The Ethics of Blackmail

(I couldn’t decide if this were a General Question or a Great Debate. On the one hand, it seems like it might have a simple and factual answer. On the other, it seems like it might entail a lot of philosophy. In the end, I flipped a coin. I hope I picked the right one!)

A friend on Facebook posted a question asking “What’s so wrong about blackmail?”. I’ve never actually thought about the question before, but it seemed like an interesting way to spend a work-free morning. Being the sort of person I am, I thought a quick Google search would turn up an answer; sadly, all I found were articles locked behind pay walls.

I ended up with the unsatisfying answer “I don’t know. Ethically, it seems like blackmail is a dick move and therefore not worth doing. But there are lots of dick moves which are legal. So why is blackmail special?” As a rule, I can’t be satisfied with answers that end with questions.

I’ve been reading this board for years and it’s become my go-to spot whenever I come across questions like this. But, I couldn’t find any threads that specifically talked about this subject (to be fair, that’s more an indication of my vBulletin search skills and less about what threads do or do not exist).

So I pose the question myself: what’s the ethical justification for making blackmail illegal?

For what it’s worth, my best guess goes along the lines of: “Imagine it’s not illegal. You’ll end up with professional blackmailers trying to learn everyone’s secrets. No one would have any privacy and you’d always have to look over your shoulder.” Is that all there is to it?

tl;dr: Why is blackmail illegal? Is it merely because a world where it’s legal is worse than one where it’s not, or are there subtle ethical reasons that I’m missing?

You shouldn’t threaten people to get them to give you money or do things for you. Ethically it’s less bad to threaten to expose someone’s secrets than it is to put a bullet in them, but it’s still a threat.

You’re making the mistake of assuming that ethics drive lawmaking. That being said, blackmail is certainly unethical.

The biggest problem I can think of is that the payment for the blackmail might be at the expense of someone other than the blackmailed. There are enough assholes in the world that are willing to screw over innocent bystanders to fix their own problems that it’s worth prohibiting something like blackmail, which doesn’t have any merits to justify its existence.

Wouldn’t it be easier to start with a basic understanding/statement of where you derive ethics your from? That is, are you starting from a relativist/utilitarian/non-consequentialist point of view? Not quite the same as asking what ethics in general are founded on, but it would make for an easier starting point.

I’m not sure of a mainstream philosophy/school that would consider such coerced acts to be moral. There are all sorts of fringe schools, of course, but most break down at the societal level or fall from internal inconsistencies. But rather than going through each possibility, can you give an idea of where your conversations have focused on before?

could you name some of these legal dick moves which are, in your opinion, on par with blackmail? this might give a better picture of where you’re coming from.

This is, I think, the main thing I was missing. The idea that blackmail involves a threat and isn’t just an odd type of business transaction.

Thanks for finding one of my many blindspots.

My starting point is really at the kindergarten level. My ethics pretty much derive from things my parents told me are good or bad. In my day-to-day life, that serves me well enough (at least, it has so far). But when trying to actually think things through? Not so much.

I am very much an intellectual light-weight. That’s really why I’m looking for help in the first place. (To be clear, it’s help in the sense of “I’ve found something I believe but I don’t have a good reason to believe it and I really like to have reasons for things.” and not at all help in the sense of “I’m thinking of blackmailing someone; pros or cons anyone?”. I already believe that blackmailing is ethically wrong. I just don’t know why I believe that. Which concerns me.)

I’m not really coming from anywhere. I was just trying to reason it out for entertainment purposes. But, I failed on my own, and turned to get some intellectual and philosophical aid. Thanks for the help, by the by.

I would imagine that part of the reason is that you don’t want to encourage people to hide illegal or immoral activities by making it profitable to do so.

I think you’ve answered your own question. You believe that because your parents and the law, both authority figures, have told you it’s wrong. That perfectly cromulent, working at Kohlberg’s Level 1 Pre-operational (parents) and Level 2 Operational (law enforcement) stages of moral development. Kohlberg wasn’t interested in moral absolutes, but he was very interested in WHY people chose their own moral absolutes. That is, there are no right or wrong answers, the researcher’s interest is in the reasons *why *a person chooses as s/he does.

My own reasons for deciding that blackmail is wrong certainly include yours, but I also view it from the Level 3 Post-operational stage of social contract (that is, if everyone does it, I wouldn’t like the result, so I think as a society we’ve agreed it’s a bad idea because our society works better that way) and universal principals, that is it’s generally wrong just because it’s wrong to cause needless suffering, but with the caveat that under certain circumstances I can’t envision at the moment, it may indeed be right - or perhaps just the lesser of two wrongs.

You want to know why it’s unethical? Because you wouldn’t want it done to you.

I wonder, though, if legal blackmail might cause a drop in events that cause the blackmail in the first place.

