Analyzing Blackmail Being Illegal (Hanson and Mowshowitz related)

post by curi · 2020-08-20T18:56:19.087Z · LW · GW · 4 comments


  Thoughts Before Reading More of the Post
  Thoughts After Reading the Rest of the Post

Highlights from the Blackmail Debate (Robin Hanson vs Zvi Mowshowitz) [LW · GW] by Ben Pace:

Here's my overview of their positions.

  • Zvi thinks that blackmail would incentivize a whole host of terrible actions, such as trying to trick people into norm violation, and people becoming intensely secretive even around their closest friends and family.
  • Robin thinks that blackmail is a weird rule, where you cannot ask for money to keep a secret, but the other person is allowed to offer it (e.g. people can offer you money if you sign an NDAs). This makes no sense and Robin is looking for any clear reason why making one side of this deal should be illegal.

Thoughts Before Reading More of the Post

there are practical problems. e.g. blackmailers may make additional demands later, and it’s hard to hold them to the original deal b/c if you bring up the deal for enforcement then your secret comes out

and ppl actively trying to get blackmail material is a problem, as Zvi says

NDAs are done preemptively which is different. you ask someone to agree to keep X secret as a condition of sharing X with him.

blackmail is someone who already knows X in advance and is now negotiating for potential secrecy.

NDAs are commonly signed with no payment, or at least no direct payment for them (required with employment)

ppl sign NDAs b/c they want access to the info b/c they have an actual productive purpose for using that info themselves – often a business purpose like providing consulting advice about it or developing software related to it.

blackmailers commonly have no productive uses of the info. their choices are roughly do nothing or hurt someone.

in cases where the blackmailer got the info legally and it isn’t e.g. copyrighted, and he isn’t lying (no fraud), it’s unclear where the initiation of force is if he shares it with the world. and if that’s not force, it’s hard to see how offering not to do it for money would be force.

it’s easy to see why this sort of thing is bad for society, at least in the sorts of scenarios typically associated with blackmail.

let’s consider an example. i see you in public with a woman. you kiss. i know you’re married. i don’t take any photos. i just witness it and then tell you that i’m going to (accurately and honestly) tell your wife unless you pay me $1000. if you pay once, i contractually agree to never use this again, even if I see you with that woman again. (i can ask for more money if i catch you with a different woman, though.)

i tried to keep it simple by having everything occur in public and avoiding photos/recordings. and i wouldn’t exaggerate to your wife, and you don’t think i would, so there isn’t an issue of fraud (tricking her, or you getting the impression that i’m threatening to say anything untrue or misleading to her).

damages ought to be big – much more than $1000 – if i tell your wife anyway or carelessly tell other people who spread the news. this can be a practical problem if i’m not wealthy enough to recover significant damages from. blackmailers are often hard to sue if they break contract. but in terms of principles, the contract excludes asking for additional payments or screwing you over anyway, and if i do that i’m now clearly guilty of initiating force.

why is this such a problem? because you’re doing something you don’t want your wife to know about. you’re lying to your wife and you want to get away with it. maybe we should blame you for the problematic situation, not me. if i keep my mouth shut, we still don’t get an OK situation. getting a good situation requires you changing your actions.

i think that’s a known idea. roughly: don’t do stuff that you could be blackmailed for.

in other words, if it’s worth $10,000 to you for no one to know you’re cheating on your wife, then don’t kiss other women in public, unless you don’t mind paying. (and if 50 people see you, and realize what’s going on, then you’re not going to be able to pay enough money to them all while staying under the limit of what the secret is worth to you; you’ll just have to accept you’re caught).

what’s hard about avoiding blackmailable actions?

there are lots of reasonable choices which society disapproves of. desire for privacy is often ok. this can happen even if you don’t lie to anyone. a simple example is you’re gay and don’t want people to know, though that generally involves some lying.

some things look bad but are ok if explained. but if the public is told, you won’t get a chance to immediately explain to everyone as soon as they get the info. e.g. maybe there is a photo of you with a young child. people might believe you’re a pedophile when actually you’re volunteering for the Big Brother charity. the photo is misleading because you were roleplaying an abduction scenario to help educate him. the photographer doesn’t even known, but instead of telling the public he goes to ask you for money … wait that’s not ok, he shouldn’t be asking for money to help cover up what he believes to be a crime. so let’s make the scenario milder, you’re just hugging him … well either that’s innocent or evidence of a crime so from either pov he shouldn’t be asking you for money (either he thinks it was fine so what is his threat exactly … to mislead the public? – or he thinks it suggests a crime so he shouldn’t cover it up).

