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Let say someone takes a picture of a couple having sex through an open window. Should it be illegal for him to threaten to post the picture on the Internet unless the couple pay him a fee to buy the rights to such photograph? If so, why? What is the principle that makes this a violation of rights?

Keep in mind that Ayn Rand makes a very clear distinction between physical force (coercive) vs. psychological force (persuasive).

asked Jan 30 '12 at 14:05

Humbug's gravatar image


edited Jan 31 '12 at 11:58

I must disagree with ethwc (I did not wade through the myriad comments, so I apologize if what I say is duplicative).


Can blackmail ever be a rights violation?


Is it always a rights violation, and, in particular, is the situation described in the question a rights violation?



Blackmail, as I am using the term, is where a person tries to get another person to do something by threatening to reveal information if the other person does not comply. (Do not get blackmail confused with extortion which is similar, but where the threat is of physical harm rather than revealing information)

If the person threatening to reveal the information is legally obligated not to reveal the information, then threatening to do so is a rights violation. For example, if you have signed a contract to not reveal the information, have a fiduciary duty not to reveal it, are under a court order not to reveal it, etc. [If the information was obtained illegally, then the blackmail could also be thought of as a rights violation, although in that case I would say obtaining the information illegally is the rights violation, and the blackmail is ancillary to that]

If however, the information is legally obtained (as the question posits), and there is no other legal duty not to reveal it, threatening to reveal it is not a rights violation. To violate someones rights one must initiate the use of physical force or commit fraud. A threat to reveal information is not an initiation of force, direct or indirect.

It is wrong to speak of being "coerced" when there is no threat of force. The questioner is absolutely right to point out that Ayn Rand distinguished between coercion and persuasion. Coercion is where you give a person two choices: (1) do what I want, or (2) physical harm.

Ethwc, as far as I understand (correct me if I am wrong), is saying that coercion can mean giving a person a choice between:(1) do what I want, or (2) any harm (physical, emotional, etc). His argument appears to be that because an action results in harm (of any kind) to another person, it must be a rights violation. I do not think this is correct. Indeed, statists love to try to twist "coercion" to mean this. They then argue that it is coercion for an employer to threaten to fire an employee if he does not work overtime (after all, the employee would be harmed financially by being fired), for a husband to threaten to leave a marriage if the wife does not have sex with him (after all, the wife would be emotionally harmed if he left), for a person to threaten to not engage in business with you unless you give them a discount (after all, you will be harmed financially if they do not do business with you), etc. They continue this line of reasoning until they arrive at formulations like "it is coercion for the owner of a peanut to not give it to a hungry man" (i.e., the owner implicitly threatens the hungry man with sending him to jail if he does not refrain from eating the peanut) (this very influential article made this argument; here is an abridged version if you cannot access the full one), which ultimately lead to conclusions that "all property is theft" and the like.

I am not arguing that emotional harm (or other harm) is not real or important. The point is that the concept of rights does not protected us from every possible form of harm. Rights protect us from a limited class of harms: physical force and fraud.

For an interesting article on blackmail see this.

answered Feb 04 '12 at 15:53

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

eric, I am having some difficulty making the transition from "give me your money or I will publish embarrassing material about you to the world." to "give me you food or you will be sent to jail." I certainly believe that the single most effective reaction to blackmail is to self publish the supposedly embarrassing material. I am not quite so clear on the point at which physical harm is differentiated from psychological harm.

(Feb 04 '12 at 18:06) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

Just read the abridged article. I find two major sources of error in this man's logic chain. First is his implied supposition that humans are incapable of trading without use of coercive force (i.e., employers pay only to the extent that employers force them). Second is his assertion in two places that persons make sacrifices in order to "earn" their coercive side of the interaction. If you point of objection to my answer is that blackmail is not coercive, then I agree that it is not immoral. I might point out that most of us would feel soiled were we to come in contact with a blackmailer

(Feb 04 '12 at 18:38) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

I totally agree with you that Hale is completely wrong. I simply cited him as an example of how liberals twist "coercion" in order to destroy the concept of rights. Hale's article is considered one of the most influential articles of all time in legal circles.

(Feb 04 '12 at 18:59) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Hale's peanut argument is essentially this:(1) coercion is threatening to inflict some disvalue unless the other person does what you want them to do, (2) the peanut owner wants the hungry man to not take his peanut, (3) the peanut owner gets the hungry man to do what he wants him to do (i.e., not take his peanut) by threatening him with a disvalue (i.e., sending him to jail).

Ergo, the owner has coerced the hungry man. He argues that the law is inherently coercive, and that when we say we are protecting rights we are really just employing coercion on behalf of one party at the expense of

(Feb 04 '12 at 19:02) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

another party. He completes his "deconstruction" of rights by asking why we favor some government coercion (e.g., rights protection) over other forms of government coercion (e.g., redistribution of wealth). If coercion is the name of the game, he argues, then its just as legit for a government to coerce on behalf of the poor as it is to protect rights.

