Blackmailers are privateers in the war on hypocrisy

Allowing blackmail seems prima facie good to me, since it's a tax on covert illicit behavior. Zvi seems to think, to the contrary, that it's prima facie bad.

Robin Hanson argued: If there exists some information about someone that, if revealed, would cause people to coordinate to punish them, then it's good for this information to be revealed because on average it's good for such people to be punished. Blackmail rewards people for investigating covert illicit behavior that would otherwise remain undetected, and correspondingly punishes the people engaging in that behavior.

Zvi offered two interesting arguments against this, which I'll address one at a time. 

The argument against leverage

First, Zvi responded that blackmail is obviously bad because it creates the incentive to pressure people into covertly behaving in ways that would get them in trouble if revealed, in order to to have leverage over them - which can then be used to force more covert bad behavior for yet more leverage. When done at scale, this can lead to both large amounts of bad behavior which would not have otherwise occurred, and large levels of extraction.

People can get away with subtle and indirect blackmail already. But so long as it's technically illegal, repeated leveraged blackmail at scale is not a feasible strategy; a large firm specializing in blackmail would quickly become unpopular, and the target of regulatory scrutiny.

This argument assumes a prior state where some agents already have enough leverage over most people to force them to engage in mildly illicit behavior. But any agent in a position to do that could easily use their leverage to force their victim to extract some sort of perfectly legal further leverage, such as borrowing at a high rate of interest, or making their lifestyle depend increasingly on some core bottleneck controlled by the extortionist. This too constrains the victim to do what the extortionist says, lest they default on their obligation and lose everything.
This argument against blackmail is not specific to blackmail, but seems instead to be a general consideration against capitalism, privatization, and doing business at scale - since these empower positive feedback loops of rent-seeking behavior.

The argument against information

Zvi also offers an argument that is more purely targeted against blackmail. Even without leveraged schemes to manufacture ever-increasing amounts of illicit behavior as the raw material for blackmail, allowing blackmailers to go into business at scale would increase the total amount of blackmail performed, extracting large amounts of wealth from people doing perfectly ordinary illicit things. Most of us do things that we would be punished for if they were revealed, and it can't be good to take money away from nearly everyone, so we shouldn't legalize blackmail.

Crucially, Zvi treats revealing the information as a net harm here. It's even worse, on his model, than extracting money from the victim; it's a deadweight loss, harm inflicted on the victim with no corresponding benefit to the blackmailer.

This argument fails in a more interesting way, since it denies the fundamental premise of Hanson's argument: that we benefit both from finding out about illicit acts, and by punishing them. Zvi instead seems to think that if society as a whole were better-informed about what people were doing, it would in general on average make worse decisions, by punishing more people who ought not to be punished.

Licit blackmail at scale wouldn't just punish people for hypocrisy - it would reveal the underlying rate of hypocrisy. Soon, everyone would know that it's an ordinary part of life to pay off blackmailers. People would have a general idea what sort of behavior is blackmailable, because the behavior of the occasional person who refuses to pay would be revealed.

In a society that's trying at all to do a sensible thing, we should expect two things to happen in response to this situation. First, by effectively taxing illicit behavior, we should expect get less of it. Second, once people find out how common certain kinds of illicit behavior are, we should expect the penalties to be reduced.

Zvi counts both of these as costs, not benefits. But for more reliable punishment of and more frequent revelation of illicit behavior to be harmful, society has to be trying to get the wrong answer.

If you think that people are worse off when better informed - if our society is that perverse - then it's not clear what we're doing when we pretend to offer consequentialist arguments on policy decisions like whether to legalize blackmail. The general consideration that you expect people to make better decisions when better informed doesn't apply here.

Hoping for or against justice

Zvi's argument isn't analytically rigorous - it appeals to an implied shared feeling about blackmail. He doesn't articulate a clear model of how the relevant parts of the system work, and then show that in equilibrium, the harms caused by legalizing blackmail outweigh its benefits. He doesn't even assess its benefits. He just tells a vivid story about some possible costs it could impose.

I notice I'm inclined to do the opposite - focus on ways blackmail repairs problems. I think this reflects two very different perspectives on how justice relates to hypocrisy (though I'm used to seeing Zvi on my side on this issue and am still a bit surprised we seem to be disagreeing here).

In the traditional Latin mass, judgment day is described as a catastrophe from which the singer seeks refuge:

Dies irae, dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulcra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Judicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus judicetur.

Judex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet apparebit.
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix justus sit securus?

Here's an approximate translation:

The day of wrath, that day
shall dissolve the world in ashes,
testifies David with the Sibyl.

