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Privacy: A Thing of the Past?

Reality_stars_Lo_Bosworth_Lauren_ConradConsider these scenarios: 1) A twenty-something male standing outside of the supermarket talking loudly on his cell phone making no attempt to hide his conversation. He is so loud and animated that you can tell he is angry with his significant other. 2) Two female teenagers (maybe 14-16 yrs. old) walking down the street having a loud, but apparently friendly conversation, about a recent sexual escapade with a boyfriend. This conversation is within the earshot of various people standing outside. 3) A customer at a department store standing two places behind you speaking loudly on their cell phone about all of their planned activities for the day including some unsavory details. How many of us can say that they have witnessed these situations or something similar? They tend to create discomfort in those exposed to them. The common denominator in all of these situations is the blurring of privacy boundaries; the public disclosure of details of one’s private lives. These uncomfortable situations produce numerous questions about the dividing line between what should be public and what should remain private. Why do these situations seem to occur more frequently today?

As with most other topics, philosophers have not always agreed on the scope of privacy. However, most have agreed that privacy is a good or a right (privacy referred to here pertains to personal and social relationships not to the legal and constitutional aspects of privacy). With the exception of Plato and Aristotle (they viewed privacy as a negative concept), philosophers generally have promoted privacy as a necessary component for a prosperous and happy society. The reasons supporting the necessity of privacy have varied.

James Rachels, a deceased American ethicist known for his writings on euthanasia, wrote a well-known essay in 1975 titled “Why Privacy is Important”. He begins the essay by asking, “Why, exactly, is privacy important to us?” He offers numerous possible answers. Privacy is sometimes necessary to protect people’s interests in competitive situations such as sports. Privacy is necessary if someone does not want others to know about some embarrassing aspect of their life. Rachels supplements this thought by adding, “It is indeed the grossest of injustices to observe a person who believes himself to be alone.” Privacy is important to protect one’s confidential information such as medical records and credit reports. These are things that, if publicly revealed, can have negative consequences in someone’s life. In social relationships, privacy allows one to “control who knows what about us and allows us to vary our behavior with different people so that we can maintain and control our various social relationships.”

Although it is a challenge to find a single definition that encompasses all we might care about when it comes to privacy, most people have enough strong intuitions about the subject that they argue in its favor and deem privacy to be a positive moral value. There seems to be something intuitive and urgent about privacy that it invokes a sense of discomfort in us when it is violated. The ability to control which details of our lives should be disclosed is something that people cherish and deem to be significant in forming and maintaining relationships. The examples cited above are bothersome for many people. There seems to be aspects of our lives that are best left to ourselves or to a smaller circle of people. This notion is shared by many.

However, it is still very difficult to determine which private details should be publicly disclosed and equally difficult to determine if there are any aspects of life that are inherently private. This is why the examples cited above are a fascinating look into the rationality behind privacy. On the one hand, you generally observe a subtle disapproval (e.g. head shaking, whispering disapproval to someone next to you) on the part of the spectators exposed to these scenes but, on the other hand, the spectators can encounter difficulties in fashioning reasons for their disapproval as evidenced by the lack of details in their reasons (for example “there are certain things you should not share in front of others”). The point is that, while privacy generally is considered a good that should be cherished in modern society, there is a set of rational difficulties when we attempt to list a consensual set of conditions that mandate privacy.

Even so, there seems to be more of a willingness to breach traditional privacy boundaries today than ever before. This is an ironic twist of events because privacy is a common value that is cherished to some degree by all individuals. Moreover, the acceptance of this common value confers benefits upon society as a whole and thus privacy is considered a collective value as well. Whether privacy is a right as declared by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights is another debate altogether but it is acceptable to say that privacy is an individual and collective good. A philosophical examination of goods such as privacy, employment, equal access to public service, etc. entails a description of the nature and scope of these goods but also an appraisal of societal factors that can affect the scope and exercise of these goods. The appraisal is necessary for determining whether these factors contribute or damage the common and collective values of said goods.

