for them to separate.

Another error is to suppose that, even in relationships with serious problems, the cheater is always the villain of the piece. I’m pretty well convinced by Dan Savage’s arguments that there are cases where cheating is the least bad option available. (See e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/07/dan-savage-infidelity-is-_n_3404378.html )

I also found Ester Perel’s TED talk useful on this topic: http://www.ted.com/talks/esther_perel_rethinking_infidelity_a_talk_for_anyone_who_has_ever_lovedReport

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

If you wilfully withhold information from someone so that they will say “yes” to sex with you, when had they known the information they would have said “no”, seems increasingly morally dubious; some might say tantamount to rape. But when it is withholding information from someone so that they will say “yes” not just to sex with you, but a life with you, investing every element of their person and life, all of a sudden it becomes ok? Sex under false pretences wrong; a life under false pretences ok?Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

There are more kinds of cases than you’re thinking of. Here is one story that came to light to day with which I have considerably sympathy: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/08/24/email-ashley-madison-user/Report

Langdon
Langdon
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

I have considerable sympathy for her as well. And her actions are perfectly explicable. But neither of these things amount to justification or exculpation. She made a vow (in sickness or in health). She committed adultery against her spouse as he lie in bed dying of cancer.

I have performed many morally wrong acts in my life. Many are perfectly explicable, and reasonable and good people would, in many of these cases, show sympathy toward me. But that doesn’t make may acts something other than they are. And it doesn’t make them permissible or morally neutral.Report

Moralist
Moralist
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

I think Jonathan is right that it’s an error to think the cheater is always the villain and that it’s simplistic to think cheating is always wrong. Just one scenario for example, there are cases where marriages themselves are not consensual but coerced. I don’t think one needs to be deprived until death of consensual intimacy in order to honor a commitment one never actual made. If a relationship is abusive in this way, seeking divorce can be quite dangerous.

My partner, though, was diagnosed with cancer, too — and though that doesn’t mean that I understand what the married Ashley Madison user is, or was, going through (our situations are still very different) it does make me really uncomfortable with thinking that there’s enough in that letter to justify an affair. I feel terribly for her, to be sure. I think what she did was deeply understandable. I hate to think of what consequences her and her loved ones still have to face, and I wish none of it on them. But, despairing confrontations with mortality have made me realize all the more the significance of mutual respect, honesty, and sacrifice. I don’t know what kind of expectations her relationship involves, I don’t know how hurt her husband would be if he knew, but I’m inclined to think this may be a case of there being a large distance between what is understandable and what is okay.Report

Hallie Liberto
Hallie Liberto
6 years ago

In the original version of my comments, I added extensive qualifiers about the wrongs done by the hackers – in the form of unjustified harms and significant rights violations. Justin very wisely suggested that I remove that part because it was unrelated to the main point of my small-scope commentary. I resisted at first, precisely because I was worried about reactions like Rachel’s, but came to see that this wasn’t about me getting a chance to air my overall position on the case, this was about choosing a philosophically interesting and (hopefully) unique thing to contribute to a topic about which much has been said. I picked a small theme (what accounts for the difference between our reactions here and in other hacking/exposure cases), purposefully avoiding the more obvious moral issues – like the vast harms done to victims. To the extent I included these more obvious issues, they were edited out (with my permission – once I understood the role of the comments).
Of course there are ways in which the different and varied risks to AM victims are related to my post that are worth discussing. For instance, could the heightened risks, like violence to certain marginalized groups, as a result of exposure serve as a helpul, explanatory disanalogy between our reactions to this hacking case and the corporate hacking case? Very possibly. I’d be interested in knowing if Rachel thought this was a better general explanation than my explanation. I’d be interested in knowing if she’d think our reaction to the corporate hacking case would be much different if a small percentage of those harmed were also innocent. That would be a way to engage with my post critically – just the sort of discussion I hoped my post would inspire.Report

