Sunday, June 07, 2009

What is this "Obligation" You Speak Of?

On the outing-gate scandal that is consuming the blogosphere, Matthew Franck writes something very revealing:
[E]xploding someone's cover and revealing his identity breaches no ethical norm I can think of. Blevins had his reasons for writing as "Publius," but Ed had no obligation to respect those reasons, and he didn't have to catch Blevins in any form of unethical argumentation in order to "out" him. I'm sympathetic to Ed's view that Blevins "smeared" him, but I haven't weighed that matter very carefully, and I don't think it counts for much on the ethical scorecard one way or the other. Ed reported a fact he had a right to tell, for whatever reason it suited him to tell it—including no particular reason at all other than that he found it useful at the moment he did it.

The claim here, that we have "no obligation to respect" the decisions of our fellow human beings; that one's choice over how to present oneself in the public eye can be swatted aside for "no particular reason at all", is astounding to me. It represents one of the attributes I find most distasteful about the modern conservative movement -- the complete dismissal of interconnectedness, solidarity, or even respectful interaction. Anything I have the "right" to do, I should be able to do without criticism or compunction. Free speech means I can make a racist joke about a co-worker. Should I? Who cares -- it's free speech! The mechanics of the law and the marketplace mean that I can make billions of dollars destroying ecosystems and horde the entire thing, spending nary a penny on the public good. Should I? Who cares -- it's capitalism! Freedom is understood to mean not just legal autonomy, but moral autonomy as well -- a kind of sick Nietzcheanism that renders basic ethical interaction superfluous. For those of us who are not only for ourselves, this sort of mentality can't help but repulse.

And that's as a general matter. On the specific point of pseudonyms, Hilzoy's post on the matter shows how spectacularly irresponsible this is. Franck admits he wouldn't out a Chinese dissident who'd be tortured if his identity was revealed. But Whelan had no idea why publius chose to remain pseudonymous. His reasons turned out to be to avoid family strife, to protect the careers of (Republican) operatives in his family, and to avoid any tenure controversies. All solid enough reasons for me. But they could have been considerably more dramatic. He might have had a stalker. He might have a boss who swore never to hire Democratic scum (unlikely given that he was an academic, but a possibility for bloggers in fields without strong norms of academic freedom). The point is, we didn't know. And in absence of that knowledge, Whelan cavalierly decided to roll dice with publius' life. Because he had the right to. And that's all that matters.


Anonymous said...

Good post, but let's not defame Nietszche.

chingona said...

An anecdote to give some perspective on how far outside the norms of, at very least, etiquette, and to my mind, ethics as well, this incident is.

Some years back, Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy had a post about the spectacularly misogynistic rantings of a pseudonymous OB/GYN blogger. A few of the commenters managed to piece together the guy's identity based on some biographical info revealed here and there in his archives (each piece on its own was not revealing, but taken together, they narrowed the field enough, and someone knew someone who had been to school at the same place, who had a guess, plus info from his IP address, etc., etc.).

And they started discussing in comments whether they should out the guy. They had a good justification - his patients deserved to know the man they were trusting their health to hates women. But they decided, completely voluntarily and through discussing it among themselves, they wouldn't out him because they wouldn't want the same thing done to them by someone who found their (radical feminist) views objectionable or even horrifically offensive.

So if some man-hating radical feminists can find it in themselves to not out a misogynist shit of a doctor, surely Whelan could have found it in himself to not out publius because he made him look foolish.