It Doesn’t Matter What You Want

This may be the dumbest remark I’ve ever seen:

It’s easy to see why that remark is so stupid. All you have to do is realize if your age is an even number, I don’t want you to read this post. And because I don’t want you to read it, you have no right to keep reading. Go away!

Are you still reading? Drats. I guess me not wanting people to look at something is irrelevant to whether or not they have the right to. They aren’t going to get arrested for reading this post. I can’t sue them for looking at things I post.

And that’s a good thing. I get it must be frustrating for the celebrities who recently had nude pictures of themselves leaked onto the internet. I wouldn’t have leaked those images. I wish whoever leaked them hadn’t. I’d be happy if whoever did it went to jail for doing it (though I don’t know if the law allows for that), but nobody deserves criticism for looking at material available in the public realm.

It doesn’t matter if Jennifer Lawrence wishes people wouldn’t look at her nude pictures. What she wants is irrelevant. Everyone has the right to look at anything available in the public realm.

But it’s not just a matter of what’s in the public realm. Suppose a woman feels sexy and takes a picture for her boyfriend. I have no right to steal her phone and look at the picture. However, if she sends me that picture by mistake, I have every right to look at it. Similarly, you may not want me to see you walking around your house naked, but if you forget to close your blinds, I can look in your window as I walk down the road.

The moment anything is distributed to another person, that person has the right to look at it. The moment anything is made available in the public realm, everyone has the right to look at it. Pictures, videos, words. It doesn’t matter. Nobody gets to restrict who sees things simply by wishing people wouldn’t look.

That’s why I’m not in jail. I’m sure John Cook, of Skeptical Science fame, didn’t want me to see this image he and his pals created of him:


Why did they dress Cook up as a Nazi? I don’t know. I don’t know why they created this image portraying their group as Nazis (note how they even replaced the Swastikas with their own logo):


But I’m sure they didn’t want me to see it either.

Their desires are irrelevant though. They posted these images (and many more) in a location that was publicly accessible. That means the images were in the public realm. Everyone had every right to look at the images.

In the same way, Cook made secret data for his infamous “97% consensus on global warming” paper available in a publicly accessible location. I found it. Was that wrong of me? No! The fact I knew Cook wouldn’t want me to look at the data is irrelevant to whether or not I had the right to look at it. The Skeptical Science group disagrees, saying things like:

The notable part here is that you need authorization from the owner to access data. Public statements were already present that certain data wouldn’t be accessible to the public…. Brandon has written about how he knew that the data he obtained wasn’t meant to be publicly accessible. Which makes it unauthorized access what he did.

Calling for me to be prosecuted for illegal activities based largely upon the same position Penn Julliette holds – that you can only look at something if the owner wants you to. Not only did they want me prosecuted, they even had a lawyer send me a threatening letter telling me not to release their secret data. Or the threatening letter. You see, the letter said (full copy available here:


According to Penn’s view, that’s perfectly reasonable. According to him, if people don’t want anyone to see a threatening letter they send you, you can’t show it to anyone. According to him, people can threaten you, and you may have to keep their threats secret even after you’ve been sued and thrown in jail.

It’s mind-bogglingly stupid. We can’t have people arrested for looking at things in the public realm. More generally, we can’t stop people from doing things simply because we wish they wouldn’t.

At least, I don’t think we can. If I’m wrong, let me know. I’ll make sure to report half the people reading this post to the police.



  1. Penn’s comment makes perfect sense unless you think about it too much, i.e. at all.

    Stop overthinking!

  2. I’d follow your advice and not overthink this, but I don’t have enough booze to stop me from thinking all together.

    The funny thing is I wouldn’t have written this post except I saw Penn on the show Red Eye a while back, and I liked him on it. He seemed intelligent. I never would have anticipated him saying something this stupid.

    I really can’t imagine he believes what he said.

  3. People often make statements to achieve a desired effect. Maybe Penn chose the model and level of “approximation” most useful to achieve his ends. People do that all the time. (The only problem is they do it unconsciously.)

    False statements aren’t always a bad thing for society. (And hey, they’re unavoidable anyways.) His statement could generate fruitful discussion about legal rights, privacy, and puritanical morality for example. 🙂

    Penn could probably counter that he is speaking about common decency, and not technical legalities. I think most people can see where he is coming from, and I’m not sure it’s fair to expect much technical accuracy from a comedians twitter account.

    Then again, entertainers are held to an impossibly high standard of accuracy when they come out on the wrong side of an issue.

    Here is Penn explaining the science of vaccines to the layperson. I suppose it’s for a good cause, but nobody cares that he mangles the science so badly because he comes to the right conclusion. Imagine if he had been so sloppy advocating for Jenny McCarthy?

  4. JamesNV, I suspect Penn meant no moral right to see them.

    I think it does matter when people get the arguments wrong on, especially when the outcome really matters, like with the science of vaccines (I haven’t listened to his rant… er.. exposition on that one yet, so I’m not commenting on specifics).

