When It Comes to Ethics, It’s “Show, Not Tell”

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In the few years I’ve been blogging on Patheos, I have on occasion criticized the statements or writings of some of my blogging colleagues. I don’t do so incredibly often, not so much because I have any degree of deference to other Patheos bloggers (who I have widely-varying opinions of as writers and individuals) but because I’m honestly not that big a fan of what can sometimes seem like trivial conflicts. In fact, I’m relatively conflict-averse in general.

So when it comes to those moments where I am finally ready to call out people (whether in generalities or in very specific terms), it really has taken a lot to get me there.

Which is where I am with a current conflict raging among two of my blogging colleagues.

To catch anyone up who might have missed it: Kevin Davis of SecularVoices wrote a post last month highlighting what he saw as ethical issues regarding Gleb Tsipursky of Intentional Insights (which is also the name of the organization of which Tsipursky is president). He wrote a follow-up to that after it came to light that Tsipursky was monetizing the content of podcasters and other media creators by posting links to their content on his Patreon page as “paid posts” (i.e. ones that would trigger donations from Patreon patrons) and Tsipursky claimed to have modified his Patreon practices to avoid the ethical issue. (The post argued that there were still ethical issues and that the “apology” and modification didn’t actually resolve the issue.)

It has more recently escalated with a massive response piece by Tsipursky and a final response from Davis. (I leave those links here for your edification, Dear Reader, but I will comment on some of the more salient points later in this piece if you haven’t yet — or have no intent to — read them.)

I will give you one spoiler right now, though, to spare you a bit of time: I also have serious reservations about Tsipursky’s grasp of ethics, and almost nothing in this whole exchange (and ancillary exchanges that have gone on in tandem on social media) has decreased those reservations — quite the opposite, in fact.

Let me back up a second: My first encounter with Tsipursky was through his work, specifically his contributions to the Secular Spectrum blog. I was a contributor to that group blog for a short time before Across Rivers Wide became a feature on the network, and so I kept tabs occasionally on posts that happened on the blog. Like many other contributors there, Tsipursky ended up with a blog of his own after contributing for some time on SecSpec.

But then a friend of mine who runs in Effective Altruism (EA) circles happened to post a link to an exhaustive post by Jeff Kaufman (and others) on the EA forum that spells out in quite extensive detail how Tsipursky had engaged in unethical or otherwise dubious practices. (In the interest of full disclosure, Tsipursky claims to have addressed these “rumors” here.)

That was several months ago. Then I started seeing Tsipursky push his “Pro-Truth Pledge,” and indeed, back in June, he sent me a Facebook message soliciting my support for the pledge. Tsipursky and I weren’t — and still aren’t — Facebook friends, and the message was basically boilerplate (a common feature in Tsipursky’s personal interactions, I would later find) with a link to his post on the subject.

As a personal matter, I detest pledges. Part of that is a distaste from an upbringing where pledges were commonplace, both patriotic and religious. But on a deeper level, the utility of them seems questionable at best to me (just ask all the Christian teens who signed purity pledges!), and a pledge to promote truth seemed even more ludicrous to me. It seems to me that a cardinal truth about lying is that both truth-tellers and liars will tell you that they’re truthful when it comes down to it. There are entire logic puzzles built around an understanding of this — haven’t people seen Labyrinth?

If the purpose is merely accountability, then I shouldn’t have to make a pledge for that — we should hold everyone accountable for telling the truth. In fact, I made this exact point back in January when I said we should demand truth to the last grain.

So I ignored it. I’ve said enough to signal to my readers that I care deeply about the truth, and even if I hadn’t, anyone who wants to criticize what I say has the ability to judge my writing against reality and articulate that.

But really, I shouldn’t have ignored it, not if I really care about “truth to the last grain,” and I certainly can’t ignore it now.

