Highlights from the Blackmail Debate (Robin Hanson vs Zvi Mowshowitz)

At one of our weekly LessWrong events, we had a lively de­bate on le­gal­iz­ing black­mail (video, tran­script). Robin Han­son took the pro side, Zvi Mow­show­itz took the con, and I mod­er­ated. 70 peo­ple showed up to watch for ~2 hours.

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.

Below are some quotes from their con­ver­sa­tion. And of course, there’s the full ed­ited tran­script and video for those who want all the de­tails.


What’s good about blackmail

Robin Han­son: I think in the case of say David Let­ter­man, who fa­mously was black­mailed for hav­ing af­fairs, if he could have ac­tu­ally been suc­cess­fully black­mailed, then peo­ple like Let­ter­man would be do­ing much less of what he was do­ing. And these weren’t just af­fairs with ran­dom peo­ple who liked him, these were em­ploy­ees of him and so they are much more morally ques­tion­able. And so I think there would just be a lot less sex­ual ha­rass­ment if black­mail was le­gal.

Robin Han­son: There are a lot of pow­er­ful peo­ple who break a lot of rules, ac­tu­ally le­gal rules in many ways. And then the peo­ple around them shut up about it, let them get away with it be­cause they don’t feel they ac­tu­ally have a cred­ible threat to re­port it. And so they don’t. And so black­mail would mean a lot more ac­tual re­port­ing or a dis­cour­age­ment of the things pow­er­ful peo­ple do, that break rules and norms.

Spread­ing dirt is of­ten prosocial

Zvi Mow­show­itz: Essen­tially your ar­gu­ment is that in to­day’s world, if peo­ple on­line were to find out some­thing about you and de­cide to cause a lot of trou­ble in your life based on this thing, that it must’ve been a bad thing that the pub­lic ab­solutely needed to know.

Robin Han­son: On av­er­age, let­ting peo­ple know about other peo­ple’s dirt is a good thing. The in­cen­tives to not have dirt, the in­cen­tive to ex­pose dirt, are on av­er­age a good thing. Yes, they go wrong in many par­tic­u­lar ways. But on av­er­age, they’re good. That’s my fun­da­men­tal claim about why gos­sip is gen­er­ally good, even when peo­ple are try­ing to find dirt in or­der to make some­one look bad, and black­mail is just up­ping the in­cen­tives on that some­what.

Ban­ning isn’t the only option

Zvi Mow­show­itz: So what I’m say­ing, black­mail speci­fi­cally se­lects for the sce­nar­ios in which there is great harm.

Robin Han­son: So does try­ing to make some­body look bad. That’s the thing we’re talk­ing about. There are situ­a­tions now where peo­ple are try­ing to make other peo­ple look bad. Either you want to ban those, or you have to ac­cept that on av­er­age those are good, even though they con­tain the prob­lems re­port­ing.

Zvi Mow­show­itz: No. Okay, so I think there’s an im­por­tant fal­lacy there, that I can not want to ban some­thing but still think it’s in gen­eral pretty bad.

Bad effects of blackmail

Zvi Mow­show­itz: I think, in a sense, black­mail makes these things much more nega­tive. In par­tic­u­lar, the in­cen­tive to en­trap, the in­cen­tive to cre­ate nega­tive ma­te­rial, to in­duce norm vi­o­la­tions, is much much stronger un­der black­mail. And the fear of such things hap­pen­ing, in gen­eral, and the cost of nav­i­gat­ing black­mail situ­a­tions, and the fear of hav­ing to deal with these things is very bad. I would feel very stressed liv­ing un­der a black­mail le­gal regime.

Zvi Mow­show­itz: The idea is that if we had less of them the world would be a bet­ter place, but there is no law that I can pass that ban­ning it would not have other effects. But I can try to tax it, right? I can make it more costly. I can make it more in­con­ve­nient in ways that dis­cour­age the be­hav­ior, and maybe that’s even bet­ter than ban­ning it, be­cause now, when it was re­ally worth do­ing, it hap­pens any­way. And by tax, I don’t mean liter­ally, “You must pay 5%.” I want to make this more an­noy­ing for you.