Hallie Liberto
Hallie Liberto
6 years ago

Roxanne – I think many similar things could be said in the corporate hacking case. Who could know when the right time is (for all parties involved) to expose the wrongs done by the members of the corporation? Those members also have families and children that will be devastated by their sullied reputations and business propects. Of course – these outings are all really problematic, for these and other reasons. My post was not any sort of attempt to justify either group of hackers (making me wish I hadn’t been convinced that my opening line “what follows is not a justification of the hackers” was unnecessary… Justin!)
Roxanne, the question I posed and tried to answer was just: why is our reaction in one case so different from the other?Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
Reply to  Hallie Liberto
6 years ago

Hallie, I’d be interested to hear more details in the hypothetical case of hackers exposing moral wrongs you’re thinking of. When I read your schematic description, it wasn’t obvious to me that I or most people would feel that differently about it. Maybe it’d help if you could spin out the kind of case you’re thinking of with a few more particulars.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Hallie Liberto
6 years ago

@Hallie Liberto: on reflection, I think my reaction is fairly similar in the two cases – or at least, it is when I fill in the details to get something properly analogous. (The below is thinking aloud, really.)

Most of the natural examples of corporate/government wrongdoing that naturally come to mind are (a) are illegal, or (b) dodge illegality through a loophole and would be illegal if more people knew about it, or (c) are only controversially legal and the revelation triggers a significant political movement to make them illegal (think of some of the US government’s intelligence-gathering). Adultery doesn’t fit in that category: it’s clearly, unambiguously, legal, and there is no constituency at all (in the US at any rate) for making it illegal.

And I don’t think this is a purely technical distinction. A liberal state draws a distinction between acts that many or most of its citizens disapprove of, and acts that the state deploys coercive power to prevent. When private actors decide to break the law themselves in order to enforce a moral principle that we as citizens haven’t chosen collectively to enforce, that feels like vigilanteism. There probably are extreme cases where vigilanteism is justified, but this doesn’t seem anything like extreme enough.Report

G
G
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

@ David Wallace: A minor point, but: Adultery is definitely illegal if one happens to be in the US military and subject to the Universal Code of Military Justice: “M a x i m u m p u n i s h m e n t . Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 1 year.” (Paragraph 62 of Article 134, http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/mcm.pdf). From what I understand, plenty of emails in the list were military emails. (To which I say, “Really guys? Gmail is free.”)

(Not intended to indicate disagreement. I agree with the larger point.)Report

G
G
Reply to  G
6 years ago

Out of curiosity, I checked into the legality of adultery using (the obviously infallible) Wikipedia:
“Adultery remains a criminal offense in 21 states, although prosecutions are rare.[145][146] Massachusetts, Idaho, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Wisconsin consider adultery a felony, while in the other states it is a misdemeanor. It is a Class B misdemeanor in New York[147] and Utah, and a Class I felony in Wisconsin.[148] Penalties vary from a $10 fine (Maryland)[149] to four years in prison (Michigan).[150] In South Carolina, the fine for adultery is up to $500 and/or imprisonment for no more than one year [South Carolina code 16-15-60], and South Carolina divorce laws deny alimony to the adulterous spouse.[151][152][153]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adultery#United_States – there’s more there for those interested.)

It’s easy to forget that we’re still Puritans. It *should* be clearly, unambiguously, legal. Sex between adults (who are capable of consent) should always be legal. Gender, race, class, religion, number of individuals, and, yes, even marital status, should all be irrelevant (legally-speaking). But, technically, that’s not the way it is.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  G
6 years ago

Wow. Once again I get into trouble by assuming things true in European democracies are true in the US.

