Ethics of the sex tape

A friend was telling me last week about a celebrity sex tape that he particularly enjoys. I’m not going to help publicize this tape, for reasons that should become clear from reading my post, but I can sketch out the rough details for you: The woman is a young singer, publicly Christian, and she’s having sex with a married man. The tape was stolen (or hacked, I’m not sure) and leaked to the public. It’s theoretically possible that she leaked it herself for publicity, I suppose, but it seems unlikely given the cheating and the Christianity — it definitely tarnished the public image she’d carefully constructed for herself, in addition to being humiliating simply by virtue of it being a sex tape.

So 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, and we ended up having a friendly debate about whether there was anything ethically problematic about his behavior. Of course, the answer to that depends on what ethical system you’re using. You could, for example, take a deontological approach and declare that it’s just a self-evident principle that we don’t have a right to watch someone else’s private tape. Or alternately, you could take a virtue ethics approach and declare that enjoying the tape, after it’s already been leaked, is exploiting someone else’s misfortune, which isn’t a virtuous thing to do.

But my friend and I are both utilitarians, at heart, and neither of those lines of argument resonated with us. We were concerned, instead, with what I think is a more interesting question: does watching the tape harm the woman? As my friend emphasized, she’ll never know that he watched it. (At least, that’s true as long as he downloads it from Bit Torrent, or some other file-sharing site where the number of views of the video aren’t recorded such that she could ever see how much traffic it’s gotten.)

I agreed, but was still reluctant to conclude that no harm was done. Do I necessarily have to know about something in order for its outcome to matter to me? If you tell me about two possible states of the world, one in which everyone has seen my awful humiliating sex tape, and one in which no one has, I’m going to have a very strong preference for the latter, even if people behave identically towards me in both potential worlds. So 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,” rather than “causing that person to experience suffering or disutility.” My friend’s decision to watch the tape harmed the woman according to the first, but not the second, definition.

Then my friend advanced what I had to admit was a pretty clever argument:

“Well, presumably the reason she doesn’t want people to see her tape is that she assumes it will make them think worse of her. But I am totally non-judgmental about sex, and don’t think worse of her at all for having made a sex tape. So even if you think there can be harm done to someone without the person ever knowing about it, still, the ‘harm’ is not in people watching the tape but in them thinking worse of her. Which I didn’t, so — no harm done.”

Of course, it’s hard to speculate about someone’s mental state. 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. And there’s no danger of someone thinking worse of you if he’s the one who accidentally walked in on you — obviously you didn’t do anything wrong — so the embarrassment people feel in cases like that is clearly just from the fact of being seen naked.

So I suppose I didn’t entirely buy my friend’s argument (I’m not sure he did either, honestly), and I’m still left a bit torn about how to evaluate situations like this. But even if you don’t think you’re causing any harm by watching leaked sex tapes like this one, you’ll have to admit that you are ceding your “right” to complain if something like this ever happens to you. So if I find out that you help yourself to celebrity sex tapes, be warned: if a private sex tape of yours ever finds its way onto the Internet, I’ll have no qualms about watching it.

41 Responses to Ethics of the sex tape

  1. Dan! says:

    Do you think there any validity to the argument that the shame associated with a leaked sex-tape functions at the societal level to regulate behavior? If that were the case, then don’t we all have a responsibility to watch it?

    • verity says:

      i married an abusive man when i was 21,a child really, he taped us having sex,he was 16 years my senior;when i realised what a mistake i made and left him he released the tape which swiftly went all over town,including my place of work.Ive never recovered from the public humiliation,it went away and resurfaced years later when i had to go through the horror all over again.that happened 2o years ago,and ten years ago,each time it felt like i was being raped;i had a total breakdown because of it as im a private affects me to this day.perhaps all of you could consider how you would view this situation if it were to happen to your daughters,sisters or mothers,with some real empathy instead of making it an intellectual debate.i dont think misogyny is ever exscusable,which is what it is.i went to the police to complain but i had it on good authority that it had already been watched by the cid dept,one of their wives told a relative of mine.i had nowhere to has coloured my perception of men ever since.