  5. Shub Niggurath, he’s Penn of the magic/comedy duo Penn and Teller.

    JamesNV, there is nothing impossible about the standard here. Whether you think he meant moral or legal right (not that I agree we can draw such a distinction), what he said is stupid. There are an infinite number of reasons people should look at material the creators don’t want them to see.

    Carrick, I’m afraid to look now. How can you screw up when defending vaccines? They’re about the easiest thing in the world to defend.

  6. There are an infinite number of reasons people should look at material the creators don’t want them to see.

    I agree in principle. I just can’t think of a good reason in this instance. OK, let me rephrase. I can’t think of a good moral or ethical reason for me to look at these pictures. Maybe I’m not being creative enough.

  7. JamesNV, you don’t need “a good moral or ethical reason” to look at something. You don’t need any reason to look at it. You have the right to do it. That’s all there is to it.

    Of course, having the right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. If you don’t see any reason to look at something, don’t look at it. Part of having rights is deciding if and when you want to exercise them.

  8. james, do you need a moral or ethical reason to look at breasts?

    Brandon, you know the pictures were not accidentally left lying outside. Someone did a brute-force password hack on icloud accounts. But once released, it is not a criminal act to look at them.

    I know who Penn is.

    Also, it appears he wrote the tweet to reflect as the question applied to him, not as a norm applicable to everyone/anyone. There is some truth there. If stuff someone does not want released and made public does make it outside, it doesn’t mean I have a ‘right’ to see it. It’s just that even if I did – either accidentally or by going to great lengths for it, within legal limits – I would not have done anything wrong.

  9. Shub Niggurath, how the pictures were originally obtained has nothing to do with whether or not I have the right to view them now. That’s true even under the view Penn advanced. By what he said, it doesn’t matter how they were obtained. All that matters is the person who took them doesn’t want me to look at them.

    As for your last paragraph, you have it exactly backwards. Humans have the right to do anything save that they have given up the right to do. Whether or not we should do something is a separate issue from whether or not we have the right to do it. In other words, so long as you stay within legal limits, you’ve been exercising your rights.

    Penn knows that fully well. I’ve heard him discuss the issue before. You can dislike behavior and criticize it all you want. You can say its gross, rude or morally repugnant. What you can’t say is a person lacks the right to do it.

    If I want to go into town and lick telephone poles, I have the right to.

  10. Brandon,

    Hey, you brought up “reasons”. 🙂

    It looks to me like Penn is simply making an effort to be supportive to women whose privacy has been violated. Do you disagree with that sentiment?

    If you want to talk about factually misleading people, take a look at Penn’s vaccination video if you haven’t already. It was not a random, poorly worded tweet about pop culture. It was an HBO show about a scientific subject that he produced. Which is the greater sin?

  11. I see, and get what you’re saying. But are we deliberately giving ourselves easy examples to contend with? For example, a 10 dollar note drops from my hand. A passerby does not get to rush in and say ‘I picked it off the street. It’s not yours, I’ll keep it’. But, is that the same with a dollar note that I drop which gets wedged between pavement stones and is found by a kid 3 months later? But moving on next, what if it’s not a dollar note but your passport? The ‘sphere of ownership’ expands and contracts depending on the thing and time.

    Privacy is something owned via negation, isn’t it? Unlike physical objects, I can ‘possess’ what is not mine without agency. I can see it, I can hear it – you don’t wan’t me to? you take care of it.

    Which is why I think the photo scandal is completely made up. Fake. It leads to people discussing these issues because the lines are not easily drawn. 100% fake.

  12. ==> “Penn could probably counter that he is speaking about common decency, and not technical legalities. I”

    Gee. Ya’ think?

    ==> ” I think most people can see where he is coming from, and I’m not sure it’s fair to expect much technical accuracy from a comedians twitter account.”

    And then there’s that…

    ==> “It looks to me like Penn is simply making an effort to be supportive to women whose privacy has been violated. ”

    And that…

    ==> “Also, it appears he wrote the tweet to reflect as the question applied to him, not as a norm applicable to everyone/anyone.”

    And that also.

    But if Brandon had to accept all of that, he wouldn’t get to be outraged.

  13. In case there was any doubt:

    I have made no comment on censorship. Writing about personal morality and not legality. And I'm not talking about "privacy" of government.— Penn Jillette (@pennjillette) September 1, 2014

  14. JamesNV, I think Penn’s sentiment is more than you describe. At the very least, I think it’s clear he is saying it is (morally) wrong to look at those images, a position I think is untenable. That said, I approve of supporting people who get hurt by someone distributing their innocent private material.

    As for the vaccination video, I’ll probably watch it at some point. I just don’t find vaccines as interesting as discussions of rights. Philosophy is something I love.

    By the way, you may want to look at my newest post. I was typing it up while you commented. It begins by discussing the tweet you quoted and pointing out it seems Penn just misspoke. I’m not sure you need to continue beyond that point though. The next thousand or so words were probably a waste of time.