I *hope* I’m right that it is de facto legal and that these are statutes still sitting on the books well after they stopped being enforced, in which case I think my point mostly still goes through. But at this point nothing would surprise me!Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  G
6 years ago

This doesn’t make sense to me. Infidelity involves breaking a formal, state-sanctioned and supported contract. There’s nothing intrinsically “Puritanical” about treating that as a criminal offense. No more than if a friend and I make a big public spectacle about signing a state-sanctioned and supported contract that neither of us will eat shellfish, it would “Puritanical” to make breaking a state-sanctioned-no-shellfish contract illegal.

If you want to treat breaking the contract as trivial, why make the whole freaking institution and all the cultural baggage and hooplah surrounding it so non-trivial? Why the pomp and circumstance. You can’t have your wedding cake and eat it too. Either you want this contract to be a big deal or you don’t.

I think what’s more Puritanical is the modern moralistic imperative to righteously reject any moral value or view simply because it’s old. “Nous autres Victoriens,” someone said, referring to the self-annointed sexual “liberators” of the 60s.Report

G
G
Reply to  G
6 years ago

@Anon “You can’t have your wedding cake and eat it too. Either you want this contract to be a big deal or you don’t.”
…I don’t.

Wallace “I *hope* I’m right that it is de facto legal and that these are statutes still sitting on the books well after they stopped being enforced”
Oh, I think you are right about that. Even the members of the military are apparently off the hook: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/25/pentagon-gives-free-pass-to-ashley-madison-cheaters.htmlReport

Zara
Zara
Reply to  G
6 years ago

In reply to Anon: breaking a formal, state-sanctioned and supported contract is usually not illegal — at least not criminal — though it can have ramifications in civil courts. Imagine a plumber breaking a contract to fix someone’s plumbing, for this much money at this time in this place. I don’t think that this should be illegal, though it might reasonably be grounds for a suit. Googling around a bit reveals that, in North Carolina, you can still sue your spouse’s partner in adultery for criminal conversation and alienation of affection. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criminal_conversation)Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  G
6 years ago

Zara, the question isn’t whether it’s usually legal, but whether there’s something fundamentally wrong or Puritanical about making it so, as G claimed. Breaking a contract may not always be illegal, but it’s not inherently outrageous that it’s sometimes so.

G, you say you don’t want the contract to be a big deal. Then don’t get married. Keep the contract between you an your SO, and leave the state out of it. But if you decide to get married, and you ask the state to officially recognize it, and you expect and enjoy the economic benefits that come from the citizenry financially rewarding your sex life, you’ve made it into a big deal.

That’s the funny thing about contracts: they involve more than just you, and the other people involved–in this case, both the spouse and the state and, consequently, the taxpayers–get to have a say.

This thread’s weird “respect the sacred privacy of my socially-funded, state-sanctioned sexual contracts” argument is starting to sound like conservatives’ “Get the government out of my medicare!”Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
Reply to  G
6 years ago

All this talk of ‘contracts’, of course, raises important questions about just what is given as part of the contract. My marriage contract, for example, said nothing whatsoever about monogamy. This isn’t because I’m in an open nonmonogamous relationship (I am)—it was the default boilerplate civil marriage contract in the United Kingdom. I don’t know whether other people’s marriage contracts promise monogamy, but not all do.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  G
6 years ago

Jonathan, surely you acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of people believe marriage to be a promise of fidelity, for the very good reason that in practice it is treated as such.

So, in the absence of any explicit explanation or discussion to the contrary, to marry someone is to allow them to believe they are receiving a formal promise of fidelity. To enter into marriage assuming one’s partner was deceived about that would be a kind of deception by omission, and a sever one at that, since it makes the partner’s entire marriage built on an intentional misunderstanding!

That you seem to suggest someone could be morally justified in having sex with other people on those grounds boggles my mind!

“Sorry, it’s not my problem that you didn’t read the fine print, baby” is the reasoning of a car salesman or an oil executive.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
Reply to  G
6 years ago

In response to Anon: If I’m correctly following the dialectic of this particular rabbit-hole, we’re currently considering whether the illegality of a particular immoral action plays important roles in how we should feel about exposing it, including considering whether violations of contracts were in the relevant sense illegal. So the ‘fine print’ is very relevant for that question. I do not think that this is an argument for the moral permissibility of adultery.Report

G
G
Reply to  G
6 years ago

I’m not sure, Anon, why you keep addressing me like I’ve said I want to get married (and make a big deal out of it, no less). I’m ambivalent.

