29 December 2010


BLACKMAIL. Julia Galef poses a fascinating moral question in What's Wrong With Blackmail?. "Imagine someone named Sue finds herself in possession of some information about Bob that he would prefer she not reveal to anyone else. So she offers him a deal -- 'Pay me $10,000 and I'll keep my mouth shut.' .... The paradox of blackmail has bedeviled legal scholars and philosophers of law for years. While it's typically legal to reveal information about someone, as long as that information is accurate and legally-obtained, it's illegal to do so as a way of soliciting money from him. Unlike with extortion, where the perpetrator is threatening to do something illegal if she isn't paid ('Give me $10,000, or I'll burn down your house'), with black mail the perpetrator is threatening to do something legal. If the act itself -- revealing the information -- isn't bad enough to be criminalized, then why is merely threatening to commit the act so terrible? This paradox is often expressed in terms of blackmail being composed entirely of uncriminal parts. Telling someone you'd like $10,000 isn't a crime, revealing someone's secret isn't a crime, and yet telling someone you'd like $10,000 or you will reveal his secret is a crime. How can this be?"

Galef goes on to reveal the layers of reasoning which contribute to the paradox -- different kinds of blackmail, whether the information to be revealed itself has to do with a criminal act, why we restrict certain freedoms (e.g., regardless of our Constitutional right to freedom of speech, it is illegal to yell "FIRE!!" in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire -- the resulting panic would interrupt people's lives and likely cause injury), our visceral reactions to the kind of people who would commit invasive acts, and the benefits/liabilities of gossip to the gossiper, to the gossipee, and to any third parties (including the public at large). It is a fascinating discussion.

CHEATING. As both a student and a teacher, I've always had zero tolerance for cheating. An exam is intended to test one's knowledge of a subject, not to present a playful challenge to receive an unearned grade by outwitting the rules. The cheater ends up victimizing him/herself in the end, since that knowledge has not been learned and put to use. Even so, my policy as a teacher was firm -- if you are caught cheating, you receive a grade of zero for that exam. End of story.

With the advent of personal electronic devices (email, texting, cell phones), cheating has entered new realms of sophistication. And as Trip Gabriel reports, secondary schools and universities in turn are using technology, data forsenics, and statistical anomalies to combat cheating at its source, with demonstrable success. The article is a revelation to someone who studied and taught in a much more low-tech world.

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