What trembling there will be
When the judge shall come
to weigh everything strictly!

The wondrous trumpet scattering sound
Across the graves of all the regions
Calls all before the throne.

Death and nature shall be stupefied
When Creation arises
Responsive to the Judge.

A written book shall be proffered
In which all is contained
Whereby the world shall be judged

When the judge takes his seat
all that is hidden shall appear
Nothing will remain unavenged.

What shall I, a wretch, say then?
To which patron shall I appeal
When even the just man is barely secure?

The Jewish liturgy about divine judgment is quite different. Every week, at the beginning of the Sabbath, Jews around the world sing Psalms a collection of psalms focused on the idea that the world is rejoicing because God is finally coming to judge it.

From Psalm 96:

Say among the nations that the Lord reigns: the world shall so be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the peoples with uprightnesses. Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and its fullness. Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it: then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy. Before the Lord: for he comes, for he comes to judge the land: he shall judge the world with justice, and the peoples in his faithfulness.

From Psalm 98:

Melodize to the Lord with harp; with harp, and melodic voice. With the trumpets, and the voice of the horn, shout before the king, the Lord. Let the sea roar, and its fullness; the world, and those who dwell in it. Rivers shall clap their hands; together, the mountains shall sing for joy. Before the Lord: for he comes, for he comes to judge the land: he shall judge the world with justice, and the peoples in his faithfulness.

In one of these outlooks, humans can't behave well enough to stand up to pure justice, so we should put off the day of judgment for as long as we can, and seek protection. In the other, the world is groaning under the accumulated weight of hypocrisy and sin, and only the reconciliation of accounts can free us; in constant flux due to ever-shifting stories, which can only be stabilized by a true judge.

We can't reconcile accounts if that means punishing all bad behavior according to the current hypocritical regime's schedule of punishments. But a true reconciliation also means adjusting the punishments to a level where we'd be happy, not sad, to see them applied consistently. (Sometimes the correct punishment is nothing beyond the accounting itself.)

In worlds where hypocrisy is normal, honesty is punished, since the most honest people will tend to reveal deprecatory information others might conceal, and be punished for it. We get less of what we punish. But honesty isn't just a weird quirk - it's the only way to get to the stars.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman

45 thoughts on “Blackmailers are privateers in the war on hypocrisy

  1. Michael Vassar

    For an even more perverse set of assumptions, I'm reminded of "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind", where it is assumed that even viceral punishment doesn't deter behavior.

    It's possible that people can reach that level of depravity, but not likely IMHO that they have. That said, I am very interested in the prospect of eliminating the idea of just punishment completely and establishing it as a given that justice can never be anything other than the creation of common knowledge. Of course, the common knowledge that you had historically killed a bunch of people and a group of strangers reviewing your behavor expect it to be repeated would be likely to be pretty costly, and to result in future killings being prevented, but that prevention wouldn't be just, and it would be just to create common knowledge about that preventing.

  2. Caryatis

    Your (and Hanson's) argument rests on the assumption that all blackmailable acts are illicit=bad. But that isn't the case. Most people would feel shamed, and might succumb to blackmail, at the threat of pictures of them having sex or just being naked being released. This is true even if we assume the sex/nakedness is legal and moral, and even though most people have sex/are naked at times.

    You might think that our society's intuitions about what is shameworthy are off here, and I think so too, but that doesn't alter the necessity of dealing with them.

    1. Benquo Post author

      This is the "people are worse off when illicit behavior is harder to detect" scenario which - as I wrote - would imply broadly perverse intent, or at least have to come from a perspective that wants a weak regime. If I thought we had any reasonable hope of affecting US policy I'd be sympathetic to this argument as a political act and would probably be making a mistake by trying to clarify it, but as it is, it seems more important to clarify what kind of perversity we think is going on.

      1. caryatis

        I don't understand what you mean by "perversity." All the ways in which society and human nature work differently from how you think they should?

  3. James Babcock

    There's something I think you're missing here, which is that blackmail-in-practice is often about leveraging the norm enforcement of a different community than the target's, exploiting differences in norms between groups. A highly prototypical example is taking information about sex or drug use which is acceptable within a local community, and sharing it with an oppressive government which would punish that behavior.

    Allowing blackmail within a group weakens that group's ability to resist outside control, and this is a very big deal. It's kind of disappointing that, this late in the conversation about blackmail, no one seems to have spotted this!

    1. Michael Vassar

      This is a good point, but also, it's not clear that one solves this problem by banning blackmail. Robin seems to want to solve with blackmail the problem of predatory groups controlling the government.