  2. fogwoman says:

    And to me, the question would not be whether it was ethical to watch the tape in a world where the persons in the tape never knew of your viewing – the question is whether it is ethical to talk about having watched it.
    If you watched it, and never told anyone or discussed it then no harm was done outside of the possible harm to your psyche or karma. Or your vision, depending on the individuals taped.
    The ethical issue comes about when you discuss the existence and your reaction to the tape. If nobody spoke about it or shared it, few would see and the individuals would be relatively unharmed by the disclosure. The problem arises when the existence and descriptions are spread. Like feathers in the wind, rumours spread widely and can never be recaptured. Those like myself who have never seen it are now aware of it and forming judgements based on that knowledge. This is where the ethical issues live.

    • Nemesis says:

      A perfect rationalist might be able to make a real distinction between watching the tape and related actions, such as talking about it.

      In the real world, there might be a nasty little effect coming into play:

      Doing something does set you up to be biased towards arguments justifying this action.
      This arguments most of the time dont make these same distinction between closely related actions, if any at all. Especially if the discussion is heated and/or polarized.

      Therefore, a person who originally intended to “only watch, but dont talk, and do nothing to encourage others” may find himself justifying not only watching, but also spreading the tape.

  3. Bytor says:

    If we assume the Famous Person In Questions (FPIQ) did not release the tape themselves (or give consent to the person who released it) then it can be argued that the tape is exploitative regardless of whether the watchers and the non-watchers who hear what it is about think less of the FPIQ or not. In a sense it’s like those backroom/casting couch porn videos of women who are there ostensibly to audition for roles in adult modelling and films but the videographer has no intent of even passing on the “audition” tape to real porn producers/directors, much less offering them a job. That exploitative harm would be there even if the FPIQ had had sex with a single man.

    Like your friend, I, too, I’m not judgmental about sex – straight, gay, open, poly, whatever makes you happy – but something like this would make disrespect the FPIQ. While the FPIQ having sex is not wrong in and of itself, having sex with a married man most likely makes her an “accessory to adultery” because open marriages are decidedly not the norm and breaking the expectation of fidelity causes harm to one’s spouse. If the FPIQ is of the type of Christian who thinks that sex before marriage is wrong*, then you can add hypocrisy to her list of offences, also something I do not respect. It’s not the sex activity, it’s the context.

    So as I am probably not the only one who feels like that, so people watching the tape (or even just hearing about the circumstances of it) will degrade the FPIQ’s reputation in society causing them harm. However, IMNSHO, the harm is karmic, so to speak – brought upon the FPIQ by their own actions. I’d be willing to accept the argument that some harm from watching or discussing the sex tape is self-inflicted and not caused by the watchers.

    The problem is, how do you decide how much of the harm is the karmic, self-inflicted harm and how much is the exploitative harm from an unapproved release?

    *BTW, I disagree with the Biblical interpretation that sex before marriage is wrong, but that’s a rant for a more appropriate time. 🙂

  4. Bytor says:

    On a tangent, I don’t really understand why utilitarianism is much different than deontology. To me it just seems that utilitarianism is “deontology plus” as before you can decide whether actions increase utility you need some rules to decide just what is harm or what is benefit. There’s nothing inherent to an action that says whether it is wrong, just our own wishes (I’d rather you not kill me, you’d rather I not kill you, thus murder is wrong). Virtue ethics, which you seem to contrast with deontology above, too, just seems like the same thing with a different name.

    No matter how many ways I twist that Rubiks cube trying to find a new perspective, I just can’t get past the need for some rule set at the base. Have I misunderstood something?

    • Andrew T says:

      I’m not a philosophy expert, so allow me to link to this wikipedia article: . I found the top paragraph illuminating. One important thing is that approaches can overlap and be combined. “The difference between these four approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are approached than in the moral conclusions reached.” As I understand it, the main difference isn’t what the “base rule set” is, but rather which “step” of the action to focus on: motivation, action, and consequences.

  5. NotAMoralPhilosopher says:

    I have an intuition that it depends on whether the subject of the film is a genuine co-producer, thinking that if somebody willingly and enthusiastically participates in making a sex tape, then their inner exhibitionist wants people to see it (regardless of what they’d be willing to admit to), so why not. But if it’s surreptitious, then it’s disgraceful look at it, but the damage is more to the viewer than the viewed. Reluctant/semi-coerced is a bit of a grey area, but probably goes with the surreptitious cases.

