Ethics of the sex tape
A friend was telling me last week about a celebrity sex tape that he particularly enjoys. I’m not going to help publicize this tape, for reasons that should become clear from reading my post, but I can sketch out the rough details for you: The woman is a young singer, publicly Christian, and she’s having sex with a married man. The tape was stolen (or hacked, I’m not sure) and leaked to the public. It’s theoretically possible that she leaked it herself for publicity, I suppose, but it seems unlikely given the cheating and the Christianity — it definitely tarnished the public image she’d carefully constructed for herself, in addition to being humiliating simply by virtue of it being a sex tape.
So I asked my friend if he feels any guilt about watching this tape, knowing that the woman didn’t want other people to see it, and we ended up having a friendly debate about whether there was anything ethically problematic about his behavior. Of course, the answer to that depends on what ethical system you’re using. You could, for example, take a deontological approach and declare that it’s just a self-evident principle that we don’t have a right to watch someone else’s private tape. Or alternately, you could take a virtue ethics approach and declare that enjoying the tape, after it’s already been leaked, is exploiting someone else’s misfortune, which isn’t a virtuous thing to do.
But my friend and I are both utilitarians, at heart, and neither of those lines of argument resonated with us. We were concerned, instead, with what I think is a more interesting question: does watching the tape harm the woman? As my friend emphasized, she’ll never know that he watched it. (At least, that’s true as long as he downloads it from Bit Torrent, or some other file-sharing site where the number of views of the video aren’t recorded such that she could ever see how much traffic it’s gotten.)
I agreed, but was still reluctant to conclude that no harm was done. Do I necessarily have to know about something in order for its outcome to matter to me? If you tell me about two possible states of the world, one in which everyone has seen my awful humiliating sex tape, and one in which no one has, I’m going to have a very strong preference for the latter, even if people behave identically towards me in both potential worlds. So maybe it makes more sense to define “harming someone” to mean, “helping create a world which that person would not want to exist, given the option,” rather than “causing that person to experience suffering or disutility.” My friend’s decision to watch the tape harmed the woman according to the first, but not the second, definition.
Then my friend advanced what I had to admit was a pretty clever argument:
“Well, presumably the reason she doesn’t want people to see her tape is that she assumes it will make them think worse of her. But I am totally non-judgmental about sex, and don’t think worse of her at all for having made a sex tape. So even if you think there can be harm done to someone without the person ever knowing about it, still, the ‘harm’ is not in people watching the tape but in them thinking worse of her. Which I didn’t, so — no harm done.”
Of course, it’s hard to speculate about someone’s mental state. Maybe the woman would’ve been embarrassed even if she knew people weren’t judging her poorly for the tape. After all, a lot of people don’t like the idea of someone accidentally seeing them naked. And there’s no danger of someone thinking worse of you if he’s the one who accidentally walked in on you — obviously you didn’t do anything wrong — so the embarrassment people feel in cases like that is clearly just from the fact of being seen naked.
So I suppose I didn’t entirely buy my friend’s argument (I’m not sure he did either, honestly), and I’m still left a bit torn about how to evaluate situations like this. But even if you don’t think you’re causing any harm by watching leaked sex tapes like this one, you’ll have to admit that you are ceding your “right” to complain if something like this ever happens to you. So if I find out that you help yourself to celebrity sex tapes, be warned: if a private sex tape of yours ever finds its way onto the Internet, I’ll have no qualms about watching it.