The philosophy of privacy Part 1

What things do we want to keep private? Most often is something we don’t want others to see or know about because a) it would cause us embarrassment or shame, b) our behavior would be judged unacceptable, c) others would use this information to do us harm (through our address, passwords, bank account numbers, etc.), d) there are just some things that I would rather be the only one who knows. One or more of these probably resonates with everyone. If you have never done something you consider shameful, you could eliminate A. But not everyone thinks the way you do, so your political party, your position on abortion, sexuality, religion or so many other things might very likely affect the way other people act toward you including your employer. Therefore, B may be more relevant to some. Almost all of us would agree that getting our bank account depleted, our credit destroyed or our identity stolen is pretty important stuff so C may be the most relevant. Finally, there is just the fact that some moments are private, some thoughts belong to you alone and others are just none of anyone’s business.

Michael P. Lynch, writing last year for The New York Times stated that privacy as a political or legal concept means, “…what is private is what is yours alone to control, without interference from others or the state”.1  The question arises, however, as to whether or not we really do have that right. According to The University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, “The U. S. Constitution contains no express right to privacy”.2  However, they point out that some amendments imply privacy, without using the term per se.

“…such as the privacy of beliefs (1st Amendment), privacy of the home against demands that it be used to house soldiers (3rd Amendment), privacy of the person and possessions as against unreasonable searches (4th Amendment), and the 5th Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination, which provides protection for the privacy of personal information.  In addition, the Ninth Amendment states that the “enumeration of certain rights” in the Bill of Rights “shall not be construed to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people.”  The meaning of the Ninth Amendment is elusive, but some persons (including Justice Goldberg in his Griswold concurrence) have interpreted the Ninth Amendment as justification for broadly reading the Bill of Rights to protect privacy in ways not specifically provided in the first eight amendments.”

So maybe the answer is that while it isn’t cut and dry, we have, at least, a decent legal argument for privacy. Lynch says there is more, that there are psychological and philosophical issues at stake: “…the concept of privacy also matters for another, deeper reason. It is intimately connected to what it is to be an autonomous person.”

For example, if we use the 4 rationales for privacy listed at the beginning of this blog, then some might argue that, save for your “papers and effects” being guarded “against unreasonable searches and seizures” as listed in the 4th Amendment, then they really don’t mind what you know about their preferences, their whereabouts, or even past or present behavior. But would that also hold for your thoughts? Feel free to comment below.


 1.Lynch, Michael P. “Privacy and the Threat to the Self.” Editorial. The New York Times 22 June 2013, Opinion Pages sec.: n. pag. The New York Times.com. The New York Times Company, 22 June 2013. Web. 10 July 2014.
2.”The Right of Privacy: Is It Protected by the Constitution?” The Right of Privacy: Is It Protected by the Constitution? The University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, n.d. Web. 09 July 2014.http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/rightofprivacy.html
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