Regarding traditional privacy boundaries, here is a hypothesis about one societal factor that may contribute to the frequent breaching of those boundaries today. Reality TV has become a dominant force in entertainment and a growing influence in society in the last 5-10 years. Of particular interest are reality shows in which cast members or celebrities are placed in artificial environments or professionals are portrayed in their day-to-day work. These types of reality shows (e.g. Survivor, The Real World, Big Brother, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, Hell’s Kitchen, etc.), which depend greatly on human interaction and its resultant affairs and conflicts, have provoked the most criticism. First, the unrestrained exposure of a person’s private life is a necessary component for these shows and is, I think, a key component of their popularity. This uninhibited display of intimate details leads to humiliation of the cast members.

Second, the unlimited exposure and humiliation brings charges of immorality upon the producers, cast members, and the networks of these shows. Many people wonder if the participants and creators of these reality shows should exhibit greater moral responsibility because of the improprieties they televise and the resultant messages that they deliver to the viewer. These elements of reality TV, by themselves, are not sufficient to consider reality TV as a reason for the frequent breaching of traditional privacy boundaries but there are plenty of elements of certain reality shows that seem to be counter to the intuitions of many people when it comes to privacy.

My conjecture is that the constant exposure of private personal details and the lack of accompanying self-control in certain reality shows seem to have spilled over into real life contributing to a “softening” of privacy on the part of the viewers of these shows. The plausibility of this conjecture deserves more evidence than I can offer here. But the purpose of this hypothesis is to provoke discussion as to whether the growing influence of reality TV has eroded privacy boundaries today and whether it has contributed to a broader societal attitude that anything can be and should be revealed publicly. In addition to reality TV, there may be other factors, such as the growth of social media and the changing perception of privacy that deserve their own analyses. This I’ll touch on in my next article.

What Would You Do With 1 Million Dollars to Reform Education?

It’s popular in the United States these days to call for education reform. It seems most everyone wants it but few seem to know how best to bring it about. The conversation over education reform carries a lot of political weight and parents and teachers deeply understand the practical implications of doing—and not doing—something to improve the way kids are taught. In fact, the situation appears to be so desperate that ‘something’ is turning into ‘anything’ with politicians and educators attempting various experiments ranging from small tweaks to broad-brushed reform. Yet here in the middle of 2012, little has changed and the situation appears to continue to slide backwards.

As important as action is, intractable problems like fixing a troubled educational system benefit from the long conversation: thinkers from various fields bringing their knowledge to a disciplined, guided discussion about the problems and possible solutions. And philosophy is ideally suited to both guide and inform a discussion like this. Recently, Dr. Jason Baehr launched The Intellectual Virtues and Education Project which is a three-year project sponsored by a generous grant ($1 million) from the John Templeton Foundation and housed at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  It is devoted to developing and applying the first systematic formulation of an “intellectual virtues educational model,” which is a model that focuses on fostering intellectual character virtues like curiosity, wonder, intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, open-mindedness, intellectual humility, and intellectual rigor.

An intellectual virtues framework provides a way of fleshing out and making concrete the idea that education should be about creating "lifelong learners" or promoting a "love of learning." A person with intellectual virtues is characterized by a love of knowledge and learning and has the personal qualities and abilities required for being a lifelong learner. Additionally, an intellectual virtues approach to education begins and ends with a focus on those distinctive personal qualities have epistemic ends. As such, it avoids certain pitfalls or objections to more familiar versions of "character education."

baehr_headBaehr, who’s work is primarily focused on virtue epistemology and virtue ethics, will apply the learnings from those disciplines to problems in education. Baehr recently published a book with Oxford University Press titled, The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology which serves both as a primer on virtue epistemology and a summary of the basis for the Templeton project (Philosophy News recently interviewed Baehr about his new book and you can listen to that podcast here). Baehr’s Intellectual Virtues Education Project will be conducted in two phases. The first phase will bring together, for the first time, leading scholars from across the nation in the philosophy of education, educational theory and psychology and virtue epistemology, for a series of workshops and seminars to develop the first intellectual virtues-based educational model. This phase will focus on developing and applying an intellectual virtues educational model (IVEM) and has six parts (described in detail here): An academic workshop, an academic conference, an edited volume of essays, an implementation guide for using the outcomes of the project in actual schools, a series of pedagogy seminars, and an online repository of information and guidance called the Intellectual Virtues and Education Resource Page.