  6. Leslie says:

    So I guess the feeling is that if the public can get access to your privacy then it has a right to it ? So why the upset and outrage about email and phone hacking?

    Shouldn’t it be if you don’t want something public then you shouldn’t write it or say it or even tape it? (It would be wise to lead life this way, but not realistic)

    It’s a slippery slope when you consider it.

    I wonder why famous people’s live become our personal property and right to know, or expose — if we figure out how. (No harm in speculating or passing on rumors right?)

    I don’t find this at all difficult to assess regarding my own personal morality, it wasn’t harming those engaged in it, and it was shared intentionally by those involved, so it none of my business and I have no right to see it.

    This has nothing to do with sex — it’s all about whether we have any interest in the content that is being exposed.

    Why not ask this question: If you could hear those messages left to loved ones from the planes of 9/11, would you listen? (Assuming, of course, they were leaked verses voluntarily shared.)

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  8. opcnup says:

    So if this celebrity singer were partaking in the consumption of sex tapes before making her own would that absolve the viewing public of any responsibility in the matter?

  9. Andrew T says:

    One question that occurred to me is, can you really obtain such a tape without subtly increasing the publicity for it? Even BitTorrent (or other file sharing mechanisms) will increase the general availability of the file, which will be apparent to another potential downloader. Even before the internet when rumors were via word of mouth and bootlegs were by VHS, this was true. And if we accept the point that copying the file in the first place has caused mental/reputation harm, you could then argue that feeling shame from watching it, even though it causes no direct harm, would be appropriate: it acts as self-regulation to prevent subsequent harm from contributing to the distribution of other videos later on (yes Dan, I’m flipping your argument :P).

    You might also argue that enjoying the video after the immutable fact of the download doesn’t actually prevent that self-regulation from taking place during future decisions, as long as you feel a twinge of shame every time you enjoy it. It’s a tricky balance of reward and disincentive.

    It’s also important to recognize the FPIQ is probably not using the same ethical system as you – and even if she rationally embraces one, that doesn’t guarantee she *feels* accordingly. Even if you determine that there’s nothing wrong with her behavior (that you aren’t judging her, or even that there’s no external reputation loss at all), as long as she feels ashamed of it, your contribution to the distribution of the tape is still causing emotional harm. As anyone who’s been in therapy knows, people do irrational things they regret all the time (or rational things they irrationally regret), and getting caught or humiliated in the act has complex psychological repercussions. Since we aren’t privy to the subject’s neurological workings, to be on the safe side, respecting privacy may be the best option with respect to avoiding pain. Leave the “social regulation” to the friends and family closest to the FPIQ.

  10. Max says:

    Is the Golden Rule a deontological approach?

  11. Vesuvium says:

    It seems that what’s really going on here is very much a question about whether or not there can be ‘unexperienced harms’. If you are a straightforward hedonist, you believe that benefit and harm is simply a matter of pleasure and pain, and so, in particular, you can’t be benefited or harmed without having a corresponding pleasant or unpleasant experience.

    Most philosophers these days think that hedonism is false: how well your life is going can depend on things that make no impact on your experience. The most well-known objection to hedonism is Robert Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ (discussed in part 1 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia). Imagine that you are offered the following. Scientists have developed a perfect virtual-reality simulator. You can strap on the simulator and ‘live’ the life you’ve always wanted: the scientists will wipe your memory of having agreed to enter the simulator and you’ll think that you’re living the life of a movie-star, or whatever tickles your fancy. Life on the experience machine is going to have all the valuable experiences that life in the real world will have. But most people don’t want to strap into the experience machine. They prefer to live in reality. There must be something more to the good life than the valuable experiences it contains.

    Most philosophers have been attracted to the desire-satisfaction view of wellbeing: your life is better insofar as your desires are satisfied. Notably, your desires can be satisfied or frustrated even if you don’t know it. For example, I might strongly desire that people respect me. This desire could be frustrated if no one respects me, even if they make a perfect pretense of respecting me.

    I expect that most people just don’t want to be watched doing something intimate, such as having sex, showering, or using the bathroom. Hence, if the desire-satisfaction view is correct, you can harm them by watching them doing that intimate something, even if it’s not clear to them that you are watching them. Of course, it depends on individual factors. Some might be very happy to be watched doing intimate things if this will increase their celebrity.