The truth is that Tsipursky has a history of making questionable ethical decisions which he either denies or backs away from without actually admitting ethical wrongdoing but instead insinuating that he’s being magnanimous in acceding to the concerns of others — in other words, modifying his behavior not because he acknowledges the unethical nature of his actions but because he wants to avoid criticism for his behavior, which he maintains thereafter is still perfectly acceptable (if inconveniently disliked by others). And this makes his position as the proponent of the “Pro-Truth Pledge” extremely tenuous.

Two examples of this come to mind.

One of the criticisms that was raised in the EA forum post was Tsipursky’s self-description as a “best-selling author”:

Normally, a reader would take “best-selling author” to mean hitting a major best-seller list like the New York Times, which indicates that very many people have decided to buy the book, and is a hard signal to fake. In Tsipursky’s case, “best-selling author” means that his book was very briefly the top seller in a sub-sub-category of Amazon. Further, he reports offering his book for free and encouraging friends and contractors to download and review it. In its first two weeks the book sold 50 copies at $3 each. Cumulatively it has sold 500 copies at $3 each, and been downloaded 3500+ times free. In contrast, NYT bestseller status requires thousands of sales over the first week. Amazon bestseller status is calculated hourly by category: in small categories three purchases in an hour can win the #1 bestselling author label.

Even without the conflicts of interest that the EA post states (which, without disclosure, are lies), this is a very deceptive label to use without qualification.

Chris Johnson (author, photographer, filmmaker, and podcaster) raised this issue again with Tsipursky, whose response still avoided ethical responsibility:

Ok, if you want to choose this point to focus on, happy to do so. At the time I stated I was a best-selling author, I had a best-selling book on Amazon. Thus, my self-description is not dishonest – please avoid using that misleading term, and thanks. [link and description of article omitted]

So if I wished to do so, I can still – without any dishonesty – claim to be a best-selling author. The designation is accurate.

The problem was that a number of people do not recognize that being a best-selling author means making any of these lists, including Amazon.com and BN.com. They thought that best-selling referred to NYTimes best-selling list or the WSJ.

In the interest of avoiding confusion, I first chose to abstain from the term “best-selling author” – which creates confusion because people don’t know which list you appeared on – and simply use “Amazon best-selling author.” Then, I decided to avoid even this designation, as people did not know which book this was for, and still created some confusion, as I published more than one book, and only one made it to the Amazon best-seller list, Find Your Purpose Using Science. So in situations where this matter is relevant, namely when I speak about finding meaning and purpose in life, I describe myself as the author of the Amazon best-selling book, Find Your Purpose Using Science. [emphases mine]

In other words, “I didn’t do anything wrong — people just misinterpreted me, so I adjusted to accommodate them.” Even though “best-seller” does have a widely understood connotation and Tsipursky is more than intelligent enough to consider how an unqualified statement like that will imply a far more prestigious accomplishment than he actually deserves credit for.

Similarly, in the case of Tsipursky’s Patreon activities, once it was brought to his attention by podcasters (I was personally witness to Facebook threads where he was called out on this), he modified his procedure for dealing with posting paid links to other creators’ media with this statement:

I did not want to waste the time of hosts explaining the matter and how my Patreon worked, but based on communications with podcast hosts. [sic] I see now that I was wrong and should have done so to avoid negative consequences of podcast host concerns about their content being used in this manner. I will in the future check with show hosts to see if they will be ok with me posting a link to their show on my Patreon to get more listeners and to give me financial support for my activism. [emphasis mine]

That bolded line — “to avoid negative consequences” — is perhaps the most truthful part of this statement, and it is one of the most troubling as well, as it seems to be Tsipursky’s main mechanism for evaluating the ethics of his behavior.

