The Ashley Madison leaks that exposed an astounding 32 million users of a site designed specifically to enable extramarital hookups, was shocking on many levels. Not least of which is the tone of moral authority adopted by the leakers — as if they were somehow doing a public service by exposing the users.
Were they? As repugnant as marital infidelity may seem to many, it shouldn’t require public excoriation. The United States has made great strides from a nation that once burned witches, blackballed communists, and outlawed same-sex couplings. Today, we aim to free individuals to lead autonomous lives that are self-directed and free of the social stigma that have cast outliers into the shadows for millennia.
The hacker’s motivation is not entirely clear, but we know that they demanded an immediate closing down of the site on the grounds that it was pandering almost exclusively to men, as well as proof that the site did not, as promised, delete customer profiles. For the hackers, the mere fact that the site offered a service that is morally questionable led many to conclude that the “cheaters” deserve to be outed.
But privacy is a slippery thing, and when we frivolously abdicate its protection we stand in peril of losing greater liberties. Privacy, like free speech, can often smell bad, or conflict with our own perceptions of what is right. But it is precisely at those moments of discomfort that we are called as citizens to take a stand for the principles that ensure the full protection of the Constitution.
Examples of hypocrisy being exposed abound, such as Josh Duggar, the former TV celebrity and lobbyist for the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group. His identifying information was reportedly released with the Ashley Madison hacks. “While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the Internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife,” Duggar said in a statement Thursday, following reports of the hack.
Outing someone who blatantly violates his own professional standards of conduct is not only morally permissible, it is morally required. A community depends on its members to keep each other in check, and the media has long served this necessary social function.
But what are we to make of the secretive bloggers who, for entertainment, expose information that they deem offensive?
Last year, journalist Fareed Zakaria was accused of plagiarism by two anonymous bloggers, leaving a bewildered public to watch a well-respected journalist and public intellectual take a fall for some minor transgressions. Why did they do it? We are left to wonder, as no explanation has been forthcoming.
But Zakaria’s missteps were professional transgressions and, thus, warranted a serious sanction. Journalists are bound by a professional code of ethics to uphold the highest level of truth in their reporting. So while plagiarism might be considered minor, it is never acceptable for a journalist and, thus, was appropriately reported by the bloggers.
The Ashley Madison website does not violate any professional codes of ethics. It is, rather, a highly individual choice that both men and women have made to engage in secret sexual encounters. The ethical choice by the hackers to publish those names, addresses, and sexual preferences does not rise to the level of whistle-blowing or civil disobedience. It is, rather, an attempt to shame people who engage in consensual sexual practices with which the hackers disagree.
We live in a world that is shaped by instantaneous information and stimulation, that will not change. We are, many argue, not emotionally caught up with the bounty of choices that exist in the Internet space.
Rather than focusing on the moral claims of the hackers, we should question the trust that some people place in a medium that is so fraught with potential for leaked privacy.
It is human nature to moralize, to shame, and to violate accepted standards. The function of ethics in society is to continually return to the question of what kind of world we choose to live in.
We may well condemn adultery, but do we choose to make public shaming the alternative? Dissent and discord are the proof of a free society. Yet fear that every online action could become public is a sure-fire way to chill any form of expression. Shame as a moral motivator has never proved to be an effective tool, and we should not revert to it now as an electronic gallows in the public square.
Aine Donovan is the director of the Dartmouth College Ethics Institute.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that marital infidelity is legal. It is illegal, typically a misdemeanor, in 20 states. In Massachusetts, adultery is a felony.