Our Gossip Muddle

Julia Galef wonders if it is ethical to view a leaked sex tape:

A celebrity sex tape … was stolen (or hacked, I’m not sure) and leaked to the public. … I asked my friend if he feels any guilt about watching this tape, knowing that the woman didn’t want other people to see it. … My friend and I are both utilitarians. … We were concerned … with … does watching the tape harm the woman? As my friend emphasized, she’ll never know that he watched it. … Maybe it makes more sense to define “harming someone” to mean, “helping create a world which that person would not want to exist, given the option.” … My friend [said]: “The ‘harm’ is not in people watching the tape but in them thinking worse of her. Which I didn’t, so — no harm done.”… [But] maybe the woman would’ve been embarrassed even if she knew people weren’t judging her poorly for the tape. After all, a lot of people don’t like the idea of someone accidentally seeing them naked.

This is a great example of the modern world’s confused attitude toward gossip and information property. In ancient Rome, and medieval Europe, you could be sued just for saying something bad about someone, even if true. After all, such words hurt, and the law discourages hurt. Today we hold gossip in higher regard, and so often think it both legal and moral to say embarassing things about people.

Yet we call some truths “private,” so that it is illegal or immoral to discover them via certain means (such as hidden cameras). But many see little wrong in passing such private info along to others, as long as they were not the one who did the initial illicit discovery. However, if it is good that others learn of some info, why is it bad for someone to initially discover and spread it? And if it is bad to have people learn of some info, why not ban people from sharing it?

We moderns are stuck with quite conflicting ideals: in general creating and sharing information is a good thing, except not about certain “private” topics. Yet we have only the vaguest notions of how to characterize such best-kept-private info. We could very much use a sharper analysis of what info it is bad for folks to know.

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  • J-Pom

    In this case, I imagine the woman had an expectation that the initial actor would keep this embarrassing video private. She did not anticipate others to know about it so could not have expected these people to keep this info or image private. Everyone else was not involved in any sort of explicit or implicit contract to maintain her privacy.

  • Spying technology should not be considered immoral because of the “private” kind of information that it captures, but rather because it violates reasonable expectations about the use of the space in which it is deployed. For better and for worse, those expectations are about to change rapidly and permanently. Miniaturization and mass-production of sensor and storage technology will soon allow anyone to set up hidden audiovideo surveillance of almost any location to which they ever have physical access.

    If you don’t want certain information about you to spread, then don’t emit it.

    And if you don’t want an innovation of yours to spread, then don’t share it with anyone unless you’ve arranged enough bonding/insurance for the case of it escaping into the wild.

  • fructose

    Speaking of gossip, I recently got an e-mail from a Facebook group called “Truths About You”, which gets people to answer questions about you like “Is Amy too fat?”, “Do you think Amy is lazy?”, etc.

    You can then pay the company a certain amount to see what others said about you or answer questions to gain points. That isn’t blackmail, and I guess it might even be valuable to know what people said about you, perhaps thinking it was secret. But it still feels unethical to me.

  • rapscallion

    Does the golden rule help? You shouldn’t speak badly about others unless you would acknowledge that they’d be justified in speaking badly about you in a similar situation; you shouldn’t look at pictures of people without their clothes unless you’d be fine with people looking at you without your clothes…

  • Max

    Here is a possibility: what is “bad” is a single person knowing the private information. So a single person learning the private information (via a hidden camera) is bad but multiple people learning it (via gossip) is good.

    Unfortunately this explanation is contradicted by the fact that investigative journalists use of hidden cameras and other covert means of information discovery is not more likely to attract support from the population. The journalist is gathering the information only for publication and hence spread to many people, but as we see with the UK phone hacking scandal this is not seen as generally moral.

  • Gian

    “does watching the tape harm the woman?”

    One must also consider the possibility that watching such a tape hurts the watcher e.g. his sensitive feelings might get coarsened, his relations with the co-watcher (such as a wife) might get negatively affected, etc etc.

  • “In this case, I imagine the woman had an expectation that the initial actor would keep this embarrassing video private.”

    Not sure I agree with that statement. I’m pretty confident in this day and age the common expectation for anybody under 40 is anything that is recorded or given to a 2nd party will or might be released by them or even a 3rd party. Given this expectation, if she was embarrassed then she shouldn’t have engaged in the behavior and any harm from such was self-imposed.

    As somebody else comment, either here or over at VC (I think in reference to slutwalk), the law isn’t there to given you carte blanche from repercussions of immoral/antisocial but legal behavior.

  • Lord

    These are two different types of information. The first involves a violation of reasonable expectations of privacy. The second involves the exposure of that violation. Now those expectations may not be reasonable, they generally aren’t in the case of unethical or illegal behavior, but if reasonable, it is a violation. The exposure of that violation is not a violation but valuable information about the person who would do this and a warning to others about them. The information is not the private act which has already been disclosed but the violation of privacy.

  • Matt Knowles

    The most egregious example of this phenomenon (“the modern world’s confused attitude toward gossip and information property”) is the practice of banning certain information from being presented to a jury if it was obtained by proscribed means.

    When I’m able to maintain dispassionate reason, I tend to support the idea that the gathering of information that proved guilt in a criminal trial should be a viable defense against prosecution for violations of privacy/property laws, even if the violation is by an official, such as a police officer. In short, if the copy *knows* there’s proof behind the locked door, and he breaks in and finds that proof, not only should that proof be admissible, but the cop should be considered blameless. Of course, if no proof is found, then the cop should be punished just like a private citizen would.

    • I second that position. Rules of evidence really seem strange to me. If we don’t trust juries, why did we make to so central? Shouldn’t we be trying to find a better system than juries?

      • ” Shouldn’t we be trying to find a better system than juries?”

        I’m sure you know that there’s a lot of experiment with non-jury based judicial systems -even just within the US right now.

        My sense is that expert-based fact-finding and decision making systems are better than jury systems of nonexperts (which I think is essentially just a bad way to conduct a poll).

  • Psychohistorian

    The ability to sue people in ancient times probably had more to do with the powerful protecting their interests. The peasants and plebes didn’t end up in court a lot, at least not as plaintiffs, because law was really inhospitable to the lower classes, even more so than it is now.

    I totally need a forum in which to attack your general theory of blackmail; the comments section here seems inadequate. But I think the biggest problem with it is that you assume that legalizing blackmail would lead principally to the exposure of true information. This does not follow. There would be tremendous incentives to fake just enough evidence to survive a libel counter-suit. There would be a lot of incentive to “entrap” people.

    Furthermore, it would greatly corrode trust. I can tell close friends of mine about my social misdeeds both because I trust them and because there is no value to those secrets unless they simply wish to cause me harm. Legalize and essentially endorse blackmail, and that ceases to be the case. In short, people don’t want to live in a world where blackmail is lawful; I think that explains its prohibition. As well as, of course, the tendency of the law to protect the powerful.

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