Disattendability, Civil Inattention, and the Epistemology of Privacy

Philosophical Analysis 31:151-181 (2014)

Axel Gelfert
Technische Universität Berlin
The concept of privacy is intimately related to epistemological concepts such as information and knowledge, yet for the longest time had received only scant attention from epistemologists. This has begun to change in recent years, and different philosophical accounts have been proposed. On the liberal model of privacy, what privacy aims at is the protection of individuals from interference in personal matters. On the (more narrowly epistemological) informational model, privacy is a matter of limiting access to (or maintaining control over) certain types of information. Furthermore, it is sometimes claimed that privacy aims at preventing the formation of (potentially negative) judgments by others. This paper compares and contrasts the various approaches and identifies a number of shortcomings. It then outlines an alternative account, the disattendability/civil inattention model of privacy, according to which what constitutes a breach of privacy is neither the acquisition of new information per se, nor the formation of judgments by others, but the fact that undue attention is being paid to routinized (or otherwise unobtrusive) aspects of the target’s everyday life. This account, it is argued, is explanatorily superior to its competitors, in that it accounts both for the cultural contingency of privacy conventions and for the emergence of new threats to privacy (e.g. from electronic surveillance). The paper concludes by reflecting on remaining tensions within the proposed account of privacy and by commenting on its social ramifications.
Keywords epistemology  privacy  disattendability  epistemology of privacy
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