Black­mail leads to dox­ing?

Robin Han­son: Re­mem­ber one of out other op­tions is just to ban some kinds of gos­sip. So I said, we do prop­erly ban tel­ling peo­ple’s pass­words or shar­ing their naked pic­tures. If you think there’s a kind of gos­sip that’s just harm­ful, you just ban that kind of gos­sip. We’re talk­ing about al­low­ing that gos­sip, ex­cept when one side makes an offer to pay the other, but not vice versa. That’s the puz­zle we’re talk­ing about, not just the generic, that some things you might not want to let peo­ple gos­sip about.

Zvi Mow­show­itz: One re­cent ex­am­ple of po­ten­tial black­mail is what if some­one were to black­mail Scott Alexan­der and threat­ened to re­veal his true name?

Robin Han­son: But again, you can have pri­vacy rules about that. If you just want to say, you’re not al­lowed to re­veal peo­ple’s anony­mous names, just make that the rule. You’re talk­ing about, it would be okay if it was gos­sip but not if it wasn’t, but that’s not true in this case. You think it would be bad even if it was re­vealed with­out mon­e­tary in­cen­tive.

Black­mail is a weird rule

Zvi Mow­show­itz: My claim is not that there are no things we want to out­right ban you from shar­ing. I’m say­ing there’ll be a lot of things that we can­not enu­mer­ate and ban you from shar­ing that we nev­er­the­less want to tax the shar­ing of.

Robin Han­son: The key thing isn’t whether cer­tain in­for­ma­tion should be re­vealed or not, it’s whether you should add this ex­tra com­plex­ity. So again, we always have the op­tion to ban gos­sip or to re­quire it, but what we have is this weird rule where you’re al­lowed to do it in trade for other things, but not for money, but you are al­lowed to do it for money if one side makes the offer, but not the other side makes the offer. This is the thing I find very hard to jus­tify.

Robin Han­son: I can un­der­stand why some­thing should be pri­vate and some­thing should be pub­lished, and some­thing should be al­lowed to be said and some things not. But why this weird com­bi­na­tion of not the money un­less one side makes the offer but not the other. You haven’t ad­dressed this one side ver­sus the other thing at all in your en­tire con­ver­sa­tion here. You haven’t ad­dressed the pos­si­bil­ity of an NDA, do­ing all of these ex­am­ples you don’t like.

Han­son’s strongest claim

Robin Han­son: My claim was not so much that black­mail is good but that no one had offered con­crete, clear, con­se­quen­tial­ist ar­gu­ments for why black­mail should be banned, es­pe­cially rel­a­tive to al­low­ing NDAs in terms of who makes the offer. That’s my strongest claim. And my claim, es­pe­cially, is about com­ing up with ex­plicit rea­sons and ar­gu­ments. So it’s about the fact that in so­ciety, we just have a lot of poli­cies that, if you look at them, you’re not sure what their jus­tifi­ca­tion is. If you ask peo­ple, they give you var­i­ous jus­tifi­ca­tions that are con­tra­dic­tory. I think it’s a sad situ­a­tion that we don’t have clear jus­tifi­ca­tion for most of our poli­cies.


How much does black­mail pun­ish you?

Robin Han­son: Law and black­mail are two differ­ent chan­nels. I’m en­dors­ing both chan­nels. We have a for­mal le­gal sys­tem where we have things for­mally crimes, and they’re for­mally pun­ished by leg­is­la­tures de­cid­ing the sen­tence, re­sources of the po­lice, and fines. But also, we have a sys­tem of black­mail, wherein peo­ple are paid fi­nan­cially and other ways for their do­ing things that the au­di­ence will dis­ap­prove of. Those are two differ­ent ways that the larger world dis­ap­proves and dis­cour­ages things.