The contents of any particular marriage contract are not the given you seem to take them to be, though your next response seemed to abandon legality altogether anyway and go over to moral justification. First the question was “whether there’s something fundamentally wrong or Puritanical about making it so, as G claimed. Breaking a contract may not always be illegal, but it’s not inherently outrageous that it’s sometimes so.” We seem to have strayed from that.

1. I would not say that it was puritanical to punish failure to uphold a contract. This is largely irrelevant because…

2. Marriage contracts don’t necessarily have anything to say about adultery.

3. To jump from a sinking point about contracts to an accusation that someone else believes a person “could be morally justified in having sex with other people” they’ve intentionally misled is odd. Why are these other people assumed to have been misled? Don’t people have conversations before getting married? They should, because some people think kissing is cheating – others don’t. Some people think emotional cheating is as bad as physical cheating – others don’t. Some people think looking at porn is cheating – others don’t. It’s an important conversation to have, generally long before any talk of marriage.

4. Thinking that the state should give certain benefits to monogamous married couples but punish married people who have sex with more than one person does indeed seem puritanical. It’s sex-based decision-making, with rewards for the pure. There are plenty of “sinning” taxpayers out there, too, who might not be so thrilled about supporting extra benefits for people who may lack a certain extra joie de vivre. (Many of the sinning taxpayers have been shown to be elected government officials.)

Back to the original point, about the legality of adultery, neither sex between consenting adults nor hurting feelings at the end of a relationship should be illegal. Hurting someone’s feelings by having sex with other people should also not be illegal, wrong as it may be.Report

Roxanne
Roxanne
Reply to  Hallie Liberto
6 years ago

Here are some cases that might be useful in exploring the question and some quick reflections:

• A mattress company knowingly sells used mattresses as new
• Dr. Cecil Jacobson and his practice of deceptive artificial insemination
• Anthony Weiner and sexting outside of marriage while being a married politician

In all of these cases (the most troubling being the last IMO), arguably the public has a legitimate interest in the information. Of course, I can make up thought experiments for each case in which it is worse to expose the wrongdoing than to stay silent. In general, though, yes people uninvolved in the personal lives of the exposed wrongdoers DO have legitimate interests in access to some specific information about the wrongdoing and the wrongdoers. The specific information about individuals/companies involved may very well affect the choices people make in meaningful ways – where to shop, what precautions to take with respect to ART, for whom to vote — in ways grounded in concerns about autonomy that have nothing to do with objectionable moralizing.

But, the public does not have a legitimate interest in (1) the names and addresses of people who unknowingly purchased used mattresses, (2) a list of all women treated at Jacobson’s clinic nor the shorter list of those who bore his biological children because of his deceit, or (3) the FaceBook profiles and phone numbers of the people with whom Weiner was sexting.

The AM data dump exposes those who commit infidelity to public scrutiny even when the public has no clear legitimate use for the information concerning the wrongdoing. Moreover, it also exposes to the same scrutiny those innocent of any sexual wrongdoing appearing in the data, and, by easy association, the families of those exposed.

The hackers might reply that they used the data to shut down the website, which is in the public interest. But here, the exploitation of people to achieve the stated end strikes me as obviously impermissible. If the target really is AM, then the collateral damage to all those affected by the data dump is just too great. Perhaps a too quick comparison… but to me it seems akin to compiling a directory of all the young women in the GGW videos in order to stop the production of GGW videos.