Hale is full of crap, of course.

(Feb 04 '12 at 19:05) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

So, I guess we could reasonably agree that blackmail using information obtained through a legal means is neither immoral nor illegal. I can see the validity of that. On the other hand, I believe I will continue to find such persons to be rather distasteful and will not generally invite them to dinner. As an aside, in 48 years of marriage, I have found that telling my wife of potentially embarrassing situations before she hears of it from others has prevented a lot of potential problems. Blackmail is only successful if one gives the blackmailer value.

(Feb 04 '12 at 20:30) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

I agree with you that the blackmailer is pretty scummy. I would even go further and say that blackmail is immoral in many instances. My argument was that it is not a rights violation. Without going through every possible permutation, I think that in the vast majority of blackmail cases the blackmailer is being immoral--they are seeking to obtain values through threatening and manipulating others, rather than through first-handed value production. That does not sound like a rationally self interested person to me (but I'll leave the rigorous proof for others).

(Feb 04 '12 at 22:04) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

In the case of a journalist who takes a picture of a newsworthy event, without violating any rights in the process of taking the picture (e.g. trespassing), and then solicits others (including the subject of the picture) to bid on the rights, I wouldn't say "they are seeking to obtain values through threatening and manipulating others". On the other hand, I think there's a good argument that they are violating their journalistic integrity by choosing to publish or not publish the picture based on whether or not the subject pays them.

I agree that, in any case, I don't see a rights violation.

(Feb 05 '12 at 08:48) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Now, say they're not a journalist, just an amateur photographer who happens to stumble upon the scene (without having violated any rights, e.g. trespassing). Is there any moral problem with them soliciting others (including the subject of the picture) to bid on the rights? It doesn't seem to be "seeking to obtain values through threatening and manipulating others". And there's no journalistic integrity for them to worry about.

Is it immoral?

(Feb 05 '12 at 08:56) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Given the rapid growth of "amateur" journalists and photographers, I see little difference.

(Feb 06 '12 at 11:42) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

You have cleverly recast the situation as a sale of the picture, rather than a threat to publish if not paid off. The sale is different in kind than the threat to not-do-something. The sale offers a value for a value. The threat offers a disvalue unless a value is surrendered. Can this distinction be collapsed in borderline cases? Certainly. Does it therefore become meaningless? No. In any event, I allow that some situations that might be blackmail but are on the fringe of the concept would not be immoral. Actions that are in the core meaning of the term, however, I think are immoral.

(Feb 06 '12 at 11:49) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

The main difference, which I pointed out, is that an amateur photographer does not have journalistic integrity to worry about. A professional journalist makes a living off his journalistic integrity. If a professional journalist selectively publishes material based on whether or not the subject pays him, then the value of his skills - his ability to make a living, is destroyed.

For an amateur photographer, that is not a concern.

(Feb 08 '12 at 07:26) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"You have cleverly recast the situation as a sale of the picture, rather than a threat to publish if not paid off."

That is, quite often, exactly how blackmail works. The law draws no distinction. And how could it? Blackmailers would simply always phrase their blackmail as a sale of publication rights.

"The sale is different in kind than the threat to not-do-something."

Aren't all sales a threat to not-do-something?

(Feb 08 '12 at 07:39) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I swore I would be done with this endless thread, but I cannot let such an outrageous statement pass by without challenge. Sales and threats are clearly different. Auctioning a photo to the highest bidder is offering a value in exchange for a value. Telling someone give me money or I will publish this is threatening a disvalue. The intent of the photographer also makes a difference: does he intend to gain values merely by threatening harm to another or by producing something of value? Sometimes the intent is clear. Other times it is mixed--he doesn't care how or why he gets paid.

(Feb 09 '12 at 09:04) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

If the person sets up a sham auction so that it looks like a sale, but all along intends to simply blackmail the subject of the photo, then I think he is immoral. Obviously he can (and should be able to) do this legally (as my answer above explains). That does not make it moral.

(Feb 09 '12 at 09:09) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

"Sales and threats are clearly different."

Well, yeah. A sale is the actual trade. A "threat to not-do-something" is, as best I can tell, an offer to sell (or in the case of a lawsuit, an offer to settle).

(Feb 09 '12 at 17:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"Telling someone give me money or I will publish this is threatening a disvalue."

What if the other person comes up with the idea? Then it's just called a nondisclosure agreement, right?

Publishing would be a disvalue to one person, but presumably it would be a value to one or more other people. Maybe "give me money or I will publish this" isn't phrased very nicely, but substantively it's not any different from "by agreeing to not publish this, I am giving up a value, and I'm willing to give up that value for $X".

I think the issue is much more complicated than you're making it out to be.

(Feb 09 '12 at 17:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Really in many if not most cases of blackmail the right thing to do is probably to reveal the secret. If a guy is cheating on his wife, and you take $1000 to not tell the wife about the affair, the person harmed is the wife. I wouldn't say the moral issue is with "threatening a disvalue". The moral issue is that the wife justly deserves to know about the affair.