    2. Benquo Post author

      I think this falls under the broad category of "perverse or hostile regimes." At some point this discussion can't be public, I suppose, so this comment is short.

      1. Michael Vassar

        It's plausible, and fits in with your post, to treat the Anglosphere null hypothesis as being perverse or illicit regimes, but that seems to conflict with many other theories, such as the theory that one has and wants some policies, e.g. for a welfare state or an army. I'm happy to keep blackmail illegal if we can also get rid of the police, the military and school.

  4. Zvi Mowshowitz

    I have a draft in my folder intended to address some of the counter-arguments to my post, and to generally defend privacy as an important thing. But it would not be a strong or properly on-point response to this post directly.

    I noticed when you disagreed with me so strongly, as I was drafting my post and looking for feedback, that I was quite surprised by your reaction. I couldn't figure out how you were getting where you were going. Now I understand much better, as it is clear we are thinking about these things very differently. The way that my cases are summarized and presented here does not represent at all the model I have in my head, which could of course largely be my fault for poor presentation. But if you felt that I held these positions as you describe them - I'd be confused by that, too.

    Anyway, a full response in print would almost certainly take far longer than I have today, so I'll stop there and/or give you a call.

  5. deluks917

    'If you think that people are worse off when better informed - if our society is that perverse - then it's not clear what we're doing when we pretend to offer consequentialist arguments on policy decisions like whether to legalize blackmail. The general consideration that you expect people to make better decisions when better informed doesn't apply here.'

    You are treating 'society' as the relevant scale. This is wrong. Society is certainly extremely perverse and authoritarian. Crime and other forms of 'illicit' behavior are not the fundamental problems facing the United States and similar societies. The fundamental problems are caused by licit behavior! Examples include: drug laws, bad economic regulation, restrictions on housing supply, overseas wars. At the margin improving enforcement of norms, at a societal scale, makes things worse not better. It seems impossible to get drugs legalized. Your model suggests that norms will imrpove if people are well informed about the frequency of currently illicit behavior but this seems like a weak effect. People already seem well aware that drug use is common but we are only now getting legal pot!

    Me saying this is not a self defeating arugment because while society is extremely perverse and authoritarian not all subsets are. On this blog I am happy to say I have used hard drugs, dated multiple people and engaged in BDSM. I am certainly not willing to say this in many contexts. Luckily the rationality community is not particularly perverse.

    Jim's point about enforcing norms of different subgroups is also basically correct.

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  7. TheAncientGeek


    Incentivising blackmail over legal behaviour is only of the glaring problems. The other is that blackmail only works (at revealing information) if it fails (at eliciting payment).

  8. Anonymous

    You, Ben, are in possession right now of many private pieces of information about your friends (and your friends’ organizations) with enough illicit behavior to blackmail them to other friends, their employers, or governments. Some of these things are severely compromising. I can even think of one you already know about another commenter on this thread.

    If you believe your arguments that this blackmail would be good behavior, go do it, and report back the positive results.

    If you don’t want to do that, then why not? Could it be that you are mistaken somewhere if you think from the terms of putting this into actual practice?

      1. Anonymous

        I believe you are deeply mistaken about the moral value and truth promotion of blackmail, thus the perhaps hostile seeming tone. But my question was intended less as a “gotcha” than as a sincere, if leading, question to hopefully give you a chance to see if your moral intuitions flagged anything amiss if you did the thought experiment of realizing _you could actually just be blackmailing people right now, so why aren’t you?_

        I would like more explanation of why you aren’t, if you are willing to answer. Being unwilling to do immediate unilateral disarmament at least needs more explanation if you are proposing the pro-blackmail change as an incremental shift. Why not do small amounts of blackmail them? Illustrate to the community the good that comes from this and establish it as the norm of a community you can influence by demonstration instead of abstract blogging? Or, decide how many of your friends you would need to convince to be pro-blackmail to feel you had a sufficient collective action on a sub community solves, and do it then?

        I think you won’t, because blackmail is morally abhorrent. And this is for the reasons others have pointed out, of norms differences causing an exploitable deference/control to the most restrictive powerful population subset, the fact that people value privacy over some intimate things especially regarding sex, etc, but...

