by Henry Farrell on June 9, 2009

I’m glad to see that Ed Whelan has “apologized”:http://bench.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MjljOTg3NDY4ZWUzZWFkODliMzU4M2M3NGM5YTQ2N2Q, for having outed “Publius”:http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2009/06/stay-classy-ed-whelan.html. Bad that he did what he did – good that he apologized for it, and very straightforwardly too. Good also that so many conservatives came out swinging on the right side of this issue. But I actually think that “Michael Krauss”:http://www.pointoflaw.com/archives/2009/06/blogging-ethics.php, professor at GMU’s law school and sometime blogger, was arguably worse behaved than Whelan over this. Whelan perhaps didn’t think through the possible consequences of outing an untenured legal academic. Krauss very clearly did think it through – and apparently wanted the worst to happen. At least, this seems to me to be the most reasonable reading of his expressed hope that “the South Texas tenure committee is watching and taking note.” To hope that a tenure committee will take note of a behaviour you are condemning is to hope that they will deny the responsible individual tenure for doing this (if there is a plausible alternative reading, I am not seeing it). Given that Krauss is himself a senior legal academic, whose opinion of aspiring professors may genuinely affect their chances of doing well, this is nasty and vindictive bullying, which has (to use his own words against him) “no redeeming argument.” Krauss should think through what he has said, take it back and publicly apologize.

Update: I see that Brian Leiter, whose many contributions to intellectual life include his “occasional interventions in this blog’s comment section”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/03/01/greatest-philosopher-of-the-twentieth-century/#comment-267599, is still “disinclined to apologize”:http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2005/06/who_is_juan_non.html for his aborted effort to out ‘Juan non-Volokh’ a few years back. The comparison is instructive.



mpowell 06.09.09 at 3:28 pm

Or how about we just all recognize that Krauss is a dick? I’m not sure what the point of pushing for an apology is here.


Tim Lambert 06.09.09 at 3:40 pm

My experience with Krauss suggests that an apology is unlikely.


Katherine 06.09.09 at 5:58 pm

I can’t say that I agree with you that Whelan has adequately, or straightforwardly, apologised. It’s the subject of my Master’s dissertation, so I’m pretty genned up on what is considered to be the minimum required for a sincere apology, and I’m afraid his doesn’t qualify. I suppose it’s possible that he did better in the email he mentions.


Henry 06.09.09 at 6:49 pm

I disagree, especially given this, which I failed to link to in fairness.


mds 06.09.09 at 6:56 pm

Or how about we just all recognize that Krauss is a dick?

The post already did so, with the phrase “professor at GMU’s law school.”


Barry 06.09.09 at 7:14 pm

And ‘[WE DON’T WANT UNSUPPORTED AND OFFENSIVE ACCUSATIONS HERE, THANKS] with ‘Published by the Manhattan Institute’, at the bottom of his webpage.


Barry 06.09.09 at 7:15 pm

Oh, and just like Whelan, Krauss publishes at a blog which doesn’t allow comments. It’s not that these guys don’t like pseudonymity in and of itself; it’s that they get punked by random internet guys.


Brian 06.10.09 at 2:33 am

My God, Professor Farrell, how low can you stoop? There is little intellectual life in the comments section of this blog, which was the point of my comment to which you, bizarrely, link. How in the world could that comment be relevant to any issue under discussion, let alone evidence of my ‘intellectual’ contributions? This may come as news to you, but most academics make intellectual contributions through their published articles and books. My own contributions to actual intellectual life are listed here:


It’s sweet how committed you are to anonymity and pseudonymity in cyberspace, but you need some arguments in support of your views, at least if you want to be part of an actual intellectual discussion of the subject. Please try to do a bit better.


Righteous Bubba 06.10.09 at 2:48 am

Wrong thread.


nick s 06.10.09 at 4:51 am

Really, Brian, it’s not that big. But you’re allowed to believe that it is.

Whelan’s volte-face might be contextualised by this post, in which the Corner’s pseudonymous contributor expresses thanks to the editors.


alex 06.10.09 at 5:59 am

– Interesting that opinions on this issue do not seem to correlate with being on the left or on the right.

– Not sure that Krauss’s behavior is really reprehensible. If, as Wheelan alleges, Blevins made basic mistakes about the law in his posts, a case could be made that this is relevant for the tenure committee. One can agree or disagree, but it doesn’t strike me as an obviously wrong statement.