    I should note that hedonism has been making a comeback amongst philosophers recently. See especially Ben Bradley’s recent book “Wellbeing and Death” (well worth it only for the panda and penguins cover).

  12. alex says:

    Suppose that an action of mine has the unfortunate effect of bringing about a state of the world which you find undesirable, and, moreover, this is the only objectionable thing about this action – it isn’t wrong for some other unspecified reason. You might say that you have been harmed by it, but I can reply that I would have been equally harmed by failing to perform it, because I, personally, would rather live in a world in which I had performed it.

    You might object to the “equally” above – perhaps you are more harmed than I am by living in a less-than-ideal world, for example, if you are quite attached to your ideal world while I am more blase about it. But if we accept this, its unclear which way it cuts in practical situations – for example, this principle would seem to imply that its okay for me to watch the sex tape if I really, really, really (really!) want to live in a world in which I’ve seen it.

  13. siodine says:

    From a utilitarian perspective, I would think it’s wrong to *not* watch the tape and promote it. The Christian ideology this celebrity promotes is nonsense, and the image she has carefully crafted is an unobtainable and unreasonable facade. A facade I think her fans will compare themselves to, and find that it’s exceedingly difficult to meet. Meaning, the fans will have their well being reduced by failing to meet the facade, and in the attempt. So, I think by promoting the tape we’re helping to dispel the facade this person has created to promote themselves to a population that is more susceptible to manipulative marketing. By doing this, we would be generating more net well being than we would by helping this celebrity to save face.

    I think this is analogous to denigrating high fashion models for their anorexic appearance in an attempt to dissuade young girls from ever attempting to meet that standard. And even though we’re most likely attacking a victim of a standard set by someone else.

    • Andrew T says:

      Ah, but how can you be sure that “taking down” this celebrity will drive her fans away from the “nonsensical ideology”, rather than causing them to shrink further back into their community of like-minded people in dismay at the corrupting influence of the impious modern society? The only safe option is the conservative one; the goal of “saving” the manipulated population can be worked at in other ways.

      • siodine says:

        You’ve misunderstood me. I didn’t say it would drive them away from the ideology, but from trying to measure up to the facade (built on an incoherent ideology) that she’s created for herself. I think a significantly large portion of her audience would see this. That is, there would be a larger net gain in well being compared with the alternative of helping the celebrity save face.

        By definition the safest option is the conservative option. However, this doesn’t mean the safe option is the best option. It’s possible some of people we’re talking about (preteens and teens) would form into some kind of community and blame society for the downfall of their idol, but that seems fairly unlikely to me. I think the risk of such possibilities is outweighed by the significantly more likely benefits. And even assuming they did form this community, why do you think this would result in less net well being? It seems to me that if they accept that society caused the downfall of the persona their idol crafted, then they would also accept that it was likely unobtainable. For instance, this might mean one of her fans might fell less guilty for engaging in premarital sex, and regardless of whether they think society caused the idol’s downfall.

    • Jeffrey Soreff says:

      “The Christian ideology this celebrity promotes is nonsense, and the image she has carefully crafted is an unobtainable and unreasonable facade.”

      Very much agreed.

      I’m not quite sure I’d go so far as to say that “it’s wrong to *not* watch the tape and promote it”, but I certainly think that it is no big deal. I don’t think that the American view that nudity and sex should be concealed ever made sense, and, as cameras of one sort or another get more and more ubiquitous, it becomes more and more unreasonable.

  14. David says:

    I think you have helped publicize it, at least to me, as I hadn’t heard of it.

    I don’t think taking away my choice whether to watch it, or not, is very moral in any case.

  15. Leslie says:

    resubmitting – think I was lost in limbo

    So I guess the feeling is that if the public can get access to your privacy then it has a right to it ? So why the upset and outrage about email and phone hacking?

    Shouldn’t it be if you don’t want something public then you shouldn’t write it or say it or even tape it? (It would be wise to lead life this way, but not realistic)

    It’s a slippery slope when you consider it.

    I wonder why famous people’s live become our personal property and right to know, or expose — if we figure out how. (No harm in speculating or passing on rumors right?)

    I don’t find this at all difficult to assess regarding my own personal morality, it wasn’t harming those engaged in it, and it not was shared intentionally by those involved, so it none of my business and I have no right to see it.