Ben Pace: The level at which so­ciety wants to hurt you, or get your pri­vate in­for­ma­tion, is not re­ally of­ten in pro­por­tion to how much they think it is just to hurt you, or I think it is just to hurt you. Whereas a lot of tabloid press that will just hurt you be­cause it gets them at­ten­tion, and they can join in gos­sip in a big con­ver­sa­tion in a way cer­tainly I don’t en­dorse, and I think most peo­ple don’t en­dorse.

Robin Han­son: Well, then, why not make that ille­gal then, Ben?

Ben Pace: I think ille­gal is strong and kind of silenc­ing thing.

Robin Han­son: Well, that’s true for black­mail as well.

Zvi Mow­show­itz: No, I don’t think it is. Why does black­mail have a chilling effect?

Robin Han­son: The mud-rak­ing jour­nal­ists have a chilling effect. Of course. They all have a chilling effect. The ques­tion is whether it’s too much or not enough.

Ben Pace: But Robin, is your take that the tabloids shouldn’t do that to peo­ple, and it should be ille­gal, or is your take that, no, we should have this and en­courage it more with more money.

Robin Han­son: I’d say that, on av­er­age, the tabloids ex­pos­ing things about peo­ple is, on av­er­age, a good thing. It goes wrong in many par­tic­u­lar ways, but I do not want to ban the tabloids from writ­ing ex­poses.

Ben Pace: I don’t want to ban them from writ­ing ex­poses, but I cur­rently think the situ­a­tion is kind of like black­mailing in which they will ex­tract way more re­sources than is pro­por­tional, and on that do mas­sive amounts of dam­age.

Robin Han­son: I don’t see that.

What would le­gal­ized black­mail ac­tu­ally look like?

Zvi Mow­show­itz: I don’t even think that al­low­ing black­mail would in­crease the num­ber of such things that were in fact re­vealed. I think it would de­crease it.

Zvi Mow­show­itz: Peo­ple would be more se­cre­tive, and in fact, some­times when they were black­mailed, they would in fact pay. Other times they would find cred­ible threats of re­tal­i­a­tion and that would pre­vent the in­for­ma­tion from com­ing out. And I think that in par­tic­u­lar, right now, when nor­mally de­ter­min­ing whether or not to share a gos­sip, they tend to share net use­ful gos­sip more than they tend to share net harm­ful gos­sip, and that black­mail re­verses this in­cen­tive and also causes peo­ple to look for net harm­ful gos­sip, rather than look for net helpful gos­sip. Most of the time when peo­ple are look­ing for in­for­ma­tion, they’re look­ing for in­for­ma­tion the pub­lic needs to know.

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.

Zvi Mow­show­itz: The main benefit is to gain the power over the per­son that you ex­tract some­thing of value, whether it’s money or some­thing else.

Robin Han­son: But that’s not the same as hurt­ing.

Zvi Mow­show­itz: But the way that you do that is you gain the abil­ity to hurt some­one.

Robin Han­son: I dis­agree with that whole fram­ing. Ver­i­zon, which is my per­son who sup­plies my in­ter­net and my phone and my TV, they want me to re­ally want their product. So the more that they can make me re­ally des­per­ate for their product, then the more I’m will­ing to pay for it. Of course they do it, hope­fully, by mak­ing their product at­trac­tive. But that is a way of gain­ing power over me. In gen­eral, all through so­ciety, when peo­ple are mak­ing deals with the other, in an­ti­ci­pa­tion of those deals, they want to be in de­mand. They want to want the other party to want them. That’s ba­si­cally the same thing. It’s all about, be­fore a deal, want­ing to have the other party want to make the deal. So that hap­pens in mar­riages, it hap­pens in jobs, it hap­pens to me with Ver­i­zon. Is that harm? Is the effort that Ver­i­zon goes through to make sure that I don’t want to be with­out their ser­vice, is that harm­ing me be­cause now it makes me more will­ing to pay for their ser­vice?