Or, the hackers might contend that the data dump is relevant to those uninvolved in the personal lives of those exposed. Well, how? Unfortunately, as many have correctly noted, some of those who would find the data relevant would use it to wrongly prosecute and /or persecute people already marginalized and oppressed due to their sexuality. Such harms provide very strong reasons against the data dump. But let’s set such concerns to the side for a moment. Suppose the idea is this: The data dump helps people understand (1) the risks to the health of society due to harmful institutions on the internet, like AM, and (2) the prevalence of infidelity. Both kinds of understanding are relevant to making good decisions about our society and personal relationships. Yes, well, OK. But such reasoning does not require information about particular individuals to be shared — analyses of the data that do not allow for the identification of particular individuals could serve the same purpose.

Hallie, I really appreciated your piece; I was frankly relieved to see it. Effectively maintaining the status quo of secrecy, silencing, and shame around sexual wrongdoing “because: Privacy” doesn’t work for me. I remember when spousal abuse and incest were considered private family matters (moreso than today). It is a very important question to ask what is different about exposing sexual wrongdoing so that we can look to see how to expose it in the right way. To that question, I have no answer, but thanks for asking. And I hope what I’ve written somehow gets us away from “because:Privacy” rather than reiterating it, though I can see why one might question whether I’ve succeeded.

[Disclaimer: apologies for points covered and perhaps made in better ways or clearly undercut in other posts, I’ve not read all the new posts since I saw yours.]

[P.S. Perhaps unrelatedly, FWIW, the question of whether infidelity is legal or not seems to me to be a red herring.]Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Roxanne
6 years ago

“[P.S. Perhaps unrelatedly, FWIW, the question of whether infidelity is legal or not seems to me to be a red herring.]”

Well, I brought it up, but I made a specific case for why I thought it was relevant; if you think that case is wrong, I’d be interested in the argument.Report

Yolando Moreal
Yolando Moreal
6 years ago

I cannot believe the level of liberalism and acceptance of promiscuity (by action or intention without action) over privacy violations (which they were) in philosophy; I thought it was bad, but not to this extent. Brennan made the most sense and perhaps the only; as for the others, I agree, we shouldn’t be shaming, as we are all transgressors of law and morality. However, the ‘point’ is missed. What should have been of philosophical import is the dire state in which our society, among others, is in: the lust and sexual impurity with which we as a society tolerate from Hollywood to websites as AM is disgraceful and ought to be reversed to a state in which all share responsibility in contractual violations and in a moral ill (namely, adultery), which effects emotionally and physically the lives of a large number of societal members (e.g., the wife or husband, children, family, friends, community, nation, etc. of the cheating spouses). It is time to purify our hearts, where it is most sickly.Report

Sarah
Sarah
6 years ago

Profiting from immorality?? Gospel of adultery?? These people aren’t philosophers; they’re moralists. And the self-righteous hackers, self-proclaimed judges of the world! We will expose you! The age of shame and condemnation… Ah, Rousseauvian transparency at its worst.Report

Jasper Q. Pedant.
Jasper Q. Pedant.
6 years ago

I too am a bit blown over by the moralizing in especially Liberto’s remarks but also elsewhere. The harm of say spousal abuse occupies a different legal and ethical register from infidelity, as others here have noted. Moreover, it is historically inaccurate to say that arguments based on the privacy of sexual conduct “harm women.” See for example Roe vs. Wade and Griswald v. Connecticut.

Here, Glenn Greenwald is the best philosopher among us: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/08/20/puritanical-glee-ashley-madison-hack/Report

adam
adam
6 years ago

Did anyone point out that the problems at Ashley Maddison are fundamentally problems of institutional design? A digital institution that is predicated on cheating or encouraging cheating, as a way of growing, may be inherently vulnerable to this kind of hacking; not so much because an aggrieved victim decides to ‘out’ the members of Ashley Madison, and its shoddy practices, but because a site that encourages cheating may be built by folk who, when they design and build a digital system, are not too concerned about security and confidentiality. One of the things that most intrigues me about digital institutions (and we have a few) is that they increasingly appear to have a highly specific moral character, all of their own. Uber works by exploiting both sides of a demand curve, but gets ethically unstuck when it tries to ‘fix’ the demand curves, or mess with the demand curves of its competitors. Facebook promises connections and friendships, but shoots itself in the foot when it discloses stuff that was not meant to be public. Reddit promotes free speech, but runs into problems when it attracts and profits by the ‘appalling’ speech that perhaps should never be thought or spoken. Digital institutions appear to drive themselves to their own moral destiny, in a way which is rather unprecedented.Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