After a curriculum is developed, 15 local junior high and high school teachers and administrators will be trained in the model.  In the second phase of the project, the remaining grant money will be used to implement the intellectual virtues curriculum in a new charter school for students in grades 6 through 8. A proposal for the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach is currently under consideration by the Long Beach Unified School District.

Resources

Project website

Press release on the project

Jason’s book at Amazon.com

You can contact Jason here

Which Book is This?

Can you name the philosophy book in the photo below? We’ll send a Philosophy News coffee mug to the first person* who can name both the exact title of the book and the author. We’ll only accept answers that are posted to the Philosophy News comments area for this post (correct responses posted to Twitter or Facebook, while welcome, won’t be included in the evaluation).

stacked_squares

And the mug goes to: Adam Pawelczyk.

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Routledge Philosophy Journal Updates

We’re celebrating the 90th volume of Australasian Journal of Philosophy with a virtual special issue, which includes a selection of articles and Editorial by Stewart Candlish.

Read the winner of the 2011 Australasian Journal of Philosophy Best Paper Prize, Epistemic Two Dimensionalism and the Epistemic Argument by Jeff Speaks.

Inquiry is changing editorship in 2013 with a new board of associate editors. View the new Editorial Board listing.

Submissions are invited for a wide range of forthcoming Inquiry special issues, with guest editors including Brian Leiter, John Hawthorne, and Susanna Siegel. Find out more.

Philosophical Papers are welcoming submissions for two forthcoming special issues – Aging and the Elderly, and Philosophy’s Therapeutic Potential.

Philosophy Special Issues – See a full list of special issues of our Philosophy journals and read the editorials for free! Recent topics include ‘John Milton, European (Part 2)’, ‘Extended Cognition and Epistemology’, and ‘Epistemic Injustice’.

Which Book is This?

Can you name the philosophy book in the photo below? We’ll send a Philosophy News coffee mug to the first person* who can name both the exact title of the book and the author. We’ll only accept answers that are posted to the Philosophy News comments area for this post (correct responses posted to Twitter or Facebook, while welcome, won’t be included in the evaluation).

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And the mug goes to: Ben Simpson!

*We’ll send the mug to the first person that posts a correct answer according to the order calculated by our comments provider (Disqus). In order to receive the mug, we’ll need to correspond with you via email and you’ll have to be willing to send us your valid postal address (US addresses only please – sorry).

The “Green” Religion Supplanting Christianity

Or so says one of the pioneers of the global warming movement. James Lovelock appears to be dialing back his “doom and gloom” predictions about global warming and is claiming that he has been overly alarmist about climate change. No doubt true believers will dismiss his claims or attack his character (or just call him old and senile as was the tactic with Antony Flew a few years ago). But regardless of what you think about his views, one thing he says rings true: green is the new purple. The green movement is replacing Christianity as the one true faith in particular parts of the country. It has all the earmarks of the faith of my childhood (I’ve written about some of those here) and for we agnostics, being in areas that are full of green evangelists—both mild and radical—and culture-permeating programs and ideology, living among the greens can sometimes be hell (well, purgatory anyway).

Info on Lovelock’s change of heart here and here.

Which Book is This?

Can you name the philosophy book in the photo below? We’ll send a Philosophy News coffee mug to the first person* who can name both the exact title of the book and the author. We’ll only accept answers that are posted to the Philosophy News comments area for this post (correct responses posted to Twitter or Facebook, while welcome, won’t be included in the evaluation).

guess_the_book_2

Hint: if you’re too rational, you might not get this one.

And the mug goes to: Derek Newby!

*We’ll send the mug to the first person that posts a correct answer according to the order calculated by our comments provider (Disqus). In order to receive the mug, we’ll need to correspond with you via email and you’ll have to be willing to send us your valid postal address (US addresses only please – sorry).

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