    This has nothing to do with sex — it’s all about whether we have any interest in the content that is being exposed.

    Why not ask this question: If you could hear those messages left to loved ones from the planes of 9/11, would you listen? (Assuming, of course, they were leaked verses voluntarily shared.)

  16. Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

    I can’t help but wonder: was this amateur sex tape really so incredibly, unusually hot that you’d have no better pornography to watch if you refused to watch it? How much personal utility do you really lose if you look for other pornography instead?

    I realize it’s ducking the deontological moral question. In the Least Convenient Possible World there would be an incredibly hot sex tape of a particular celebrity that you were already personally infatuated with, so that there would be no easily obtained substitute. It’s just that, as Hobbes says, “The sad thing isn’t that everyone has a price, it’s that the price is usually so low.” I think it probably is a good mental habit to ask how much you’re buying with a possible moral violation, as compared to the next best moral alternative, and you should notice if you’re not buying very much.

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  18. Hume's fork says:

    How would a utilitarian compare the happiness of the watchers compared to the suffering of the woman? If there are thousands of watchers, their happiness is surely greater than her suffering from the video being leaked. Though I’m inclined to prefer utilitarianism, this is the sort of thing that keeps me away from it.

  19. Gabe says:

    There is another dimension to how we use the word “harm” that neither definition you provided addressed, the relative nature of the word.

    If you jail somone for commiting a crime, are you harming them? After all, you’re putting them in a world they do not desire to live in…assuming they didn’t want to get caught commiting their crime. So is necessary harm really harm? Every society both present and ancient had and has rules against harming people, yet they all have agreed upon retaliations (justice) which may reduce the quality of life for the assailant, assuming the assailant is even allowed to continue living. This has consequences for whether your friend is causing harm, or unnecessary harm, to the Christian celebrity. Does she publicity condemn people who commit adultry or have open relationships? Whether she does, in my opion, determines whether she is being harmed or if she’s being served justice. The question of whether your friend is intentionally enjoying her humiliation and “judging” her or if he just enjoys wacking it to the video doesn’t really matter, which is why neither one of you bought his excuse.

    I think people are more sensitive about this sort of thing happening to girls and will overlook the relative nature of “harm” when judging if this video harmed her. Suppose the celebrity was a Christian white guy and the tape was a leak of him being on his knees blowing a black guy. This is not enough information to determ if he’s being harmed by your friend watching it because it raises other questions. Did the celebrity publicly condemn homosexuality and gay people? Did he make racist and derogatory comments about black people?

  20. Ian Pollock says:

    It seems to me that the decision to watch such a tape, which a participant would not want you to see, implies a similar such decision by similarly placed decision-makers. In other words, if you would wish for people not to do so in your case, you mustn’t do it in their case.

  21. Andrew T says:

    What you call the difference between harm and not-harm, I would call the difference between “justified harm” and “unjustified harm” (where “justified” is relative to the values system of the observer).

    Whether you’re harming someone or not depends on how the jail is run. If they’re being rehabilitated, then you may not be. In many cases, jails do harm their prisoners. But the total utility is still positive (justified harm to a utilitarian) because the benefit to people outside the jail outweighs the harm by: being protected from an antisocial person during the sentence, possibly having an antisocial person rehabilitated, and possibly discouraging others from behaving similarly. Purely punitive sentences offer little evidence for “real” utility beyond “some people thought he deserved it” (unjustified harm). And of course, the desirability and effectiveness of all these rationales in various prisons is under debate, particularly by prison reform proponents.

    So anyway, your idea of “serving justice” seems to be purely punitive, although previous comments *have* touched on possibilities roughly analogous to the other three objectives: whether the whole thing might “rehabilitate” her by changing her behavior in some way; or “protect others” by dispelling illusions about Christian celebrity; or discourage others from doing the same thing. But no, if your justification for punishment is simply “it’s justice”, then I have to disagree, and argue that modern criminal systems at least try to justify it with one of the other objectives. It’s true that some systems of less developed / past societies did simply retaliate without further goals, but us elitist types probably consider that kind of thing uncivilized 🙂

    For your latter example, your questions to me don’t inform whether he’s being harmed or not, they just inform whether the harm is “justified” (by hypocrisy, I guess). I’m just trying to get to the ethical core of what this justice is based on.