Zvi Mow­show­itz: But doesn’t Ver­i­zon do that by offer­ing a benefit? Ver­i­zon cre­ates a ser­vice that makes your life bet­ter so that you will be will­ing to buy it. So if Ver­i­zon were to, say, cut the wires of their com­pe­ti­tion so that their com­pe­ti­tion couldn’t come to your house, and then threat­ened to cut off your ser­vice un­less you paid them 10 times as much, that seems-

Robin Han­son: That’s what I said in my ini­tial re­marks about the refer­ence point. You have in mind, the refer­ence point is, I say noth­ing. And so I’m harm­ing you by threat­en­ing to say some­thing. But what if the refer­ence was, I was go­ing to say it any­way and you pay me not to say it, well now with re­spect to that refer­ence point, I’m helping you by let­ting you pay me not to say it. So it all comes down to what’s the refer­ence be­hav­ior you thought would have hap­pened in­stead.

The cost of hav­ing norms

Ben Pace: There’s a ques­tion of scale. I am okay with you tel­ling a bunch of peo­ple that I did some­thing bad. I’m not okay if you man­aged to get it on the front page of the New York Times.

Robin Han­son: It de­pends on who you are. If you’re an or­di­nary per­son, it won’t get on the front page of the Times.

Ben Pace: If I’m a rich per­son who is not very im­por­tant in a lot of other ways, if I just have a lot of re­sources to be taken, even though it is not im­por­tant about how I use those, then I think the black­mail, now, makes it much more likely that that in­for­ma­tion about me will get to a level of promi­nence and life-de­stroy­ing dam­age that it would not pre­vi­ously, just be­cause I have a lot of re­sources you can steal.

Robin Han­son: Well, why is it bad if New York Times read­ers find out about it, but not if other peo­ple find out about it? Why is that some­thing that makes it bad?

Ben Pace: Be­cause I think there’s a level of pun­ish­ment that in­for­ma­tion, gos­siping, should do to you, and in gen­eral, peo­ple shar­ing it when it seems use­ful feels like it will hit the bal­ance where it will get shared as much as it’s use­ful. But peo­ple shar­ing it for as much re­sources they can take, I think, will en­courage much over-pun­ish­ment.

Ben Pace: Al­most no norm vi­o­la­tion of mine should be on the front page of New York Times, and if I have enough re­sources, then it will get there, if you al­low black­mail.

Robin Han­son: I think you want your pub­lic stance to be that you do fol­low the norms.

Ben Pace: No, my pub­lic stance is that I do some­times break norms, and I still should not have my life de­stroyed by that.

Zvi Mow­show­itz: Re­gard­ing the New York Times, it’s in­ter­est­ing that when I worked for a cer­tain cor­po­ra­tion which I will not name, we had a prin­ci­ple that we could not put in any writ­ten form any state­ment that we would not want on the front page of the New York Times. And so, the very fact that some­one might threaten to cause harm to us, or de­cide to cause harm to us by shar­ing this, meant that we had to be much more im­plicit, keep less records, de­stroy ev­i­dence, be much less ra­tio­nal–

Robin Han­son: That’s the gen­eral cost of norms. I mean, the norm sys­tem has cost, okay. It’s unique to hu­mans. Other an­i­mals didn’t have it, and it’s part of the power of hu­man­ity that we’ve had and en­forced norms, but norm sys­tems definitely have costs. One of them is we some­times have wrong norms. Some­times we mis-en­force norms, in that we draw the wrong con­clu­sions about who vi­o­lated which norms, and we may well pun­ish too much or too lit­tle in other situ­a­tions. But still, on av­er­age, norms are good.

How did the au­di­ence’s minds change?

Well done to Robin for halv­ing Zvi’s sup­port! Bet­ter luck next time Zvi.

I my­self moved from “black­mail should be ille­gal” to “I am con­fused”, and would be in­ter­ested if peo­ple could write things to help re­solve this de­bate fur­ther.

For the past few months we’ve had weekly LessWrong events on Sun­days, and will con­tinue to do so. We an­nounce them on the front­page by Thurs­day each week, check there for an­nounce­ments of more talks, de­bates, and dou­ble cruxes.

Here is the full 2-hour video (with Q&A), and here is the full ed­ited tran­script.