Zamfir 06.10.09 at 7:06 am

– Not sure that Krauss’s behavior is really reprehensible. If, as Wheelan alleges, Blevins made basic mistakes about the law in his posts, a case could be made that this is relevant for the tenure committee. One can agree or disagree, but it doesn’t strike me as an obviously wrong statement.

I think this hits the heart of the problem. If you don’t blog, you can’t accidentally publish stuff that might hurt your tenure. Especially since blogging encourages you to publish “fast thoughts” and see how the reaction are. So if tenure committees start taking blogs into account, that’s a strong message to untenured people: don’ blog, you can only lose.


ajay 06.10.09 at 9:51 am

There is little intellectual life in the comments section of this blog, which was the point of my comment

Res ipsa loquitur, as Jeeves would say.


Salient 06.10.09 at 3:03 pm

Brian Leiter: “I doubt Schopenhauer has the ratio quite right, but it seems to me plausible that the ratio of worthless and harmful anonymous and pseudonymous speech to the valuable kind is large–which may be why our other media have, wisely, limited the availability of such speech.

This leads me to wonder, is Brian Leiter unfamiliar with the standard traditional-news-media practice of quoting official sources ‘on background’ so that an officially-approved message is taken (by a naive audience) to carry the weight of independent authority?

In pseudonymous blog commentary, commenters typically use silly nickname monikers like “Salient” which identifies them as, well, not authoritative. In the traditional news media model, a named writer (e.g. Jeffrey Rosen) quotes anonymous sources, who (by implication) are posed as authoritative, and whose judgments are assumed to be authoritative by other writers in the media who cite the original piece.

If I or some other pseudonymous writer were to say “I’ve known Sonia Sotomayor for years and she is an intellectual lightweight,” it’s obvious (or should be) that this can’t be taken seriously. If Jeffrey Rosen quotes someone who alleges the same, it’s adopted as conventional wisdom throughout the traditional news media — or at least it’s treated as a contention worthy of consideration. Jeffrey Rosen’s credibility is not called into question by his colleagues, because he is following standard practice for this medium.

Another difference is accessibility: I doubtless could be identified by IP (and if the server host where I post was sued for libel they’d probably have to fork over my IP) and directly exposed, if I said something truly libelous and unconscionable. Conversely, Jeffrey Rosen’s sources will likely never be known, and I suspect we’d see hissy-fits of epic proportions if there was any attempt to force him to reveal his sources (certainly, no one seems to be arguing that Sonia Sotomayor would be justified in calling for such).


Barry 06.10.09 at 6:53 pm

Henry, re my accusations against the Manhattan Institute – who was it who hired Charles ‘Bell Curve’ Murray after he published that book?


Henry 06.10.09 at 7:12 pm

Alex and Zamfir – as I read Krauss’s post, he is suggesting that the pseudonymous sniping as such is the problem that the tenure committee should be paying attention to, not the quality of the legal analysis.

Brian: you say

My God, Professor Farrell, how low can you stoop?

I’m a little surprised to see you respond in such a thin-skinned fashion to relatively polite criticism, given the vituperative tone that you adopt (and defend as entirely appropriate) when dealing with people whom you disagree with on your own blog.

There is little intellectual life in the comments section of this blog, which was the point of my comment to which you, bizarrely, link. How in the world could that comment be relevant to any issue under discussion, let alone evidence of my ‘intellectual’ contributions? This may come as news to you, but most academics make intellectual contributions through their published articles and books. My own contributions to actual intellectual life are listed here:

I’ll disagree with you on the comments section of this blog (as a purely personal matter, I get a lot more intellectual stimulation from reading these comments than from those infrequent occasions when I glance at your blog, but obviously, people may reasonably disagree on relative evaluations of this sort). I’ll also disagree with you, at least part way, as to whether this is an intellectual contribution. You seem (I do not believe I am mistaken on this) to devote an awful lot of time, effort and energy to patrolling the boundaries of philosophy, so as to exclude people whom you believe to be unqualified to discuss philosophy, whether because of lack of intellectual merit and training, because they adopt a theoretical orientation that you find unsatisfying or whatever. You have “previously made it clear”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/03/01/greatest-philosopher-of-the-twentieth-century/#comment-267599 that you take great offense at the fact that we permit people to discuss philosophical topics on these pages at all, publicly deplore the description of Jacques Derrida as a philosopher, denounce the New York Times for assigning a philosophy book to someone who doesn’t understand philosophy _und so weiter._ The not insignificant amount of time that you devote to this kind of activity- in your capacity as a professional philosopher – suggests that you actually do view your policing efforts as a contribution to intellectual life. Now personally, I am inclined to find many of your efforts in this vein (but not all) to have negative rather than positive consequences for the public sphere – but that stems from the fact that I have a quite different conception of what healthy intellectual life should involve than you appear to (I largely concur with “Scott McLemee’s discussion of the merits and deficiencies of your _de haut en bas_ style of intellectual polemic and the ideas underlying it”:http://www.insidehighered.com/views/mclemee/mclemee222). So while I do not personally find interventions like your comment to be a very useful contribution, I imagine that you do – hence my use of the term.

