On Philosophy

December 24, 2006

The Right To Privacy

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 4:43 am

The right to privacy is not explicitly spelled out in the constitution (although “unreasonable searches and seizures” might be interpreted liberally as a right to privacy). But the decisions of founding fathers have little to do with what rights we should have (or natural rights). Is privacy one of these?

To argue for or against a right to privacy we must first make explicit what justifies a right in general. To put it most concisely I would say that a society in which these rights are granted is better off in some fashion than those without (more stable, longer lived, more prosperous, ect). In general these rights fall within three broad categories:

Economic rights: Economic rights guarantee citizens the ability to prosper as best as they are able. These vary by economic system, but under capitalism they include the right own property, the right to spend money as you wish, and various rights that guarantee equality under the law. A society that gives its citizens appropriate economic rights is better off than one without because with economic rights citizens are encouraged to work their hardest, without fear that their gains will be unfairly taken away from them, encouraging innovation, efficiency, and an ever-increasing standard of living.

Rights to Justice: These rights put limits on what the government can do, specifically in areas relating to punishment (guarantees of fair trials, no cruel and unusual punishment, ect). They also make some guarantees that are intended to promote fairness (such as the right to the lawyer, although not considered by many to be an “official” right). In many ways these overlap with the economic rights, because they give citizens the necessary assurances to allow them to live their lives as they wish (within the law) without constant fear of their government (or lack of government, allowing them to be exploited by others). Again, this leads to greater prosperity.

Rights to sedition: These rights allow citizens to engage in activities that could possibly lead to the overthrow of the government. These include free assembly, free speech, and the right to bear arms. Generally these rights don’t directly benefit society (except for free speech, which protects art as well), but they are not meant to. They do provide assurances that the government won’t infringe on the other rights, because they allow citizens to overthrow the government if it does. It is expected the rights to sedition won’t be exercised (by which I mean that the citizens won’t actually revolt, not that they won’t speak freely), but their mere existence is intended to keep the government in check (by fear). If privacy was to be a right it should probably be considered a right to sedition.

With this framework laid out all that remains to be done is decide whether privacy does more good than harm. Certainly a right to privacy does have its disadvantages. For example it makes many crimes easier to commit, but the same can be said for all the rights to sedition. In many ways the right to privacy, given enough strength, could subsume the other rights to sedition. Free speech would be covered because conversations between people, outside of public areas, would be considered protected. Likewise assembly, not in public areas (such as to plot a revolt), would be considered private. And finally possession of weapons would also be protected, because what you own would be considered a private matter.

Now not all rights are necessary. Perhaps if the other rights to sedition were given enough strength the right to privacy would be redundant. However in our day and age the rights to sedition have been greatly eroded (which is what you would expect, since the people who have the power to erode them have the most motivation to do so). Thus a strong right to privacy seems called for, if only to make up for weaknesses in our other rights.

Note: We might also be able to argue for privacy as part of our rights to justice, but to do that would require a robust theory as to what justice is, and that is not a task I am up to at the moment.


  1. Peter:
    Excellent article! I can’t speak for all the memebers of The Privacy Army, of which I am a founding member, but I agree with your philosophy. I also believe that if Patrick Henry were alive today his famous quote might be “Give Us Privacy or Give Us Death.” I believe Liberty and Privacy are interchangable.

    Check out http://www.JoinThePrivacyArmyNow.com to see how we plan to take back our private information from the huge data brokers.

    Comment by Jim Simpson — December 25, 2006 @ 11:26 am

  2. Hi,

    You’re article is very informative. Though, I see that you didn’t cite sources. I was hoping you did. I said so because I’m a philosophy undergraduate making a thesis on privacy and the national ID system. I came across your blog while doing my research. I was wondering if you could suggest any philosophical articles related to privacy, invasion of the right to privacy, and national id.

    Thank you!

    Comment by Jericho — January 20, 2007 @ 12:14 am

  3. I didn’t cite sources because I didn’t have any, what I wrote here was constructed from whole cloth while thinking about ethics as applied to various problems in society. Sorry. However, I can reccomend some good readings in ethics if you are interested.

    Comment by Peter — January 20, 2007 @ 12:36 am

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