Various rationalist blogs and Less Wrong have recently posted on and discussed blackmail, and specifically legality and acceptability of such. I found the discussion unsatisfying, and I'm trying to understand why that is, and whether I'm alone in that.

As it was happening, it didn't feel like a particularly political topic - nobody seemed personally invested in the outcome. But it did seem like everyone (including myself, sometimes) was presenting examples or (over)generalizing to support their beliefs, and very few were seeking counterexamples or cruxes or lines of demarcation between different intuitions.

So - was this politics in disguise? Was some other bias interfering with the discussion? Was it useful and I just missed it? Did any sort of consensus emerge?

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I started without very strong beliefs about blackmail, and over the course of the discussion I think mostly just gained more fleshed-out models of blackmail. I still lean towards "Blackmail is bad, should probably be illegal" and think most of the arguments to the contrary seemed optimistic or naive.

But the arguments to the contrary did also deepen my understanding of what things you might want to accomplish with blackmail, such as:

  • encourage punishment of actual bad behavior
  • counterbalancing punishment of elites (who have more power and so are generally harder to punish)
  • reach a new equilibrium where everyone knows that certain things are more common than we pretend they are, such that they maybe becomes less shameful, with weird distortionary effects.

I don't think blackmail is a very useful way to go about that, but the underlying goals there seem important and I can think about them more clearly.

I started out with weak beliefs that blackmail is acceptable, and that weakened further, but didn't change sign. It did highlight for me that the context that makes blackmail viable is often unpleasant, and examples are far too available which categorize blackmail as "monetary incentive to do the wrong thing (in either direction, by being paid in some cases and by not being paid in others)", rather than "monetary incentive to choose between two permissible actions".

It did make it clear (to me, maybe everyone else knew it) that i... (read more)



While it's not the traditional blue vs. red politics, it seems very political to me.

Even when the debate is unlikely to have an effect on the dejure legality of blackmail it's not certain that there aren't practical consequences.

People generally don't want other people to blackmail them and as a result they do have a stake in promoting social norms according to which blackmail should be shunned.

The debate was started by Hanson who's a person who already advises projects that try to get around the law to enable people to make money with information that couldn't be monetized previously.



It's not politics in disguise, but it's hard to discuss rationally for similar reasons. Politics is hard-mode for rationality because it is a subcategory of identity and morals. The moral rightness of a concrete action seems likely to trigger all of the same self-justification that any politics discussion will, albeit along different lines. Making this problem plausibly worse is that the discussion of morality here cannot be as easily tied to disagreements about predicted outcomes as those that occur in politics.



I did not detect any consensus, except insofar as people mostly kept their previous position.

I found it useful for two reasons: first, it clarified my position on the comparison case of gossip; second, it expanded the regulation of elites into a general consideration, a topic with which I am otherwise much concerned.

The thrust of the blackmail argument was that there are no central reasons to punish it over punishing gossip, with which I agree. This is because I also despise gossip, which I sort-of-knew but it hadn't snapped into clarity before.

I remain sympathetic to the punishment of elites argument; I am slowly considering how much of a hit I would be willing to take in order that the powerful take a bigger one.

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As a meta side note, I think this is a good use of the question feature. It is in the direction of collecting-and-summarizing discussions, which seems perpetually difficult.

A possibility I didn't see discussed:

Person A is blackmailed by person B, with blackmail material P.

Person A can respond not only by

1) going public about B's threat to reveal P, and what B tried to blackmail A to do, but can also*

2) release P, and thereby push society towards different norms/standards, where P and materials like it are not blackmail material.


(The idea behind option 2 comes from an article calling for Jeff Bezos to go with option 2, in regards to him recently being blackmailed by the National Enquirer.)