    (By the way, you can just paste the link to a tweet and WordPress will automatically embed it for you. It’ll give you the nice little tweet box like at the start of this post.)

  15. Shub Niggurath, I’m not entirely sure what rules apply for taking possession of something. As I understand, the question is if an object has been abandoned (such as in your second example with the note). If so, it’s considered to be ownerless and free for anyone to take.

    The trick is in determining what is and is not abandoned. If you drop something then immediately go to pick it up, you’ve clearly not abandoned it. The same is true if you place a dollar on the ground in front of you while sitting on the curb. Not all situations are as clear though (especially with larger things, like land or buildings). There are also issues with where the item was abandoned. An item can be abandoned by its owner in a location which automatically transfers ownership to another entity. It can happen if a neighbor discards something in your yard or if an sunken ship is claimed by a government which controls the location of the wreck.

    None of that is really relevant though. Taking possession of something in that sense deprives another person of it. That is very different from making a copy of a digital file. Making a copy of a digital file is more like taking a picture. You can take a picture of just about anything you see.

    As for privacy, privacy has nothing to do with whether or not people can see things. Privacy is about whether or not someone can breach a barrier. Can they come into your house? Can they get on your computer? Can they look through your bag? Those are matters of privacy. In each case, there is a barrier you “own,” and your rights to privacy are what determine if people can breach it.

    When it comes to pictures posted on the internet, there is no barrier. There’s no matter of privacy in whether or not you and I look at these pictures because that privacy was lost well before either of us was involved.

  16. Admittedly, I can’t expect much from comedians. I posted the vaccine example partly because it reminds me of the climate debate, where opponents are held to a far higher standard than teammates; similar to how some skeptics don’t find Tol’s behaviour with the IPCC to be an issue while condemning opponents who do the same. I also thought Penn’s tweet was a non-issue, although I can see how it may have hit a nerve.

  17. ==> “At the very least, I think it’s clear he is saying it is (morally) wrong to look at those images, a position I think is untenable.”

    Yes. Brandon does get to decide how other people should view morality. After all, his opinions = fact.

  18. JamesNV, the tweet didn’t “hit a nerve” an emotional sense. It just bothers me when people say things that ridiculous. Even if you interpret his comment as referring to a discussion of morality, it’s still ridiculous. I can accept ridiculous beliefs in regard to personal morality, but he didn’t limit himself to that. He bashes people over the head with what he calls this “moral right,” saying it’s not okay for anyone to do it.

    Given that, consider this tweet of his:

    I don’t agree his usage is “regular speech.” He made tweets indicating it’s not okay for anyone to do it. That means he feels nobody has the “right” to look at the leaked pictures.

    How was anyone supposed to interpret that? If they felt he was not discussing legal rights, the only other interpretation is he was trying to project his personal morality on everybody. I don’t think it makes sense to interpret:

    You don’t have the right to do that


    You’re an immoral prick if you do that.

    I certainly don’t think that’s “regular speech.”

  19. Oh my. I just watched the video JamesNV linked to upthread. I had thought it was going to be a lengthy thing discussing the science. It wasn’t. It was a ~90 second clip that is just terrible. If I had known it’d be so short and simple, I’d have watched it sooner. And then pounded my head against my desk a dozen or so times. Either Penn and Teller were complete morons when making that, or they were flat-out dishonest.

  20. The video about vaccines was apparently taken from that show. After seeing it, I’m not sure if I want to give the show a try. Arrogantly telling people what is and is not true is only okay if you’re consistently right. If you’re going to make mistakes, you need to show some humility.

    And if you’re going to do mind-bogglingly stupid sketches to “prove” your point, you should just go away.

  21. Culture determines abandonment. Scandinavians tend to have a very high standard of “it’s not mine, leave it alone” perhaps because of the seasons; putting things up for the winter does not constitute abandonment.

    In other nations a thing is abandoned the moment it leaves your hand.

    Reader’s Digest has conducted several “lost wallet” experiments which you can easily find by Google searches and are quite interesting.

    Any system is internally defensible so long as everyone knows the rules. In Mexico you don’t let a thing out of your hand. In Scandinavia you can leave things out for months and not worry about someone stealing it.

    Since the United States is a mish-mash of cultures it is much less predictable in this regard.

  22. Joshua wrote on September 2, 2014 at 10:47 am “Brandon does get to decide how other people should view morality. After all, his opinions = fact.”

    I am glad that you comprehend how blogs work. On your blog, your opinion is fact; here, it is his.

  23. Michael 2:

    I am glad that you comprehend how blogs work. On your blog, your opinion is fact; here, it is his.

    Not really. My opinion is never fact. Facts, however, are facts. When I believe I know what a fact is, I state what I believe that fact is. If people disagree, they are welcome to challenge my belief of what that fact is. If they make a compelling argument, I’ll change my mind.

    As for what Joshua says, he (seemingly intentionally) misunderstands basic points in order to suit his purposes all the time. I wouldn’t bother responding to him.

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