        most notably, the worst part is that by plain incentives, blackmailers are actually on the side of *destroying* true information, either by lies or omission. This is so obvious to me that I feel you must have some very weird blind spot due to being non typically very moral, and having trouble putting yourself in the mindset of a blackmailing. Blackmailers profit when information is *not* revealed, because their target paid them off. Blackmailers are incentivized to lie about whether they will even follow through on a revelation threat, because if they are forced to make a revelation, they have both (a) made no profit and (b) opened a communication channel that can trace them for punishment, in societies where blackmail is punished, or even in societies you imagine where it is not, they are now open to retaliation! They do better to default on their threat, as individual blackmailers are unlikely to care about the viability of blackmail game theory in general, and their victims unlikely to be related. Further, blackmailers are incentivized to falsehood by exaggerations by attempting to deepen any perception of illicit behavior, not to do accurate reporting. You can blackmail almost equally well someone who has done illicit behavior or _someone who is convinced you can convince others of illicit behavior_ even if they were not actually guilty. Because social reality is a thing, and that’s what they are trying to protect against destruction. This is all terrible from the point of someone trying to seek truth! Unless I’m missing something huge, you are, and I would really like to know what’s going on.

        1. Benquo Post author

          It seems to me like you’re interested in a very different question than the one I’m interested in, and not really taking seriously the disjunctive and systemic natures of some of the claims I made.

          1. Anonymous

            On the contrary, I was very interested in this question and your claims, but I’m now disgustingly disappointed in you and _your_ engagement, enough to probably stop reading here.

        2. Benquo Post author

          Let’s say I’m in an battle and have a mindweapon that destroys morale in a 10-foot radius around it. If I use the weapon, I’m more likely to die or at least get hurt, and so are my team members. But if it destroys all morale within a 100-mile radius, then it ends the battle and we’re all better off.

  9. Caryatis

    @benquo Why is it "perverse" or surprising that people would be worse off if better informed? Are you questioning that privacy ever has value?

    This is the revenge porn dilemma. Publishing true info about my (legal, moral) sex life can unfairly endanger or harm me, and we are all better off if such publications don't happen and sex/nudity is somewhat shrouded in secrecy.

    1. Declaration of war

      It's not surprising if privacy has value for the person preserving it. It's very surprising if it has social value.

      Trivially, information puts people in better positions to make decisions. If it doesn't, it logically has to be due to their perverse behaviors.

      It seems self-evident that we are all MASSIVELY worse off because sexuality is somewhat shrouded in secrecy. If we don't agree on that point, not regarding what happens on the margins, but regarding global policy, I simply consider you to be part of rape culture and possibly it would be immoral to blackmail you rather than simply exposing you unconditionally.

  10. Tactics

    In an unjust world, it's not possible to seek truth on the margin. If falsehood is inscribed in stone and falsification actively opposed, one must try to destroy the power of those who defend falsehood, which is an infra-marginal change.

    Blackmail isn't morally abhorrent. Infra-marginal shifts towards locally better conditions within perverse systems, are morally abhorrent.

  11. Caryatis

    @Declaration of war

    Your comment is expressed with such hostility I'm not sure I should engage, but I'll give it a shot...

    Publicizing private info about sexuality is dangerous. The mild, everyday version of this is that women get hit on more when more is known about their sex lives. For more extreme versions, read any article about revenge porn or "outing" sexual minorities. It's hard for me to understand Ben's/Robin Hanson's point about blackmail because they don't seem to address this.

    You probably are thinking of examples where sharing more info about sex is good--e.g., publicizing rape is a necessary step towards prosecuting rape, and sex ed is probably good--but that doesn't alter the point that spreading private info about sex is often bad, which is one big example of why blackmail is bad.

    1. Declaration

      No, it really does alter the point. Reverses it actually.
      Coordinated concealing information is always about perpetuating patterns of abuse.

      1. Anonymous

        This is so wrong. Also @Caryatis, I’m guessing Declaration & Tactics is just the OP (Benquo) commenting under a different name for some reason. @Benquo, Would love to see him come here and tell me I’m wrong about that though, since that reduces the extent to which I think he is the one being wrong and hostile.

        1. Benquo Post author

          I was a little surprised to see someone else express opinions so similar to my true feelings here (which are stronger than my endorsed opinions), but they’re not me.

      2. caryatis

        You're not engaging with my point. Why is the near-universal human characteristic of wanting privacy about sexual matters "about perpetuating patterns of abuse?" Don't you agree that people have good reasons for concealing consensual, non-abusive sexual behavior?

        1. Benquo Post author

          “Most individuals have an interest in concealing X” is entirely consistent with the possibility of “revealing all X benefits most people.” I would like this thread to terminate if it’s not going to involve recognition of that distinction on all sides of the argument. Caryatis, you’re free to host the very different sort of discussion you seem to want to have elsewhere.

          1. Anonymous

            Benquo's "mindweapon" comment, elsewhere in the replies, helped me get this. (Not to say I've "gotten it" fully.)