As for your professional qualifications and expertise – I am no more qualified to judge your merit as a professional philosopher than you would be qualified to judge me (in the unlikely event that you should want to do so) as a political scientist. Your recent move to Chicago testifies, without the scintilla of a doubt, to the high regard that your new colleagues have for your work. But – as noted – you do seem to view the the ascertaining of the relative merits of different departments, the policing of the intellectual boundaries of your discipline etc, and this, I think, I am at least somewhat better qualified to comment upon (even if my opinions are, as all opinions, contingent, open to challenge, etc etc).

Anderson – your comment has been deleted because it is somewhat offensive (comments that suggest that people who you don’t like are disabled are, for all the obvious reasons, not particularly welcome here).


Brian 06.10.09 at 9:04 pm

Professor Farrell, I am not quite sure how to interpret this lengthy response. My comment to which you linked was not relevant to the issue for which you were criticizing me. That I (and my readers) comment on philosophically incompetent work in the New York Times is also of unclear relevance to the question of whether or not pseudonymous blogging is a good or bad thing, justifiable or not.

My view of the quality of comments here on philosophical topics is shared by some of your philosophically informed co-bloggers, even if they (as regular residents here) tend to be more cautious about how they express those concerns in public. I concede that there may be other comment threads in which the quality of the intellectual discussion is much higher, so I retract the too-broad generalization that I posted last night.

I have no objection to vituperative criticism (as long as it is sound), but it is a silly and cheap shot to link to a brief comment I posted on your blog and describe that as my “intellectual” contribution.

I spend no time at all “patrolling the boundaries” of philosophy. Philosophy has no clear boundaries, and even if it did, I do not set them and could not exclude anyone from them. Commenting on incompetent writing about philosophy is commenting on incompetent writing about philosophy: the comments are either sound or not. Deploring the association of Derrida with philosophy is expressing the worry about the effect on the discipline if intellectual charlatans are identified with the field. (I am as comfortable with my co-blogger Jason Stanley’s judgment that Derrida is just a bad philosopher, but I think it would be good for the field if he were not generally associated with the intellectual discipline by the educated lay public.) Producing rankings helps prospective students make well-informed choices that can affect their professional careers and thus their personal lives. All of the latter accounts for perhaps 2-3% of my time. What I spend most of my time doing is teaching and scholarly writing.

I wasn’t asking for your opinion on my professional qualifications which would, as you note, be irrelevant in any case.

But the real puzzle is how your strange detour into the boundaries of philosophy bears any relationship to the issue of pseudonymity in cyberspace, which I honestly thought was your subject. Here’s what I have to say about that:


I still have no idea whether you have any interesting thoughts on the subject, or whether you just want to wag your finger at me. I am not at all interested in the latter, but would welcome any substantive contribution you want to make to the debate about anonymity in Cyberspace prompted by the Whelan/Blevins incident.


Anderson 06.10.09 at 9:11 pm

My apologies. Professor Leiter’s personality is all his own, then.


belle le triste 06.10.09 at 9:14 pm

As a taster for Brian’s “thoughts” about anything, these various posts are monumentally self-important whiny fail, aren’t they, kids? He can’t write and he can’t read.


Brian 06.10.09 at 9:26 pm

I was going to add one other substantive thought on the pseudonymity issue, but I now see there’s no point, since “Anderson” and “belle le triste”–both targets of my earlier comment–have been kind enough to help support my worries about pseudonymity. I am happy to correspond further via e-mail, otherwise I will look for your thoughts on pseudonymity in Cyberspace in a separate posting.


lemuel pitkin 06.10.09 at 9:28 pm

My view of the quality of comments here on philosophical topics is shared by some of your philosophically informed co-bloggers, even if they (as regular residents here) tend to be more cautious about how they express those concerns in public.

