Revenge Porn Sites

In teaching ethics in a business school, I typically focus upon decision making errors that well-intentioned people make.  I do so because I believe that most of my students do have good intentions, as do most people in business.  They want to have careers that they can be proud of.

But even people of good character have minds that often enable them to fool themselves by allowing ethical issues to fade into the background, as Bazerman and Tenbrunsel have pointed out, or to fool themselves with rationalizations.  As Mlodinow wrote: “The truth is, from criminals to greedy executives to the ‘nasty’ guy down the street, people who act in ways we abhor are usually convinced that they are right.”   Even Lance Armstrong told Oprah that at the time he was doping, he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.  The human power of rationalization never ceases to amaze.

What do you think goes through the head of ex-boyfriends who post intimate photos of their former girlfriends on “revenge porn” sites such as Texxxan.com?  It’s hard to believe that they cannot see the unethical aspects of their actions, so what rationalization could justify such a heinous act?

Perhaps it’s just because I am an old fogey.  Maybe it’s not that big a deal to post without her permissions or knowledge  nude photos of a former flame for all the world to see.  But to me it seems very, very hurtful and wrong.  I agree with Jill Filipovic, who posted on her blog this week that this is another manifestation of “a widespread, deeply sexist online culture everywhere from blog comment sections to YouTube videos to message boards.”

And the motive of the posters—revenge—is certainly an unattractive one.

So how to justify it?

I assume that the poster’s standard rationalization is that the former paramour was unfaithful, unkind in some other way, or perhaps just insufficiently appreciative of all the boyfriend has to offer.  None of these seem remotely sufficient to justify the deed of posting such photos.

Blaming the victim seems a convenient excuse.  But not a convincing one.  Certainly in a day when even the most intimate photos can be quickly disseminated around the world, it seems ill-advised to allow anyone but the most trusted lover to take an intimate photo.  But lack of wisdom does not constitute consent.  And even rank stupidity would not justify intentional meanness of this form.  In my securities law class, students often complain about the using the mechanisms of the law to protect investors who have been gullible to the point of foolishness, but in my mind it is obvious that when we weigh the rights of the gullible versus those of the venal, the gullible must be favored.   I tell my students that if in business they ever find themselves denigrating their clients or customers, alarms should go off in their heads.  That is a strong sign that they are rationalizing unethical treatment of those clients or customers that they are engaged in or at least contemplating.

Several victims have sued owners of the Texxxan.com site and  Internet hosting company GoDaddy.Com.  Texxxan.com owners offered up an extraordinarily lame excuse along the lines of:  maybe posting these revenge videos kept the ex-boyfriends from visiting violence upon the victims.  In other words, they are saying to the victims of revenge porn:  “Count yourself lucky.  It could have been worse.”  That is idiotic and unacceptable.  Fortunately, Texxan.com has been taken down.

At last report, GoDaddy.Com had refused comment.  Its people are no doubt thinking that if they didn’t host revenge porn sites, someone else would.  This may be true, but it is hardly heroic.  If that’s the best justification you can think of for what you do, it’s probably time to get into another line of work.

Anand and colleagues wrote an article in which they classified common rationalizations that we use to convince ourselves that unethical actions are actually just fine.  I strongly recommend this article to anyone who wishes to be a good person.  In addition to classifying the rationalizations, Anand et al. give examples.  If you hear yourself using any of the examples, you know it is time to rethink your actions.

Ethics education has a fighting chance to help people who want to be good people realize when they are doing bad things that they need to stop.   But Craig Brittain who runs the revenge porn site IsAnybodyDown.com, has said in an interview that he’s just in it for the money.  He isn’t out to hurt anybody, he says, even though he must know that he is hurting people.  He just wants the money. 

Brittain might be a psychopath, but only 1-2% of Americans are, so perhaps he simply embodies the clearest case of ethical fading one can imagine…one that is caused by the self-serving bias.  There are some nuts that are very hard to crack, but it couldn’t hurt Brittain to watch our Ethics Unwrapped video on ethical fading that explains how various psychological forces can cause us to lose track of the ethical aspects of the decisions we make.  In Brittain’s case, the self-serving bias is the most obvious candidate for a moving cause.  He should watch that Ethics Unwrapped video as well. Brittain seems so obsessed with serving his own interests by putting money in his pocket that he cannot (or at least claims he cannot) see the unethical nature of his actions.

Max Bazerman & Ann Tenbrunsel, BLIND SPOTS: WHY WE FAIL TO DO WHAT’S RIGHT AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT (2012)

Leonard Mlodinow, SUBLIMINAL: HOW YOUR UNCONSCIOUS MIND RULES YOUR BEHAVIOR (2012)

Vikas Anand, et al., Business as Usual: The Acceptance and Perpetuation of Corruption in Organizations, 18 Academy of Management Executive 39 (2004).

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One Response to Revenge Porn Sites

  1. Ethics Unwrapped March 28, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    KJ – We welcome you to share your ideas here if you’d like to repost your comments without the profanity.

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