Like you performed that song, now pay me? Or if you infringe that patent I’ll sue you? Or if you break a tax law I’ll turn you in for a reward. Aren’t all of those threats?

Ethically, not turning someone in who broke the law in exchange for payment is wrong, because you are allowing them to escape the consequences in return for your own gain. Telling someone you want $100 or you will tell his wife he cheated is not ethically wrong, it is just behavior that will lose friends.

Obtaining information under false pretenses is illegal all by itself.

I don’t see the difference between these two situations. Either way you’re allowing the person to avoid the consequences. So if it’s illegal then it’s unethical? or is it just alright to cheat on your wife?

Contributing to, but not disagreeing with** WhyNot**:

Another take on the rule-based source of personal ethics is to examine the rule as if it’s coming from within. That is, if the source of these rules isn’t coming from outside (parents, Kim Jong Il, God, Judge Judy), it’s coming from your own internal deliberations.

The “rule” in this case could be formulated as: “do not blackmail people.” You can make it* much* more complicated very quickly (which is one reason why philosophy can be so much fun), but don’t sweat they myriad ancillary issues for now. Do return to them as you chew, but it’s okay to oversimplify for a spell. For now, just take the generic definition of blackmail and the conventional take on its execution.

Why make that rule?

Perhaps because you think it’s right tha* everyone should live under the same set of rules*. (Another fun path is to get caught up in a recursive cycle of asking why why why at each step. But that’s* almost *as annoying as getting bogged down in semantics. Both are important, but both tend to derail conversation into fruitless one-upmanship. Bah.)

What if the general rule for everyone was the opposite: “it’s okay to blackmail people”?

Do you care about general, societal-level happiness? Do you think that a good ethical system would maximize happiness among members of society? Should an ethical system produce the happiest possible society? Again, forgive me for not getting bogged down in justifying every single premise for the moment and hyper-defining terms and whatnot. Just use basic understanding will do for now. In other words, just take some premises as a given. For now, just call individual, overall, and cumulative happiness “utils.” That’s an abstract shorthand for increased utility—warm fuzzies, if you will. A cupcake gives you some utils, a cupcake with frosting gives you just a bit more utils, and so on.

There are many ways to compare utils (though all ultimately fall short because person-to-person util comparison isn’t quite possible. Who is to say that I get more utils from a cupcake with ball bearings on top than you do from watching Doctor Who episodes?), but for now just make up a mental spreadsheet.

Add up the utils in a blackmail situation: You have blackmailer, blackmailee, and blackmailee-revealee (the revealee is the person to whom the blackmailer is threatening to expose the blackmailee’s secrets too). Take the time to consider all angles and conditions; blackmailers getting utils from success, blackmailee’s loss of utils from the process, the payment, etc. The effect on the revealee’s psyche. All under the various situations and possible outcomes.

In addition to aggregating that, consider the wider effects on society. As** Czarcasm** mentioned, consider certain behavioral changes. Consider the type of society and the overall util-levels that would exist if it were ethically (and legally) acceptable to blackmail people. What would a society where blackmailing was a profession be like? How would it affect overall paranoia? How would it affect overall trust and relationships? There have been many societies in the post-war era (and before and after) that had a culture of informants—would it be anything similar?

And how would a universal rule that blackmailing is okay intersect with other societal rules? (This hints at backtracking a bit to earlier premises.) If blackmailing is okay, then does that mean that it’s also morally okay to enforce agreements and transactions conducted under coercion? How does that change the overall calculation of society’s utils?

By taking the time to play around with many different possible paths, by establishing premises* and then* looping back to revisit them with challenges and new ideas and direction based on thoughts from later considerations, you can come to a much more solid understanding of yourself, your outlook, and why your sense of intuition is crafted the way it is.

Note, of course, that this isn’t* the *answer to why blackmailing is wrong. In fact, depending on how things work out and how you perceive the calculations, it may not lead to that conclusion at all! It’s also just one hastily written stream-of-consciousness hodgepodge of ideas that is just a sliver of one possible approach. Had the coin come up tails (I’m looking at you, Guildenstern), this thought experiment may have gone the non-consequentialist route.

Whether someone cheats is between them and their spouse and I have no obligation to report it. If someone breaks the law I do have an obligation to report them.

I think we are confusing morals and ethics here. It is ethically OK to tell someone that their spouse is cheating, or to not tell them. Asking someone to pay you to stop you doing something that is ethically OK can not be unethical. It is, however, morally unacceptable.

How did David Letterman feel about being asked to pay money to keep secret his sleeping around with his staff? Oh yeah, he took the guy to court and the guy lost. I guess there is something illegal about that after all.

And come to think of it, is there a difference between blackmail and extortion?

I don’t think anyone is confused about that, blackmail is illegal. I believe blackmail is a form of extortion