That’s funny. I thought that it was “a norm of fairness” that if you want to criticize “someone’s ideas, knowledge, and competence, do so under your own name, so that you are as vulnerable to critical scrutiny as the person you attack.” But maybe it doesn’t count if Professor Leiter does it for you?


Brian 06.10.09 at 9:29 pm

Mr. Pitkin, I see our comments crossed paths in Cyberspace. Professors Bertram, Brighouse, and Holbo have all posted these concerns on comment threads here in the past.


belle le triste 06.10.09 at 9:30 pm

Ooh la la, Mr Entitlement Issues pulls rank. He only shares his “substantive thoughts” with the titled intellectual nobility, you know! What a gent!


Matt 06.10.09 at 9:33 pm

Lemuel- I really don’t see your point here. If Leiter is attacking anyone at all, he’s using his own name, isn’t he? If I understand him correctly, he’s even referring to comments made by the philosophers who are members of this site _on the site_. Who is it that’s supposedly be being attacked behind a pseudonym or the like in this example? If no one, then he’s not doing what he’s criticized, is he?


lemuel pitkin 06.10.09 at 9:42 pm


My point, which Brian understood quite clearly, is that by saying that unnamed CT contributors had criticized the quality of philosophy comments here, he was either saying they had engaged — if they asked him to announce their views — or engaging on their behalf — if they didn’t — in behavior that he himself had just said was unethical. To his credit, he corrected this.


I’m afraid Lemuel Pitkin is a pseudonym. Some of us have (or used to have, in my case) jobs that absolutely preclude taking part in public online discussions. I can’t accept a set of rules for the public sphere that would ban many (most?) people from equal participation. There are some plausible arguments that people should have to use their real names in these discussions (I’m thinking of dropping the pseudonym myself, now that I’m back in grad school) but they’re a bit too close to the arguments for restricting the franchise to property owners for my tastes.


djw (David Watkins) 06.10.09 at 9:49 pm

LP’s point @26 has always been central to my thinking on this issue. The risks of potentially controversial blogging for academics are quite mild compared to many other professions.


Matt 06.10.09 at 9:50 pm

Lemuel- to my mind it was completely clear that Leiter was referring to the criticism made by the philosophers who are members (it’s easy enough to see who they are) in actual threads. I suppose he could have said this even more explicitly, but it hardly seemed necessary. Referring to someone via a description, especially when it’s an obvious one, isn’t like using a pseudonym at all. Even if the criticism had been made to him personally and not on this very site, and he was reporting it, it wouldn’t be the same thing as being attacked by someone using a pseudonym, as the philosophers here are all easily identifiable. So, I really don’t think the cases are at all similar.


lemuel pitkin 06.10.09 at 10:14 pm


It was obvious that he meant Bertram, Brighouse and Holbo, but not Mandle or Weatherson, who are also philosophy professors? Come now.


Matt 06.10.09 at 11:00 pm

Lemuel- since it was quite plausible to understand him to be referring to comments made within the last few days on posts still on the main page by these three, I’ll say yes. But still, even if not, even if he was referring to private conversation, it still doesn’t at all fit with the behavior he’s criticizing. I think that’s perfectly obvious and that you’re letting your disagreement with that position get in the way of your reasoning here.


bianca steele 06.11.09 at 12:06 am

I do think the prevalence of pseudonyms or “screen names” can be a decent reason for using one, and it was one of the reasons I began using one. Being insulted or receiving weird private email from people named “bluefishfun!” and “Tyrone Slothrop” can be disconcerting.


jacob 06.11.09 at 4:10 am

This is a rather strange argument. As far as I can see, there’s basically one argument for pseudonymous blogging (it may allow more voices, since some people who would be punished or fear they would be punished for their views or writing can contribute to the conversation) and one argument against it (it may lower the quality of discourse because people are not required to stand behind their words*). Both these arguments may be true, in which case one makes a judgment about which effect is more important–the increased participation or the decreased quality.

But this argument is really besides the point. The question Whelan’s actions (and Leiter’s attempted actions) raise is whether people have the right to enforce their judgment on others. Perhaps Whelan and Leiter are right that pseudonymity drags down the level of discourse in the blogosphere, but I fail to see how it follows that they should attempt to destroy the careers of their intellectual sparring partners. Even if Publius and Juan Non-Volokh were wrong, even if, in the opinion of Whelan and Leiter, they should have been using their own names, why should Whelan and Leiter’s judgment prevail? If they don’t want to engage with pseudonymous bloggers, they shouldn’t. But they shouldn’t impose their choices on other readers (who may be deprived of commentary they find valuable) or on their interlocutors.