(Feb 09 '12 at 17:18) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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The morality of taking pictures through a window seems questionable to me. However, coercing the persons involved in the activity that was photographed is simply another form of initiating force in order to take another's property (money in this case). As such, that coercive taking is immoral. In addition it is illegal under our laws. You seem to assume that this is a "persuasive" taking since there is not a physical threat involved. I disagree in that the taking will cause damage to the person being coerced. While there may be no harm to the person's body, there will be harm to his/her property. To me, persuasive force would be seen if one met with the person or persons involved and attempted to convince them to cease that activity in the future. No pictures (invasion of reasonably expected privacy) would be needed as there would be no threat of damaging them.

answered Feb 01 '12 at 13:30

ethwc's gravatar image

ethwc ♦

What "property" is that? His image? Does that mean that reporters may also be sued for "damage to property" if they take a picture of a celeb who is not wearing makeup and don't look quite as good as she is supposed to?

(Feb 01 '12 at 19:41) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

The property being taken is the person's money by threatening to post the pictures publicly unless given money. Blackmail is theft.

(Feb 01 '12 at 19:57) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

Is it theft if I convince you that you will go to hell unless you buy these things called "indulgence"?

(Feb 01 '12 at 21:34) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Were I to be silly enough to believe in hell, I might be silly enough to fall for that ancient scam. It remains a scam. In my value system, taking value for fraudulent benefit is theft. It is not coercive theft but is fraud.

(Feb 01 '12 at 22:11) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

Wouldn't fraud require that I knowingly lie? What if I buy into the belief too?

Let me posit a modified scenario. Let say there's a website that will pay me $X for such a picture. Should I NOT give you the opportunity to outbid that picture because to do so would make it a violation of rights?

(Feb 02 '12 at 02:23) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Somehow, you seem to want to have me accept blackmail as a moral way in which to do business. And that it is moral to invade someone's reasonable expectation of privacy in order to obtain information with which to blackmail them. If you do not recognize these actions as the thuggery that they are, I guess we will not be able to have a meaningful discussion on the matter and should move on to another subject.

(Feb 02 '12 at 07:59) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

"Should I NOT give you the opportunity to outbid that picture because to do so would make it a violation of rights?" In all the reasonable scenarios I can come up with, no, you should not (which is not to say that it should be illegal).

Is the picture newsworthy? How was it obtained?

(Feb 02 '12 at 12:15) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"reasonable expectation of privacy"

But this is a legal term of art, which must either stand or fall when reduced to more basic moral principles. This issue goes back to whether there is a special "right to privacy," which Objectivists debate from time to time, and which I suspect will require specialized historical and legal knowledge to resolve. You may be right in the end, but I don't see the answer as being as obvious as you think it is.

(Feb 02 '12 at 12:20) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

@ethwc - The original question was "Is blackmail using morally obtained information immoral?" A moderator's feedback got me to change "immoral" to "a violation of rights". I'm not looking for a moral waiver to make blackmail a business for myself. I'm looking to identify the chain of justifications as to why it's a violation of rights (if that is a valid conclusion) starting from a principle.

(Feb 02 '12 at 12:31) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

I am not an attorney but believe most persons expect their home to be a place where privacy is respected with the exception of a cout issued search warrant. The more basic issue in this particular scenario is the use of blackmail. The law and most of us believe blackmail to be an illigitimate use of coercion. Of course, the way to defeat a blackmailer is to make public the perceived misdeed prior to that person's action. Letterman did this a few years ago.

(Feb 02 '12 at 12:33) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

You've made an astute observation that blackmail loses much of its power if the target was not morally wrong or become morally right. The power of blackmail is really a psychological one. I would think that most Objectivists are immune to psychological attacks.

The question also isn't about what the law is today but rather, what should the law be and most importantly, why? I hope that someone can provide me with an answer that does not begin with "I want", "Most people would want", "Most people would expect", etc.

(Feb 02 '12 at 13:25) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

"I hope that someone can provide me with an answer..."

"Is blackmail using morally obtained information a violation of rights?" Not necessarily.

"Should it be illegal for him to threaten to post the picture on the Internet unless the couple pay him a fee to buy the rights to such photograph?" Not necessarily.

(Feb 02 '12 at 14:17) anthony anthony's gravatar image

There are at least three forms of blackmail. There is threatening to do something illegal unless you are paid off ("give me $X or I will reveal this trade secret"). There is solicitation to coverup a crime in exchange for money ("give me $X and I won't reveal the crime you committed"). And there is blackmail which doesn't fall under either category ("give me $X and I won't reveal to the world that you like Barry Manilow music").

I don't see any justification for making the latter a crime.

(Feb 02 '12 at 14:41) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Jan 30 '12 at 14:05

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Last updated: Feb 09 '12 at 17:20