17 September, 2008

Gray's Morality

With every line drawn, there is always a bit of gray to either side. For example, this line from my last post
And that, my friends, is the line that something or someone needs to cross before any activity can be ethically and morally restricted, hereby bolded for easier retention: actual and measurable harm, whether physical or economic, to another individual.
... combined with today's announcement about Sarah Palin's Yahoo! account being hacked
Now comes word that Anonymous, the fun-loving Internet trouble-makers based loosely around the message board 4Chan, gained access to another Palin email account: gov.palin@yahoo.com.
... and I have to ask myself, does a violation of privacy go against my personal "actual and measurable harm" limitation? Can the breach of privacy constitute "physical or economic" harm to another individual?

For an individual to exist as a member of society, there must be a method of separation between the titles of "I" and "you", the darkness behind the eyes and the brightness of our collective gazes. The method that a vast majority of us use is our privacy. Whether it is our emails, or our private blogs, or our locked diaries, these vessels in which we place vital portions of our selves embody our emotional safety glass: should all things around us shatter, the part that remains under the title of "I" will not break and will remain unscarred.

To use an analogy, what the folks in Anonymous did (and the folks at Gawker continued) was not as simple as reading their big sister's diary. It was, instead, making photocopies of her diary and passing them out wholesale at their big sister's school. This is not a prank. This is a clear and definitive violation of privacy.

Humiliation, particularly on such a large scale as this instance, can constitute measurable harm with little to no imagination necessary. With the added salt in the wounds caused by the posting of the photographs as well as personal contact information for Bristol, Todd, and Track Palin in addition to her own mother's personal address, the "measurable harm" violation becomes clear as day. (All of the above are not running for any elected office and are therefore considered Out Of Bounds under the rules of society unless and until they publicly humiliate themselves. Even then, scandal should be based solely upon what was or was not done in the public eye.) This latter portion is the ethical equivalent of when Rush Limbaugh, on his nationally syndicated television show back in 1995, called Chelsea Clinton "the White House Dog." Unconscionable personal assaults on individuals whose only "crime" is to be members of a politician's immediate family is, in my view, beyond the pale.

(Which reminds me. The Bristol Palin pregnancy thing? I would not have allowed my daughter's name to be dragged through the mud like this. A pox on her mother for allowing her own flesh and blood's personal details to be broadcasted on national television, and particularly through a scandal-addicted venue such as American presidential politics. A vile and vicious pox.)

This matter is only slightly complicated by the fact that the email account in question was also being used as a secondary business account, in violation of the rules of governmental ethics. Yet even then, there are distinct and determined processes that are used to gain access to them via the legal system and/or the Freedom Of Information Act and all the equivalents within the several states. The attack by the Anonymous group circumvented any and all legal methods established.

When it comes to the category of "physical or economic" harm, the argument is somewhat less clear, yet the first part follows under a basic assumption of modern society: time is money.

Every moment spent on recovery from this incident, whether within the McCain-Palin campaign or the Governor's Office of the State of Alaska or within the privacy of the Palin family, is a moment that should have gone towards a better purpose. Whether that purpose be the running of a state government or the running of a political campaign or the operation of a family, a minute spent is a minute forever lost. A minute forever lost is the actual equivalent of loss of the money of taxpayers in the state of Alaska and of campaign contributions to McCain-Palin, in addition to time that a family spends together. For the actual monetary aspects of this, the economic aspect of the harm equation is satisfied.

Please note, however, that I do not include the economic cost to society brought about by the on-going investigation into this incident by the FBI (and, I would assume, the Secret Service), nor do I include the costs of the (I hope) eventual prosecution and incarceration of these individuals. These costs are a function of society under the rule of law and therefore must be borne by us, the members of that society, however it falls upon us.

Yet there is a second prong to the "harm" test: physical harm. As I said in my previous post, "a bruised ego does not cross the . . . line." And here is the gray area of using the harm test to judge what should or should not be considered legal action. Can emotional harm be the equivalent of physical harm?

I am afraid I must waffle on this topic and respond, "It depends." (And now you hear the sound of a dozen people rolling their eyes.) And what determines this is a person's intent to do harm. For this, I must devolve into another analogy. (And the sound of a dozen pairs of eyeballs rotating increases in volume.)

When a person rejects your amorous advances (a subject I am well and truly familiar with), this has the possibility of inflicting emotional harm upon you, depending on the stability of your self-esteem. If your self-esteem is high, then there is little opportunity for harm to befall you. If your self-esteem is low, there is a higher chance for emotional harm to occur. And yet, the occurance of harm is, in and of itself, insufficient to be the trigger for emotional harm to be a factor in the "harm" test. It is there, or it is not. The only way for this scenario to breach the "harm" barrier is if the other person rejects your advances deliberately in a publicly humiliating way (See above parenthetical comment re: Bristol Palin's pregnancy.).

For deliberation signifies a willful and purposeful intent to do harm to another person. In this instance, the initial intent was to violate Sarah Palin's privacy. In consequence, they accessed information that allowed them the additional opportunity to violate the privacy of her mother, her husband, her son, and her daughter. They then proceed to purposefully and willfully violate the privacy of those secondary individuals by posting the ill-received gains on a public site. The method of violation is simple: copy-and-paste. The morality of the violation is simple: cut-and-dried.

On behalf of the moral minority of Internet users, I wish to apologize to the Palin family for the harm that has, or will, come to them because of this incident.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

In my view notion that restrictions should be limited to actual, measurable, physical or economic harm, is too restrictive.

Simply put, we need traffic offenses too. Some violations usually cause no harm, but attaching modest consequences to violations helps remind people that they are open to liability when they do something like that, and also identifies high risk people.

Damages in cases where there is no harm but a clear breach of a right may be nominal, but rights and remedies should not be confused.

Garrison Keilor's small town ethic that practical jokes aren't wrong unless they do harm, in which case you should take full responsibility, works poorly as public policy.

jeanvo said...

Class act, a hefty serving of cyber decency.

auntiegrav said...

Two kinds of morality: Good and anti-evil.
Good morality is work toward benefit of the species/universe agreement (see "net creativity"), which may or may not benefit all in the species, but the means leads to an end which benefits the future of the universe and our offspring.

Anti-evil morality is simpler: Evil is any action taken based upon Blind Faith in something. That could be gods, governments, or gurus, for example.
As long as one has the motivation toward good morality and doesn't fall into the Blind Faith Action trap, then the general behavior should be unobtrusive and sustainable.
As soon as we usurp these two things with bad agreements in the social context, failure to uphold our agreements, or failure of the social contract to uphold the individual, then we see harm take place.
Nature doesn't grant a right to life. Nature grants the right to Try. Everything else is statutory by social contract.
In a democracy, the bullies always win the competition.
In nature, cooperation is the real rule overall. Even between lion and zebra, disease and animal; moderation is the result of cooperative behaviors with the goal of creating something more than the amount of resources consumed. What goes around comes around, but what keeps going around is what survives.