Schadenfreude – the pleasure one takes at hearing about or seeing other people’s troubles – is not a viable standard for ethical evaluations, even when the people whose troubles we are rejoicing in are the absolute scum of the earth and deserve all the things, and even worse, that are happening to them. Feeling good about other people’s troubles, quite aside from indicating a rather profound flaw in one’s character (a flaw a great many of us suffer from), is logically – and therefore morally – vacuous; it is a form of the argumentum ad misericordiam, and therefore patently fallacious. But more than just the logical issues involved, I want to spend some time considering the ethical dimensions attached to schadenfreude, specifically as these relate to the recent Ashley Madison hack.
By now, I expect that most everyone knows that the Ashley Madison website is a “dating” site that markets itself to people who are looking to have an extra-marital affair. By now, I also expect that most everyone knows that the website was hacked, and their client list (with actual client names, not just pseudonyms) was published online. I’ll not link to either the site or to any of the news stories; anyone wishing to find such information can easily do so on their own. My concern here is with the ethical standing of the hack, and the logical standing of those who smugly approve of it.
Let me begin by noting my own reservations about monogamy as the standard and expected form for human sexual relations. For one thing, quite aside from the fact that we simply aren’t very good at maintaining such a standard, there is the uncertain connection between monogamy and propertarian approaches to relationships. The use of possessive pronouns to characterize relationships – my girl, my guy, etc. – are deeply suspicious choices, since these are the same terms with which people will refer to mere objects, such as my car, my book, and so on. Perhaps this is only reflective of the poverty of language, but even so, such impoverishment of expression invites and encourages impoverishment of thought.
So much of traditional marriage (in Europe, at least; I do not presume to speak for other cultures) was built around the idea of the woman as property and of (female) virginity as a necessity prior to marriage, all as a means of guaranteeing who the father of any babies was, and thus ensuring lines of property inheritance that would be unbroken by any interlopers. This focus on male property (the woman was part of the man’s property) rights is scarcely a matter of ancient history. In 1927, Judge Ben Lindsey had the unmitigated gall to argue that birth control should be legal within marriage, for those couples who wanted the companionship of marriage, but not the burden of children. Despite the legal decision of Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 which technically legalized birth control throughout the country for all adults, one would have to have spent the last few decades hiding under a very special sort of rock to be unaware of the fact, and the extent to which, these issues continue to be fought.
(The 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States technically granted the vote to all adult males born in the US, including those who were born of, or were themselves, former slaves. Yet is was over 90 years later before Federal law put in place the mechanisms needed to actually enforce this “technical” right. No doubt it is merely an ironic coincidence that same people fighting tooth, claw, and nail to eviscerate voting rights today are the same people who wish to return women to the status of chattel property … )
The above gloss is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of the issues relating to monogamy. However, perhaps it might suffice to suggest the possibility that self-righteousness directed toward a “dating” site dedicated to the idea of having an extra-marital affair is already on less than perfect ground. My main concern here is not with the ethical standing of the Ashley Madison site, but of the hacking of that site. The hack itself was, of course, blatantly illegal, which is why the perpetrators cower behind anonymity even as they pretend to be “heroes of the people;” but that is not my concern here, either – there have been far too many laws that were patently evil in both their intention and enforcement for mere legality to have any serious ethical standing. Rather, it is the vicious, self-righteous wholesale violation of the Ashley Madison clientele’s right to privacy that I wish to argue is not only wrong, but objectively immoral.
Let us quickly dispose of some common pieces of twaddle. First, there is the groundless claim that there is no right to privacy. Some people make this claim, appealing to the fact that there is no such right mentioned in the Constitution. Oddly enough, many of these people are the same ones who want to gut voting rights and reduce women back to their former status of chattel property. But, regardless, anyone capable of reading at even a remedial 6th grade level is capable of reading and understanding the 9th Amendment, which explicitly sets aside such “non-enumerated right” claims as having no legal standing. Secondly, we may dismiss any claim that appeals to some (or any) previously fixed and immutable notion of rights. No logical grounds can be offered for the blatantly (and superficially) metaphysical supposition that rights, if they exist, must exist in a fixed and unchangeable form from the beginning and source of all time and space.
Regardless of how or whether it is honored or respected, I submit that it is an objective fact that there is a right to privacy here and now. And the Ashley Madison hack was a gross and deliberate violation of that right by persons who value their self-righteousness over other’s very personhood. Because that is what the deliberate violation of another person’s rights is: a declaration that that person is not a person at all, but merely a thing to be used, abused, and disposed of in any manner one cares to.
Notice that the question of whether the Ashley Madison clientele are “good” people is not relevant here; it is not even possibly relevant. Rights are not the sorts of things that we condescend to “give” just and only to people whom we like; they are held by all persons on no other account than that they are persons. To be a good person is a thing we should all aim for, but it is in no way either sufficient or necessary that we be, or try to be, a good person to hold the rights that are intrinsic to all persons on no other ground than their personhood. To presume otherwise is itself one of the most singularly despicable positions a person might adopt; it is to say that personhood is a popularity contest, and the losers are mere things we get to disdain, disregard, and dismiss in any manner that tickles us (as long as “we” are among the popular “elect.”) We know, as a matter of empirical fact, what can happen when we casually depersonalize persons. Without resorting to any grossly “slippery slope” style of fallacy, it is none-the-less easy enough to recognize that such a line of “reasoning” points, at the very least, toward Auschwitz.
Rights were violated, without doubt. The implications and fall-out from this event will last a very long time. The challenges made in court will have far reaching implications for security and privacy at all levels of the Internet. People didn’t listen when the hacks were for financial gain… I bet they’re listening now. The field to be in now is IT security, collecting data is one thing but protecting it is an entirely different beast. Governments are less willing to protect it than to violate it. The government hack facilitated by AT&T is grossly worse than the AM hack and nobody seemed to pay much attention.
There is no reason that anyone should expect privacy on the Internet yet we should do all we can to protect just that.
Some day ‘password’ will no longer be a popularly used password. We already ensure that security professionals do not have a criminal background to get certified but it will take much more effort, more money, more inconvenience. It’s a new fact of life that all will have to get used to.
Gary Herstein said:
“There is no reason that anyone should expect privacy on the Internet yet we should do all we can to protect just that.” — I see that as something of the key idea here. Africans chained in the hold of a slave ship could not expect to be treated as human beings, yet protecting that right was, if anything, the one thing everyone should have been fighting to protect. It is a fight we still haven’t finished.
Thanks for your note!
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