Privacy: A Thing of the Past?

Most philosophers have agreed that privacy is a good or a right. 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. But privacy seems to be eroding in Western society. Why? And is this okay?

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.

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