Frankly, I find this obvious.

*I say “may” in both cases because I am not convinced of the empirical truth of either claim. Given the quality of Brian Leiter’s contributions to blog conversations, I doubt the correlation between blogging under one’s own name and a high level of discourse. I’m rather more sympathetic to the first claim.


Henry 06.11.09 at 2:54 pm

When I had thought about this issue, I hadn’t thought about it in terms of tradeoffs between anonymity and responsibility, but rather, more pragmatically, in terms of how far one could go to try to punish and hurt someone who says things that you don’t like. This does have some connection to general questions of pseudonymity – obviously, the more likely it is that powerful figures in a given field of activities will retaliate against people who say things that they don’t like, the more attractive pseudonymity becomes. But it is at heart a different issue.

But this is subsumed under Jacob’s formulation, which is both better articulated and more general. For example, Brian, in the recent post that he links to above, casually outs another academic who has adopted a blogging pseudonym, under the excuse that this academic’s real identity is “no secret.” As it happens, I am aware that this academic doesn’t mind that many people know their real identity – but has repeatedly tried to ensure that their real identity isn’t published on the WWW, where it could be discovered by students or others in a casual Google search. I have no idea whether Brian tried to contact this academic for permission before writing this post (I suspect not), but under Jacob’s argument, we can reasonably question whether Brian has the right to impose his own choice on the academic in question for no better reason than a casual rhetorical flourish.

Anderson – in your defence, Brian (for all of his wounded dignity) has himself used “similar language”:http://virtualstoa.net/2004/01/24/107496209563103345/ in the past to describe people (in this case, a grad student as best as I recall – his own archives are broken) whose claims he doesn’t like.


Matt 06.11.09 at 3:16 pm

For example, Brian, in the recent post that he links to above, casually outs another academic who has adopted a blogging pseudonym, under the excuse that this academic’s real identity is “no secret.” As it happens, I am aware that this academic doesn’t mind that many people know their real identity – but has repeatedly tried to ensure that their real identity isn’t published on the WWW, where it could be discovered by students or others in a casual Google search.

Henry- Hilzoy herself has now posted that her identity is “no secret”, liking to the claim on her wikipedia page. See here:
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_06/018518.php at the bottom

and here


Given this, I think the charge that Leiter “casually outs another academic” in his post, which came after Hilzoy’s, is at least misleading.


hilzoy 06.11.09 at 3:33 pm

For the record: I do very much prefer being referred to, in blogs, as hilzoy. I linked to the wiki page (from which I keep trying to remove references to my pseud) mostly because I really did not want Ed Whelan to spend time trying to out me; at the time, that didn’t seem like a totally remote possibility.

Even back when my identity wasn’t widely known at all, I always used my real email address and responded to people who wrote me, using my actual name. (And my email address makes it really easy to figure out my actual name.) Obviously, it hasn’t been much of a secret for a while now. But neither is my preference for being called ‘hilzoy’ on blogs. Whenever anyone has done me the courtesy of asking, I have always said so. It just hasn’t worked.


Matt 06.11.09 at 3:43 pm

Also- I can’t say for sure since the link to Lieter’s old blog at Texas from the Virtual Stoa isn’t good (I think the archives moved to his new blog but I’m not going to bother to check if you aren’t) but I’m about 99% sure that the reference in the Virtual Stoa link is to Kieth Burgess-Jackson, a tenured professor who, among other things, developed a web page at one point devoted only to personally attacking Leiter, including saying things about his family and children. To say that that site demonstrated an unstable and disturbed mind would be a serious understatement.


George W 06.11.09 at 5:58 pm

Not a qualified philosopher here (thank the stars), but my own comment, not meant flippantly at all, is this: I’m told philosophy means a lot more than “the love of wisdom” these days, and I’m happy to stipulate that. But when people who call themselves philosophers can manage to bend the discipline into something that sounds and feels alot like *contempt* for wisdom, can we please come up with a different name?