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  13. Anon

    I find weird sex act Alpha disgusting and abhorrent. It is clear that only small minority enjoy weird sex act Alpha, so there will not be much push-back if we make it illegal and persecute it. Aren't we all better off now that we have identified who perpetrators of Alpha are so we can label and ostracize them properly? Thank goodness that us normal people don't have to risk interacting with those horrible Alpha loving perverts.

  14. TheAncientGeek

    , '“Most individuals have an interest in concealing X” is entirely consistent with the possibility of “revealing all X benefits most people.” I would like this thread to terminate if it’s not going to involve recognition of that distinction on all sides of the argument. '

    Maybe we could also recognise that the nett harm if the first could outweigh the nett benefit of the second.

  15. Eric Fletcher

    Re: Incentives
    In many cases, individuals already have a financial incentive to uncover and expose lawbreaking. "Information leading to the arrest of..." rewards, percentage allocations for whistle-blowing, and you-tube ad revenue from your expose video, are all examples of financial incentives to report _accurate_ _unlawful_ conduct that was already occurring. Plus the non-monetary rewards for doing so of pride & prestige.

    1. Benquo Post author

      True, but the rewards for whistleblowing are often fairly small relative to the costs that the whistleblown-on are able to impose.

  16. Burberry, Connecticut

    It seems to me that we're running into an under-acknowledged double meaning of the word "illicit".

    If some practice is horrendously unethical yet seen as acceptable and common, I can't really blackmail anyone with it. Most people wouldn't even bother hiding it in the first place.
    I can only execute blackmail with something that provokes social shame or public retribution, and that works whether the material is actually unethical or not.

    So instead of targeting unethical behavior, blackmail targets behavior that is shamed or reviled by public consensus.
    And yes, there's some overlap, there are a lot of genuinely bad things that also happen to be publically disliked, but I don't think the overlap is anywhere near tight enough to really trust blackmail as a moral enforcement mechanism.

    (I'd actually expect that legalizing blackmail would make the mismatch worse, as it would increase the incentive to mess with public norms. There'd be an even bigger payoff for trying to normalize one's own ethical transgressions, or for stigmatizing ethically-neutral behaviors one might have interest in preventing.)

    Possibly some of the squick reactions to the pro-blackmail line of argument are because that line of argument suggests a weak distinction between shameful and evil, at least when shameful is defined according to the right community. This sets off the alarm bell for the "blood-covered Lawful Good Paladin of righteous slaughter" trope. I don't believe this of you, just the argument for blackmail, here and elsewhere, did give me a squick reaction for that sort of reason.

    1. Benquo Post author

      but I don't think the overlap is anywhere near tight enough to really trust blackmail as a moral enforcement mechanism.

      Relative to what?

      1. Burberry, Connecticut

        Relative to not allowing blackmail with other things being the same. That is, I'd expect normalized blackmail to be a plain net negative rather than merely being worse than other moral enforcement options.

        That's because it's not really a moral enforcement mechanism, it's a conventionality enforcement mechanism.

        The case for blackmail only seems good if we really, really, trust public opinion to be consistently moral now and remain consistently moral in the future.

        1. Benquo Post author

          if we really, really, trust public opinion to be consistently moral now and remain consistently moral in the future.

          Again, relative to what? Advertising? Evolution? Swords?

          It seems like you're just restating the position that enhanced ability to detect and punish norm-violations would be bad, without offering any particular evidence or model that suggests that I should think that this is the case, OR engaging with the implications of what else has to be true if this is true.

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  22. tailcalled

    I don't know if this argument has been addressed in the rationalist blackmail debates but I wonder about information constraints. Like if norms are really meant to address certain latent variables, but those latent variables aren't directly observable, they may address proxies. Those proxies are going to be error-prone indicators of the latent variables, and people might be able to leverage personal detailed information to assess the latents more directly, and might disproportionately reveal norm violators in cases where the proxies accurately reflect the latents. But blackmail could incentivize people to ignore accuracy and reveal norm violators even in cases where the proxies don't accurately reflect the latents.

    1. Benquo Post author

      In cases where the motive really is to use X as evidence about Y, it should be relatively easy to establish the true norm of "X is prima facie evidence of norm violation Y," and distinguish that from "X is a norm violation"; specifically, the difficulty of using other specific evidence against Y should be fully explained by the cognitive and communication overhead required to transmit that info. People doing X but not Y would have an affirmative interest in the disclosure of the personal detailed info.

      So the more resistance we encounter explaining away X relative to the communication and cognitive cost, and the more you expect people who did X but not Y to be harmed by the release of related personal detailed info, the weaker the explanation "X is evidence of norm violation Y" is.


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