  22. Gabe says:

    “What you call the difference between harm and not-harm, I would call the difference between “justified harm” and “unjustified harm””

    If Galef shares that view–she doesn’t touch on it in her blog post and I haven’t read the other responses–then she’s asking the wrong question. Instead she’s asking what is harm. She only considers the effect on the receiver of the alleged harm and not its context.

    Suppose you break up with someone and they are left devastated. Did you harm them? Does it depend on why you broke up with them? By the options presented in this blog post for what defines harm, the answer is yes you harmed them. Are you harming someone if you respond in self defense? If you ignore the context of the action, then its impossible to go through a social life without harming anybody. That might be your possition but I don’t find such a definition of harm to be useful or an accurate way to portray a situation.

    “Whether you’re harming someone or not depends on how the jail is run.”

    If you send someone to jail who doesnt want to go to jail, you’ve put them in an undesirable situation, which is one of the definitions of harm given by this blog post. If this is how people used the word “harm” in popular or professional usage, then there would be no debates about whether convicts are being harmed or not by our jails or justice system. The answer would be a unanimous yes regardless of how the jail is run.

    “your idea of “serving justice” seems to be purely punitive,”

    No, I’m refering to the intentions behind retaliatory behaviors that take place in any society, past and present, when I put the word “justice” in parentheses next to “retaliation”. I never said these were my ideas of justice. And honestly, I don’t think that any society, no matter how barbaric their methods, had purely punitive intentions. Chopping off the hands of a thief might bring comfort to those whom the thief caused grief (the “they deserved it” justification that you called unjustified though it actually is justified by definition), but clearly they want to teach a lession by retaliating this way. In other words, they want to minimize “harm” even if me or you feel that this is not a very thoughtful, effective, or compassionate way to do it. We might think that “rehabilitation” is the best way to minimize harm. Either way, every society, whether it’s ours or some other, has the same objective, to minimize harm.

    “if your justification for punishment is simply “it’s justice”…”

    …then it would be a tautology and you’d be right to call bullshit because justifying punishment is by definition “justice” from the perspective of the justifier but I have not justified punishment for the Christian celebrity. I don’t have enough information about the context to make a judgement call, which is the point of my argument. I’ve implied that justification for punishment is justice, I did not myself justify punishment with the tautology “it’s justice.”

    “your questions to me don’t inform whether he’s being harmed or not, they just inform whether the harm is “justified” (by hypocrisy, I guess).”

    That’s because you’re not considering how the word “harm” is actually used by people, only the way you think it should be used by them. In order to answer the question of whether someone is harmed, we need to use a definition of harm that conforms to how people actually use the word. The way people use the word harm leaves the appropriate use of the word dependent on its context. It might be better to say “there is the infliction of justifiable and unjustifiable grief.” Everybody everywhere in any context, I think, would agree with that statement.

    • Gabe says:

      “”It might be better to say “there is the infliction of justifiable and unjustifiable grief.” Everybody everywhere in any context, I think, would agree with that statement.”

      I’ll even go so far as to say this. Had Galef asked the question “did my friend cause grief for the Christian celebrity, provided she doesn’t want the public watching it?” I wouldn’t need context to say yes he not only caused her grief but ethics plays no part in his decision to cause this grief. After all, he said he just enjoys watching the video and doesn’t judge her for it. But judgement is fundimental to ethics and the execution of justice. In this case, if the missing context can justify the grief caused by the viewer who himself had no intention of justifying the grief he causes, then we have karma, unintentional justice (or justified if you’re a supernaturalist). It becomes harder to argue that somebody harmed the celebrity if their own karma bit them in the butt.

      “(That was intended to be a reply to Gabe)”

      Two can make that mistake. My response was intended for Andrew T, which I forgot to mention.

    • Andrew T says:

      I would say yes, it *is* (nearly) impossible to go through a completely harm-free social life. And many decent forms of justice *do* involve harm. I still consider the word useful, because we can distinguish between non-harm, justified harm, and unjustified harm. Even in the justified case, knowing that it is still harm helps us weigh the justification and consider ways to achieve the same result with less harm. So in the self-defense case, if you injure your assailant, of course harm was caused, by definition. But it was also completely justified (depending on the injury – it’s usually unjustified to kill a non-lethal attacker, another example of when it’s good to keep in mind that harm is being caused even though it’s justified). I guess in utilitarian terms, a justification would prevent a greater amount of other harm than that being caused.