John Holbo 06.12.09 at 2:11 am

“but I’m about 99% sure that the reference in the Virtual Stoa link is to Kieth Burgess-Jackson”

If it’s Keith Burgess-Jackson – I remember something about this myself – then it should be said that the case seemed potentially clinical. I also think that, at this point, Leiter can be pardoned for identifying Hilzoy by her real name. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, after her outing, that there was any point in not doing so. I might easily have put the two items together in a post about the pseudonymity issue.

I’m firmly with Henry and Hilzoy on the pseudonymity issue. It seems clear to me that the cost of having lots of pseudonymous nonsense (which you can just ignore) is low, compared to the benefits that pseudonymity can bring (to individuals and to the public sphere) which can be very high. It’s good for academics, but it’s really good in other areas, where pseudonymous bloggers can act as whistleblowers in potentially more important ways. (There are areas where punishments from those with professional power over you are even more severe than in academia.)

I don’t really agree with Jacob that this cost-benefit analysis is beside the point. It seems to me precisely the point. It doesn’t seem to me that people have any general ‘right to pseudonymity or anonymity’ – a species of privacy right – to any higher degree than is generated, by implication, by other, encoded legal rights. (Like rights to have your medical records private, to vote privately, so forth. Not to have your ISP tell just anyone who you are. If someone were to pass a law, or hand down a legal judgment, that pseudonymous bloggers have a ‘right to privacy’ to preserve their pseudonymity, things would change, of course. But that would be a big legal shift.) Whelan didn’t commit any crime, by outing Publius. What he did was violate – and thereby weaken – a norm that is, I would say, clearly on balance a good one: tending to produce much more good than harm.

One thing that makes things complicated is that our intuitions about this are caught up in our sense of the ethics of ‘outing’, but there are actually big differences. We have a strong sense that sex is private. Period. (If you want it to be.) Sex is just special that way. (Hence our conventions about clothing, among other common arrangements, placements of walls and windows, etc.) Expressions of opinions about the law are not presumptively private in the same way. We also have a strong sense that hypocrisy and intentionally deceptive speech are the most plausible warrants for violating the general norm of protection for pseudonymity and anonymity. If you can make a plausible case, just by pointing to facts about an author, that the author probably doesn’t really believe what he or she is saying, then that is a pretty good argument that no one else should believe it, at least not on the basis of whatever this author has said. So these sorts of personal exposures are intellectually justified on grounds that it is always reasonable to rebut speech with excellent reasons for not believing it, if such can be provided. The thing is: sex and hypocrisy are often cozy bedfellows. So we get conflicted. On the other hand, in the case of the pseudonymous law professor: there is no strong privacy right on just plain ‘such things are private, like my private parts’ grounds. But there is obviously also no argument to be made that the facts about the author weaken the plausiblity of what the author is saying. Quite the contrary. The fact that he is a law professor can only incidentally strengthen the plausibility of what he is saying.

So we fall back on our cost benefit analysis, I think. On the whole the norm produces more good than bad, so it is a good norm, and should be observed. So I guess I’m a consequentialist about norms of pseudonymity.


jacob 06.12.09 at 2:46 am

I’m not sure if I wasn’t clear in my point, or if John simply disagrees with me. I think the “cost benefit analysis,” as John puts it, is a perfectly appropriate, interesting, and valuable conversation to have. I just don’t think it’s the conversation that Whelan’s actions inspires. That is to say, the ethics of pseudonymous blogging are different from the ethics of outing. In general, I think we ought not do things to people that put them at risk of suffering unnecessary harm–or rather, we should only do such things when there’s a strong reason to. Outing a pseudonymous blogger (for all the reasons Publius listed in his original post about the outing) is putting them at risk, and given that the benefit is minimal, it shouldn’t be done. Again, this is true even if one believes that pseudonymous blogging is bad, because it’s “badness” is, compared to the potential dangers to the outed blogger, rather minor.


jholbo 06.12.09 at 3:09 am

The points jacob makes about the Whelan case fall under the general ‘cost benefit analysis’ rubric, as I was conceiving it. I was taking them to be part of that analysis. So I guess we don’t disagree.

I think it’s important to make the analogy with the sex case because, for some people, the joy of pseudonymity is a species of thrilling private fun. And I suspect they may feel (a bit vaguely) that it should be protected on ‘why shouldn’t I be able to do this thing I like in private’ grounds? I do agree that the fun of being pseudonymous is a good. (As the Cat said: fun is good.) But I think, ultimately, we should not think of the pseudonymity issue as one of privacy rights (set apart over and against cost-benefit analysis, in an apples/oranges sort of way). So it’s actually more helpful to identify the justification for the norm as a cost-benefit analysis.


