David Letterman´s affairs with female staff members yielded an interesting moral issue: the Paradox of Blackmail. This is not the “newest news”, yet I just read it and had to share it with you all. The article from The New Yorker can be read here. The main point is that Robert Joel Halderman is now being prosecuted under the accusation of committing blackmail: threatening to expose Letterman’s affairs, unless the talk-show host gives him some money.
But where lays the Paradox? If we break the action of blackmailing into two separate parts, we end up having the following: firstly, Halderman threatens to expose publicly some information; secondly, he asks for some money as part of a business transaction. Analyzed in this way, both actions are perfectly legal. Nonetheless, when put together, they characterize blackmail and trigger moral repulse. And there lays the Paradox…
Some philosophers have attempted to explain the Paradox of Blackmail. Saul Smilansky believes that blackmail is actually a fairly standard capitalist practice, and even though we have no god reasons to legalize it, our repulse towards the practice is unjustified.
I believe the best explanation was given by Richard Epstein (University of Chicago and NYU). He explains the moral and legal condemnation of blackmail through a sort of kantian argumentation. In an article called “Blackmail, Inc.”, he argues that if we hypothetically consider a world where blackmail is legal, then the consequences are morally objectionable – given that it would lead ultimately to lying, and lying is wrong. Thus our response to the practice would be justified.
If this solves the problem or not is still an open question… either way, interesting philosophical discussion!
A Primer on the Distinction between Justification and Excuse
By Andrew Botterell , University of Western Ontario
(Vol. 3, December 2008)