      You’re quite right about jail harming someone, incarceration definitely causes harm by nature. What I meant to say was that the net effect on that person could be positive if it resulted in positive changes to their life (aka rehabilitation), in contrast to a net negative effect on that person but a net positive to society. Or if you like, a net prevention of greater harm to society.

      I guess I look at it like “itemizing” actions’ harmfulness. Yeah, the net harmfulness may be negative, so you could say it wasn’t a harmful action. But as you say, many actions in society cause some unwanted effect on someone, and it seems valuable to keep these individual components in mind even when the overall context says we’re behaving in a minimally harmful (some would say “not harmful”) way.

      As to general usage of “harm”, I really do think most people would say that someone is harmed even if the context justifies it. In your bitter breakup example, say a mutual friend comes to you and says “man, she’s really hurt.” You might say “whatever man.” But would you really say “no she isn’t”? I doubt it. But, maybe I just hang out with a literal crowd haha.

      In any case, I disagree, I *don’t* think general usage of the word is important in the context of ethics, I think usage of it by ethicists is what matters. Which is not to say that subjective reactions are not relevant; if the average Joe doesn’t consider a thing harm we can consider that – perhaps this reaction indicates a prevention of harm to his mental state. But the nice thing about being philosophically minded outside observers is we can break down those subjective bits and see what really makes up a certain mindset.

      Ultimately, I stand by my definition of harm, but I agree, your phrasing would be clear to everybody 🙂

      It sounds like I read too much (well, too little) into your usage of “justice”, and I apologize if I sounded condescending. The reason I assumed you meant it punitively is because both your examples involved someone behaving hypocritically, so I concluded you were thinking of a reactionary “they deserved it” mentality. As I said, if you meant that there could be several potential positive effects on that person or on society, you are in good company on this reply board!

      [ Speaking of “Reply”s, when you get an e-mail notification it gives you the option to reply, and you think it means “to the comment that was in the e-mail”, but I guess it really means “to the original blog post”, so you have to click the comment’s reply button to really reply, hence confusion. Ok, geek analysis over… ]

      • Andrew T says:

        Hmm, you might say that my calling jail “not harm” if it rehabilitates the subject is a perfect example of what you were saying: people consider the context when using the word. You’re partly right. But two things. First of all, I still don’t think I would ever say someone was not harmed if the net positive was only for society and not that person, which may or may not be relevant to people’s use of the word in the celebrity case.

        More importantly, my correction is a great example of the power of analysis. Yes, I called it not-harm as a generalization over a long period of time, just as if someone asked you ten years after your breakup if she was hurt by it, you’d hopefully say “nah” knowing it was for the best. But *we can get specific* by asking more focused questions, adding considerations like “at the time” and considering distinctions between different kinds of physical, intellectual, and emotional harm and their durations. There’s a ton of value to those specifics in ethical debate. We gain understanding of what components feed into a generalization, ultimately leading to a better understanding of what is “good”.

      • Gabe says:

        “As to general usage of “harm”, I really do think most people would say that someone is harmed even if the context justifies it.”

        Most people, when asked to define harm, would probably define it the way you do, but they would not use the word as defined that way. They would use the word the way I define it. They would not believe that immediate harm is caused to a convict if the effect of his undesirable situation is good in the long run (ie successfully rehabilitated).

        “But the nice thing about being philosophically minded outside observers is we can break down those subjective bits and see what really makes up a certain mindset”

        But we’re not outside observers. Everybody has an Average Joe inside them. I know I do and I know that you accidently used the word “harm” the way I defined it, even if you tried to justify it with a “nonharm outweights the harm if they are successfully rehabilitaed” reasoning. But I just don’t buy it that you would really consider a convict harmed simply because they were sentenced. Or maybe you do, but you would confuse most people because the word is always used in a negative way. “Harming this person, if done a certain way, will in the long run equal zero harm.” Huh?

        “Ultimately, I stand by my definition of harm, but I agree, your phrasing would be clear to everybody.”