Andrew 06.12.09 at 4:21 am

One thing that appears to be a source of confusion is the difference between anonymous and pseudonymous posting.

Someone who uses a consistent pseudonym (publius, or NRO’s Jack Dunphy) acquires, over time, an amount of social capital if their work is admired and respected by others. They can lose some or all of that capital if they behave badly online – perhaps by writing a racist or otherwise hurtful post. When hilzoy posts, we’ve come to expect careful and sensitive arguments, so we pay more attention than we might to “jane doesoso” (making up a random name). So a pseudonymous blogger has skin in the game.

I post regularly as Andrew on a tennis blog, and (perhaps like John Putnam), I value that name, and that informs what I write. The guy (Pete Bodo) who runs the site asked me about a year ago to start putting my surname up on authored posts, which I agreed to do, but it did feel a little odd for a while. Andrew just felt more natural than Andrew Burton.


Z 06.12.09 at 6:17 am

It seems clear to me that the cost of having lots of pseudonymous nonsense (which you can just ignore) is low

But I think Brian Leiter’s argument is that you shouldn’t have to ignore nonsense directed at you. If someone fills pages and pages of hurtful non-sense about me on the web under a pseudonym, it seems that I should have the right to try to find who this person is, including by publicizing my efforts. Whether I have the right to publicize my findings is admittedly another matter.

Indeed, I think there might be a hint of contradiction in the position of the posters of Crooked Timber upon this: you guys (rightly, in my view) require a valid e-mail address in order to comment and that pseudonym do not change without notice, so you (again rightly in my view) ask that commenters be not pseudonymous (to you, even if they remain so for the community of readers). In that case, you apparently judged that this restriction was worth the slightly lower level of diversity this entails (and again, I agree with you). Now, the big difference is that you are at home here, while Whelan and Leiter seemingly wish to see the rules extended to the web at large, but isn’t the rationale fundamentally the same?


John Holbo 06.13.09 at 10:48 am


I don’t think there’s any question that you have the right (legal) to do so, and I don’t think that there is some weighty moral duty not to do it, in the case of someone making persistent personal attacks on you. Whether it is a small wrong to do so (in the same sense that it is wrong, but not illegal, to be a jerk) depends on the character of the hurtful nonsense. There’s disagreement, and there is snark and then there’s serious personal abuse, and then there’s serious abuse targeted at the same person day after day and so on up the scale to lies told everyday and so forth. It is so clear that Publius was at the low end of this scale – a sort of mezzosnarkiness, at worst – that I don’t think it could possibly be argued that Whelan was provoked to do this thing. If someone was basically a pseudonymous stalker of an individual, on the other hand – if they were, in effect, just setting out to make one’s online life unpleasant – then I wouldn’t think that exposing the pseudonym was such a terrible thing. (If Andrew Sullivan, or any other major blog-figure who inspires ‘sullywatch’-type snark blogs, was trying to figure out the identity of someone who was mocking him day in and out, I would regard that as understandable if not particularly admirable. More or less on the principle of proportional response: if you want to turn your blog into a vehicle of personal attack, you cannot expect your victim not to respond personally in kind. Live by the sword and all that. But again, the Whelan case is so far from this that it’s irrelevant.)

As to the point about being at home: well, I take it the question sort of answers itself. There is a sense in which this is our house, our rules. If you don’t like it, you can leave. The reason that doesn’t go for the web at large is that ‘this is our place, not yours’ doesn’t apply at that level. (You see this, but it seems to me it obviously makes a huge difference, so I don’t see even mild hypocrisy in enforcing norms for one’s site without demanding that the whole web observe them.)


Z 06.14.09 at 1:36 am

I don’t see hypocrisy either, and apologize if I somehow conveyed this message, only (maybe) a (small) contradiction between believing that pseudonymity and the assorted enhanced diversity is beneficial for the web at large but detrimental for the commenting section of CT. That said, I am in favor of freedom of speech, but would promptly kick out of my house someone whose speech I disapprove of, so I suffer from the same contradiction (if it exists). In the end, and in particular on practical grounds, I guess I broadly agree with you (I surely do about the case discussed here).

However, I must confess I could not say what level of abuse I would personally tolerate on the web before trying to figure out who was behind the pseudonym. It seems that it could be relatively low (and that’s one reason why I could not have a regular opinion blog).

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