By Judith DeCew
The term “privacy” is used frequently in ordinary language as well as in philosophical, political and legal discussions, yet there is no single definition or analysis or meaning of the term. The concept of privacy has broad historical roots in sociological and anthropological discussions about how extensively it is valued and preserved in various cultures. Moreover, the concept has historical origins in well known philosophical discussions, most notably Aristotle’s distinction between the public sphere of political activity and the private sphere associated with family and domestic life. Yet historical use of the term is not uniform, and there remains confusion over the meaning, value and scope of the concept of privacy.
Early treatises on privacy appeared with the development of privacy protection in American law from the 1890’s onward, and privacy protection was justified largely on moral grounds. This literature helps distinguish descriptive accounts of privacy, describing what is in fact protected as private, from normative accounts of privacy defending its value and the extent to which it should be protected. In these discussions some treat privacy as an interest with moral value, while others refer to it as a moral or legal right that ought to be protected by society or the law. Clearly one can be insensitive to another’s privacy interests without violating any right to privacy, if there is one.
There are several skeptical and critical accounts of privacy. According to one well known argument there is no right to privacy and there is nothing special about privacy, because any interest protected as private can be equally well explained and protected by other interests or rights, most notably rights to property and bodily security (Thomson, 1975). Other critiques argue that privacy interests are not distinctive because the personal interests they protect are economically inefficient (Posner, 1981) or that they are not grounded in any adequate legal doctrine (Bork, 1990). Finally, there is the feminist critique of privacy, that granting special status to privacy is detrimental to women and others because it is used as a shield to dominate and control them, silence them, and cover up abuse (MacKinnon, 1989).
Nevertheless, most theorists take the view that privacy is a meaningful and valuable concept. Philosophical debates concerning definitions of privacy became prominent in the second half of the twentieth century, and are deeply affected by the development of privacy protection in the law. Some defend privacy as focusing on control over information about oneself (Parent, 1983), while others defend it as a broader concept required for human dignity (Bloustein, 1964), or crucial for intimacy (Gerstein, 1978; Inness, 1992). Other commentators defend privacy as necessary for the development of varied and meaningful interpersonal relationships (Fried, 1970, Rachels, 1975), or as the value that accords us the ability to control the access others have to us (Gavison, 1980; Allen, 1988; Moore, 2003), or as a set of norms necessary not only to control access but also to enhance personal expression and choice (Schoeman, 1992), or some combination of these (DeCew, 1997). Discussion of the concept is complicated by the fact that privacy appears to be something we value to provide a sphere within which we can be free from interference by others, and yet it also appears to function negatively, as the cloak under which one can hide domination, degradation, or physical harm to women and others.
This essay will discuss all of these topics, namely, (1) the historical roots of the concept of privacy, including the development of privacy protection in tort and constitutional law, and the philosophical responses that privacy is merely reducible to other interests or is a coherent concept with fundamental value, (2) the critiques of privacy as a right, (3) the wide array of philosophical definitions or defenses of privacy as a concept, providing alternative views on the meaning and value of privacy (and whether or not it is culturally relative), as well as (4) the challenges to privacy posed in an age of technological advance. Overall, most writers defend the value of privacy protection despite the difficulties inherent in its definition and its potential use to shield abuse. A contemporary collection of essays on privacy provides strong evidence to support this point (Paul et al., 2000). The contributing authors examine various aspects of the right to privacy and its role in moral philosophy, legal theory, and public policy. They also address justifications and foundational arguments for privacy rights.
- 1. History
- 2. Critiques of Privacy
- 3. Views on the Meaning and Value of Privacy
- 4. Privacy and Technology
- Academic Tools
- Other Internet Resources
- Related Entries
Source: DeCew, Judith, “Privacy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/privacy/>.