I may be missing something in the earlier exchanges, but I see no deep tension between the following list of claims, each of which I think I’d commit to:

1. The hackers have committed several harms, the most significant of which is outing people who were using the AM site as the safest way to have homosexual relations in places where they had few if any other options, and who may now face retaliation, including death.
2. The AM site committed several harms, including failing to secure private information, which they were paid to do.
3. Many, if not most, of the users of the AM site likely committed several harms, primarily to their spouse, assuming they were not in an open relationship and they actually used the site to engage in adultery.

Some of these harms, especially in 3, might be outweighed by other moral considerations. But is it really moralizing (in the bad sense of that term) to say that adultery is often (or prima facie) morally wrong?Report

Jasper Q. Pedant.
Jasper Q. Pedant.
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

No, it is not moralizing to say that dishonesty or deception in sexual relations is often wrong. It is moralizing to say that the harm is a concern for public scrutiny.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Jasper Q. Pedant,

Maybe, but why specifically? Perhaps it would help if someone would suggest a rough definition for “moralizing in the bad sense.”

My own sense is:
1. Morally criticizing without sufficient reason, where sufficient reason is the likely hood of actually affecting positive moral change. So: to moralize in a trivial, because ineffective, way. For example, in cases where moral persuasion is unlikely to produce change, just make people feel bad, or in cases where there is severe enough disagreement that moral criticism isn’t going to persuade.
2. Morally criticizing for primarily non-moral reasons, such as moral criticism motivated by a desire to make myself look comparatively better.
3. In practice, of course, it usually means: “you’re morally criticizing things I like, while I’m morally criticizing the right things.”

To my mind, wringing hands about hacking is bad-moralizing in the sense of 1, since hackers aren’t particularly responsive to social disapproval.

To my mind, the entire thread is bad-moralizing in the sense of 2, since people are at pains to show how their moral views are the opposite of the general public’s “bad” response, presenting themselves as the heroic cry in the wilderness for rationality and moral truth.

To my mind, to emphasize the real, serious harms of infidelity, and even the outing cheaters, is not *obviously* moralizing in either sense, though the case could of course be made.Report

Unemployedphil
Unemployedphil
6 years ago

Hi philosophers,
My first reaction to some of the contributions was similar to Rachel McKinnon and Matt Drabek (et al) in the comments. But to stay positive, I would like to thank contributors such as Jonathan Ichikawa (as well as those in the comments who pointed out similar important nuances) for the empathetic posts which were also informed enough to acknowledge special and usually vulnerable groups of users on such sites e.g., “Some were in ethical open relationships; some were closeted LGBTQ people who needed discretion.” It is important to keep in mind that not every user on AM is properly described as an “adulterer” or “promise-breaker,” and to characterize the users as such, without qualification, blunts our empathy and certainly increases the likelihood at which people will start to blame the victims.

(Oh, btw, I love this series of posts on Dailynous and hope it continues!)Report

Russell Blackford
6 years ago

For those who haven’t seen it, I wrote about this over at Cogito a few days ago: https://theconversation.com/a-tale-of-vigilante-justice-adulterers-hackers-and-the-ashley-madison-affair-46511Report

YL
YL
6 years ago

It turns out that almost all female accounts on that site were fake: http://gizmodo.com/almost-none-of-the-women-in-the-ashley-madison-database-1725558944Report