On Privacy

Social norms are enforced partly by an understanding that one or more people may threaten society’s interests by exposing it to unacceptable risk. The nature of the risk need not be existential; it could be moral, legal, or cultural, or any other type of risk that does not include literal destruction but is believed to be dangerous or off-putting enough to require prevention. This understanding warrants supervision of the behavior of others for its conformity to social norms or expectations. Whether this supervision, or any judgments made when it is exercised, are justified in given circumstances is debatable. It is not debatable that it is justified in principle, because it is necessary for social self-preservation. At best, it protects society from harm; at worst, it enables public scolds, moralists, or political oppression.

Universal public attention to everything people do, however, even if it is justified, is constricting. They “who are in the highest places, and have the most power, have the least liberty, because they are the most observed”, said John Tillotson, a contemporary of David Hume, but one need not be in the highest places to suffer the liberty-diminishing effects of observation. The constriction is felt in any society, even in societies that do not explicitly privilege liberty as a value, because people are different in countless ways. They are individuals as well as members of a group. As such, they cannot justly be made to conform to social norms to the letter in every conceivable situation, or even in any substantial percentage of them.

Privacy exists because of this fundamental antagonism between society’s values and the people in it. Its job is to create a zone of freedom from social norms, where people may live independently of those norms without having to answer for it, even if it may sometimes tend to violate those norms. Privacy is a political compromise (small “p”), based on the only partially social nature of human beings, and the desirability of individual freedom. As Snowden said, privacy “is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”

But what Snowden omitted, and what privacy advocates rarely, if ever, say, is that this entitlement to determine who we are and who we want to be is originally anti-social. It starts out directly at odds with a society’s legitimate prerogative of ensuring a measure of conformity to social norms and expectations, even though privacy may later paradoxically be affirmed by that same society as valuable. Privacy is therefore implicitly a critique of social norms, since its existence, and its desirability, implies that such norms, while necessary, are not sufficient for life to be lived fully, or worse, can actively prevent people from living full lives. Privacy thus can only with difficulty be reconciled with even valid social interests, even though it also exists to protect people from invalid social interference, and even sometimes intervenes to protect social interests, as when a person is encouraged not to be naked in public.


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