There’s no positive duty to report crimes, but getting into a financial relationship to hide a crime (or what you think may be a crime) sounds rightly illegal. That’s like being hired by the criminal as a sort of accomplice. Note: It’s still bad if you’re paid with favors (services) instead of money.

OK so I want a scenario where it’s merely embarrassing, so being paid to help you hide it is ok. And the person being blackmailed hasn’t lied to anyone or done anything that’s actually bad. So I misjudge you as being a friend and tell you about my BDSM sex with my wife which I don’t want the public to know about. I didn’t think you were contractually bound not to tell; I just thought you were nice. I haven’t lied to the public about my sex life; I’ve just kept it private.

So you say you’ll post it on your blog unless I give you $100. You’d be doing this for the sole purpose of hurting me. But it seems to be within your rights to post it. And if it is, what’s wrong with offering a trade where you don’t do it in exchange for $100?

Normally trade is value for value. It’s supposed to be mutual benefit. Refraining from hurting me isn’t a service in the usual sense.

We could try to compare it to: I offer my neighbors $100 not to play music this weekend (it’s fine with headphones, I just don’t want my party disrupted). So now i’m paying for them not to do something. Why? Well they often play music with speakers. It’s something they gain value from. I want them to give it up so I compensate them.

We can imagine the reverse scenario in two ways. First, the neighbors come to me and say “I heard you have a party this weekend. We know our music often annoys you. We’ll be quiet all weekend for $100 if you want. Otherwise we’ll act normally.” Now compare this to scenario 2: The neighbors are normally quiet, hear about the party, and come say they will be louder than usual, just to disrupt your party, unless you pay $100 for quiet.

I think this is important. Paying someone to change their usual behavior and refrain from something is fine. The source of that behavior was to live their own life, not to hurt you. But if they are threatening to do a behavior for the purpose of hurting you, not to improve their own life, then something bad is going on. This is kinda hard for law to deal with though – it’s hard for courts to judge they aren’t playing loud music as a new hobby or whatever – though it becomes easier to judge if they approach you with the threat to play loud music unless you pay.

The purpose of political rights is to enable you to live your own life and have a good life. It’s not intended to give you any right to hurt others for no benefit to yourself (or to threaten to do that in order to demand money).

So I should reexamine first principles. Basically I have a right to control my body and, by extension, my property. I have freedom to live my life. But I don’t get to interfere with others. Interfering with other people’s body or property is initiation of force. In some cases, it’s hard to tell what counts as interference. Light and sound from my activities on my land often find their way onto my neighbor’s land and could annoy him (or could leak information that I don’t want him to have – and my first guess is I should need to take only reasonable precautions, and if he buys super high tech spying equipment then he’s doing something wrong despite only using it on the physical particles on his property). Tradition and law have to deal with stuff like sharing rivers, noise pollution, adding a tall building on my property that could block the view from your house, ugly stuff on my property being visible from your property, etc.

Part of how we deal with these things is by good faith and good will, not just by strictly defining what is force. It’s too hard to get along purely by saying what is force or not. That’s not enough to build up a good society. You need people who want to get along and mostly try to avoid conflict. Blackmail violates that.

Since blackmail is unnecessary to pursuing positive values in your own life, and undermines and attacks social harmony, I think it’s reasonable to make it illegal. This may change in the future when everything in public is getting recorded and posted online automatically and you’ll just need to be more careful in public or figure out some other way to deal with the situation, but for now it’s good that people generally don’t have to be too scared while in public (or while on their own property but inadvertently sending quite a bit of information (information from a physics perspective) off their property because they lack adequate technology to control that).

