Journal of Value Inquiry 20 (4):309-317 (1986)

Judith Andre
Michigan State University
Knowledge of others, then, has value; so does immunity from being known. The ability to extend one's knowledge has value; so does the ability to limit other's knowledge of oneself. I have claimed that no interest can count as a right unless it clearly outweighs opposing interests whose presence is logically entailed. I see no way to establish that my interest in not being known, simply as such, outweighs your desire to know about me. I acknowledge the intuitive attractiveness of such a position; but my earlier discussion concluded that the value of privacy is ease, and the value of knowledge is understanding - and it's not obvious that either outweighs the other. Nor is it obvious that the freedom and autonomy which result from the power to limit what others know is more significant than the freedom and autonomy which result from the power to extend one's knowledge. I believe the intuitive attractiveness of the belief that privacy values outweigh knowledge values lies in the entirely correct belief that a society without any privacy would be unpleasant. But a society without mutual knowledge would be impossible.I conclude therefore that there is no right to privacy nor to control over it. Nevertheless, each of these things is a good, and a good made possible (given the presence of other people) by social structures. A desirable society will provide both privacy and control over privacy to some extent. Nothing in my analysis helps determine what the proper extent is, nor what areas of life particularly deserve protection. Those who would argue that privacy and control over it are entailed by respect for persons should, I think, choose instead some particular areas central to being a person, to counting as a person, and then show how one is less likely to exercise one's capacities there fully without privacy or without control over it. Although Gerstein's attempt fails because he inaccurately defines intimacy as a kind of absorption and incorrectly opposes absorption with publicity, I think it is the kind of attempt which must be made. Furthermore, he has probably chosen the right area of life - if anything has a special claim to privacy it is probably the union between people who care for one another. The value of being together alone may be more significant than the value of being alone, if only because words and actions are public while thoughts are not. But I will not try to develop that argument here.In any case both privacy and control over it are social goods; on egalitarian grounds they should, ceteris paribus, be equally available to everyone. This helps explain the “dehumanizing” effect of institutions which provide no privacy at all- prisons and some mental institutions. It is not so much that the inmates are totally known; it is rather that those who know them are not so fully known by them; further, that the staff has a great deal of control over what they disclose of themselves, and the inmates very little. The asymmetry of knowledge in those institutions is one aspect of the asymmetry of power; the completely powerless are likely to feel dehumanized.My analysis also helps account for the wrongness of covert observation. It is not simply that the observer violates the wishes of the observed, for the question is whose wishes trump. The observer is violating the justified expectations of the observed: expectations supported by weighty social conventions. These have more moral weight than simple desires do. The peeping torn is violating a convention which structures the distribution of knowledge, a convention from which he benefits. Without it his own activities might well be impossible. He might be more easily caught; or his victim, less trusting, might choose houses without windows. More deeply, the thrill of what he is doing depends on the existence of the convention. Even morally permissible excitement - the suggestiveness of some clothing- would disappear without conventions about nudity. Presumably, too, there are elements of his own personal life for which he values his privacy. He is on grounds of justice obligated to observe the rule which makes his benefits possible.(Some claims to privacy result from personal predilections, rather than from convention. Parent describes a person who is extremely sensitive about being short, for instance, and does not want his exact height to be common knowledge. Parent, p. 346. The grounds for these claims are obviously different from those I've been discussing. The grounds are the moral obligation not to cause needless pain, or, if the information was given in confidence, to keep one's promises.) Although there is no right to privacy or to control over it as such, there is a right to equality of consideration and to a just distribution of benefits and burdens. To put it another way: there is no natural human right to privacy or to control over it; but a good society will provide some of each, and justice requires that the rules of a good society be observed. This paper was written during Joel Feinberg's 1984 NEH Summer Seminar. I am indebted to NEH for funding, and to Professor Feinberg and the other members of the seminar for helpful comments
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DOI 10.1007/BF00146121
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