But as Davis pointed out in his piece following up on this, Tsipursky’s own E-mail was not explicit about the fact that he would be monetizing these posts, and he admits this in his lengthy response with a nice little rhetorical parry:

He also makes a misleading statement about how I use my Patreon. I say above that “My social media manager will also put it in my Patreon account, enabling my fans to support my activism.” What do people do on Patreon to support activism? This is a clear statement, and the podcasts folks to whom I showed this – the relevant people meant to understand the email I am sending them – understood this fine. Still, based on conversations with Stephanie Savage, a fellow Patheos blogger, I decided to edit it to make things unambiguously clear to people who might not know what Patreon is, and it now states “My social media manager will also put it in my Patreon account, where I have supporters who pay for each media appearance I make: the show will be freely accessible to anyone who visits my Patreon, the supporters there just wish to support my activism.”

But the problem here is Tsipursky also misunderstands the ways in which Patreon is used, which affects the way that podcasters and other content creators would understand that statement.

Patreon generally has two ways for creators to set up patron contributions: by post or by month. If a creator sets up their account in the former way (as Tsipursky has), then patrons only pay when the creator posts something as a paid post (creators can also make free posts), and they can set their per-post rate and cap their monthly contributions. If a creator sets up their contributions as monthly, then patrons agreed to pay a specific amount per month, regardless of what gets posted.

If Tsipursky used a monthly contribution model, then posting free posts to his Patreon would still enable patrons to support his activism — that’s the mechanism through which they do so, and creators are encouraged to give away perks for contributions. Here, it’s the convenience of having easy access through the Patreon feed to the links. In this model, patrons would pay whether or not Tsipursky posted anything — his posts would essentially just be a giveaway that would cost patrons nothing extra.

Tsipursky’s stated motivations for doing by-post contributions seems to be that it incentivizes him to write more posts and do more media appearances, which patrons would then pay for. But the complaints from podcasters — and again, I was privy to many such conversations — were that the content was theirs and that Tsipursky had no right to profit directly from posting their content just because he had been involved as a guest.

This objection is not just based on good ethics — profiting from the labor of others is unethical without their express consent — but also on copyright law. In the free Patreon post linked above, one such creator (ORLYRADIO) actually mentioned their own licensing:

I was notified moments ago that your appearance on OrlyRadio was posted as patron only. Given the show is Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution, you may use it or any part of it, however it cannot be used for financial gain. Just mark it as public when you have the opportunity. Thanks, and of course we want you back on soon!

And this is a fairly common way to license content under a Creative Commons license: Distribution and/or use is fine, but profiting from it is not. When I go find images to illustrate posts of mine, I explicitly look for content that is licensed either as public domain (as with the above image from Pixabay, a public domain stock image site) or under a license that makes it acceptable for commercial use. And there is a significant amount of media available for non-commercial use that precludes its use on Patheos, since we do make money from advertising revenue.

Tsipursky should know this, as someone who’s been blogging for a considerable amount of time and who has received the same kind of guidance from our channel manager that the rest of us have — which, yes, includes instruction on how to handle images for use on our own blogs.

The final galling aspect of this — which I’m not certain has been commented on in any of the other posts — is that Tsipursky explicitly made this statement opt-out, not opt-in:

Let me know if you would prefer me to do something different than I usually do.

In other words, he treated consent to monetize content as something content creators needed to deny, not grant.

But that isn’t how consent works, and it isn’t how copyright works. To my knowledge, Tsipursky has not changed this aspect of his procedures.

There are a number of other unethical practices that Tsipursky engages in — the way in which he poisons the well at the beginning of his long response to Davis by insinuating that readers who do not accept his explanations are suffering from confirmation bias, for instance, or the way in which he practically weaponizes confirmation biases and fallacies to rationalize his own actions, or his blatant lies about the alleged “censorship” of other bloggers — but I’m already almost 2500 words into this, so that should suffice.

Which brings me to my real point: Ethics is not about the principles we claim to live by. It’s about the actions we make. Like the best writing, ethics is about what we show, not what we tell.

Talk is cheap. Anyone can claim to love truth and hate deception. It’s another thing altogether to show it.

And you don’t need a pledge for that.


Image via Pixabay


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