I do think we should be very careful about legitimizing laws that go beyond prohibiting force (including fraud and threat). The main danger of additional laws is they can restrict people’s freedom to have a good life, which this one doesn’t because I think the defining feature of blackmail is threatening to do something that isn’t part of pursuing your own values, it’s something you’d do just to hurt others. Laws against malice and tricky and dangerous in general but this looks OK to me. Trade should be for mutual benefit, not for “i found a way to harm you that doesn’t count as force; pay me not to do it”.

But fundamentally rights have a positive purpose to enable a good life and to resolve conflicts peacefully. The fundamental thing isn’t to ban certain actions like force. That’s a means to an end. So if someone finds a way to hurt people that isn’t banned (and IRL it is banned, but it isn’t clearly banned by the non-aggression principle), that looks to me like finding a hole in the rules while going against the purpose of the rules. Whereas if I thought the NAP (non-aggression principle, aka don’t initiate force) was primary, then I might think “technically doesn’t violate NAP, therefore good”. But I don’t see the NAP as a source of values or morality itself, directly.

I do think this merits more thought and analysis. I’m not fully satisfied yet. But I might be done anyway. This isn’t my main field and I have other things to do. Now I’ll read the debate highlights and see if I have any reason to change my mind already.

Thoughts After Reading the Rest of the Post

Hanson says legalizing blackmail could reduce affairs. So I guess the positive value of blackmail, in some cases, is trying to clean up society. I want to out people who cheat on their spouses to make a better world. That’s part of pursuing my values.

But if that’s really what I want, I can just do it. I wouldn’t be like “pay me to let you keep cheating on your wife”. I’d just get the info and share it. I’d try to get paid by the tabloids or by people who also value cleaning up the sexual morals of society.

So Hanson’s first claim, under “What's good about blackmail”, hasn’t changed my mind/analysis.

Zvi Mowshowitz: I believe that most of the time, most people are not, when they seek information, primarily looking to harm someone. They're primarily looking to benefit themselves, or benefit their friends or their allies in some way. Hurting someone else is mostly a side effect.

**Robin Hanson: **That's also true with blackmail. The main effect is the money, not the hurt. Their main motivation is to get the compensation.

This part stood out to me because it’s similar to some stuff I was talking about. I think seeking out and publishing info to pursue your own values is fine, but I take issue with doing it in order to threaten to harm someone. If you really want the info because you value it, try to get paid by other people who value it, rather than getting paid to hide the info that you value being public.

At the end they poll the audience re changing their mind. What about me? My initial opinion was blackmail sounds bad but I’m not that sure because it’s not clear how it initiates force. My updated opinion is that, due to my own analysis, I’m more confident that blackmail should be (stay) illegal. But if it came up in my life I’d want to do more analysis before acting (unless I didn’t have time to analyze, in which case I’d view blackmailing as bad and e.g. refrain from blackmailing someone even if I had no fear of getting in legal trouble for doing it).


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Viliam · 2020-08-20T21:41:17.101Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems to me that many people would intuitively support some generalization of NAP; something like: "don't actively do things that make situation worse".

Which is of course quite nebulous. But that seems only quantitatively different from NAP, which also requires a definition of "aggression", which has clear boundaries when we talk about punching someone, but becomes less obvious when talking about theft, or copyright infringement, or slander.

If I see you cheating on your wife, and I tell her, my intent is unknown -- maybe I just wanted to hurt you, or maybe I deeply care about the sacred institution of marriage. (And we should charitably assume good intent.) But if I ask you to pay me $100, obviously the latter was not my motivation.

comment by RobinHanson · 2020-08-20T20:21:27.310Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You will allow harmful gossip, but not blackmail, because the first might be pursuing your "values", but the second is seeking to harm. Yet the second can have many motives, and is mostly commonly to get money. And you are focused too much on motives, rather than on outcomes.

Replies from: curi
comment by curi · 2020-08-20T20:46:59.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

many motives ... mostly commonly to get money

If I threaten to do X unless you pay me, then the motive for making that threat is getting money. However, I don't get money for doing X. There are separate things involved (threat and action) with different motives.

comment by curi · 2020-08-20T22:55:35.583Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

More discussion of this post is available at