        But why stand by that definition of harm? You haven’t given a scenario where it is useful. Your response to the girlfriend breakup doesn’t make any sense becaus the issue isn’t whether she is hurt, it’s whether she is harmed. The only reason I can think of to use the word “harm” the way you’re using it, is to manipulate somebody. Suppose a wife’s soldier dies in battle. Her husband’s actions have caused her and their children grief. Suppose someone wants to write an article about this family and their struggles in the aftermath of the soldier’s death. Wouldn’t it be a little disingenuous for the newspaper editor to name the article American GI Harms His Family? Do you see where I’m going with this? In the girfrliend scenario where she is left hurt by your action to break up with her, even though you’ve tried everything else first and this breakup is a last resort, wouldn’t it be a little disingenuous for her jealous lesbian bestfriend to respond to the break up by telling everybody that you harmed her?

        Plus, its good to be engaged with the world outside of these philosophical arguments. I’m sure its inevitable that philosophers will use words that don’t match the way they’re used in everyday talk if its useful to do so, but why do it when it’s not? I would recommend reading Richard Carrier’s blog post Defining the Supernatural, where he makes the point that the way the courts defined supernatural in the Dover case further alienates the scientific community from the outside world because their definition of “supernatural” is inconsistent with how the word is actually used in conversation.

  23. More to the point what harm did this so called Christian singer do to her illicit sexual partners wife and children by sleeping with their husband and father? That is the true ethical question that needs to be answered as for rest: by committing an act of adultery and making a tape of her illicit liaison seems to me she put the gun to her own head and pulled the trigger with her very own finger.

  24. Samuel says:

    if she doesn’t like it, she should have been fucking that married guy.

    One who walks in integrity, walks securely.

    I bet next time she’ll think twice before she opens the door to this kind of calamity.

  25. qldps says:

    The difference between Christianity and virtue ethics is that virtue involves focusing on the initiation of good rather than passing off the absence of bad, as good (Christian values in a nutshell). Utilitarian ethics fail on the same basis. Good and bad aren’t relatively measureable; they can’t be weighed against one another to determine one decisively, ultimately preferable beneficial course of action. As Tolstoy said “Good exists outside the realm of cause and effect”. I take the virtue ethics point of view on this and say that rather than ask myself, is watching this video causing someone harm, It would be more relevant to ask, is watching this video doing me any good? The answer to that question can’t be generalised.

  26. melianos says:

    This video pictures two peoples private lives. It was done in private (not on the street), wasn’t supposed to be public.
    So unless they say it’s ok to watch it, I believe watching it is wrong (not necesseraly bad, just wrong), regardless of it hurting them or not hurting them.

  27. The last sentence of this article misses a critical point. If a tape with me, anyone else here, or one of the hoi polloi at large were in fact leaked, no one would care. You likely wouldn’t be able to match it up to me, and even if you did, it wouldn’t matter because you’ve never met me, and I’ve never met you. Thus, I’m just another forgettable face in a sea of carnal luridness. By contrast, the singer is a public figure, and thus can’t hide behind a veil of obscurity.

  28. Alan Cooper says:

    I would say that writing this post is more culpable than actually watching the video!

    Having easily located that item on the basis of your description, I might be embarassed to be found watching it, but I doubt that watching it privately would actually harm anyone directly. Some might well argue that watching such things could increase the likelihood of my doing future harm of some kind, but I think the jury is still out on that. So I think your friend is innocent – except for one thing.

    By reporting his appreciation of the tape to you he gave you the opportunity to exploit its existence for your own benefit with the result that many more people are now known to be aware of it and so you have potentially increased Ms V’s painful humiliation.

  29. Jack says:

    My best argument that it is permissible to watch the tape without the celebrity’s knowledge is that certain kinds of bad feelings are not to be considered disutility. I would say that the important kind of preference fulfillment is the kind that is a preference about the person doing the preferring. For example, if a billion people all strongly prefered that I did not masturbate (for thought experiment’s sake, say I am not using any pornography, and that no one but me will know if I actually did masturbate or not) it would still be permissible. The only important desires at stake would be my own. So the celebrity’s desire that I do not absorb the images of them having sex are not ethically significant. Now, if a sex tape of me were published, would I feel bad about it? Probably a little, but I would see my wish that people did not see at as ethically unimportant, and would not see people who watched it as less moral.

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