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The Psychological Functions And Philosophical Values Of Privacy

According to the most prominent researcher on philosophical aspects of privacy, Ferdinand Schoeman, there was no major philosophical discussion on the value of privacy until the late 1960s. By 1968, another philosopher, Charles Fried, noted that the literature on privacy was "enormous," as psychologists and sociologists joined in the debate. Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition (1958) set out some of the basic functions of privacy: Privacy guarantees psychological and social depth, containing things that cannot withstand the constant presence of others on the public scene; it undergirds the public by establishing boundaries, which fix identity; and it preserves the sacred and mysterious spaces of life. Some phenomena are different if they are not private: confessions of shame or guilt made public become boastful; over-disclosure becomes false; terror, a guilty secret; love and goodness are destroyed.

Westin's Privacy and Freedom (1967) refined Arendt's analysis by introducing a two-tier definition of privacy, combining personal and social dimensions and consisting of four states (anonymity, reserve, solitude, and intimacy) plus four functions of privacy (personal autonomy, emotional release, self-evaluation, and limited and confidential communication). Westin is a firm universalist: Margaret Mead's famous proclamation that Samoans lacked a sense of privacy or shame is shown to be based on a restrictive understanding of the varied mechanisms of privacy, where speaking softly is as valid a mechanism as physical avoidance. Westin pointed out that that even animals seek periods of individual seclusion or small-group intimacy. He also acknowledged rights of privacy to organizations in areas such as medical and business confidentiality, jury deliberations, executive privilege, and the secrets of the confessional.

Writing in 1977, Carl D. Schneider related the sense of privacy to the sense of shame in his Shame, Exposure, and Privacy. He listed phenomena where privacy is related to dignity: the use of nicknames or formal names; the names of relatives; things that carry the weight of the individual's identity or autonomy; faces and other body parts; things needed to care for the body such as soap, towels, and combs. The open display of bodily functions (defecating, great pain, the process of dying) threatens dignity, revealing an individual vulnerable to being reduced to bodily existence; the function of privacy and shame is to preserve wholeness and integrity. Bodily functions (sexual activities, sleep and excretion; illness, suffering, and eating) are rarely physiological processes alone. People invest all their activities with meanings, so that the physiological is invariably permeated with the human; the obscene is a deliberate violation of the sense of shame and privacy. Human relationships demand a pattern of mutual and measured self-disclosure. The private world is both a realm that is valued for oneself as a retreat, and one of which we are suspicious in other people; it is of lesser value than the public world. Totalitarian regimes are opposed to respect for persons, and thus deny privacy; when society does not provide for privacy, being apart will take the form of hiding.

The Private Me (1980), by June Noble and William Noble, anticipated the obsession with "me" that is said to characterize the 1980s. It is a crusading work, seeing privacy under threat from intrusions by family as well as government and society, and offering advice on ways to foster privacy through developmental programs including encounter groups and other forms of self-taught or group therapy. Among examples of modern devaluations in privacy, Noble and Noble noted that until the late twentieth century, diaries, letters and biographies were regarded as private legacy bequeathed by the deceased to family, and chart the growth of straight autobiography as distinct from the novel as fictionalized autobiography. They deplore compulsive self-disclosure (glamorized as candor) and over-disclosure, not only because it becomes boring, but also because it looks for sympathy as against creating intimacy or developing self-awareness. Reticence, on the other hand, encourages limited or protected communication, while privacy keeps emotions and acts from being trivialized: What is important is kept private (for example, lovemaking). Children develop a sense of privacy from the age of eight years on and need privacy to develop fulfilling sex lives.

Noble and Noble emphasized the link between privacy and power: Privacy allows or asserts power, and power confers privacy. Privacy in modern America has become a luxury, indicating status; lack of privacy among the poor and in the workplace leads to stress, and lack of assertiveness means that important boundaries cannot be established. Privacy is resisted by calling it "selfishness"; shyness in modern America is regarded as synonymous with worthlessness but can be seen instead as sensitivity and perceptiveness.

The most original attempt to provide a comprehensive account of privacy in the 1990s was Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation (1992) by the philosopher Julie Inness. Inness constructed a definition of privacy from data on cases under tort and constitutional law in the United States, covering three areas: access to intimate information about the agent; access to intimate aspects of the agent's person; and autonomy in the agent's decisions about intimate matters. Although it requires further definition of what is meant by "intimate" and fails to acknowledge nonintimate dimensions of privacy, the emphasis on control and access makes it one of the most useful definition to date.

Inness is also unusually systematic on the question of values, stressing that privacy is rarely if ever given primary status in conflict with other values. Arendt and Westin both had previously pointed out limitations to privacy. According to Westin, "the individual's desire for privacy is never absolute, since participation in society is an equally powerful desire" (1967, p. 7). Inness adds a feminist perspective, pointing out that privacy protection may act as a mechanism for maintaining the dominance of groups or individuals in power and enforcing silence and helplessness on others.

With some outstanding exceptions, most researchers on privacy are located in the United States and focus on contemporary U.S. experience; relatively little has been produced about other modern societies, Western or otherwise. A countertrend may be starting with the publication of three books on privacy in China: Private Life Under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949–1999 (2003) by Yan Yunxiang; Chinese Concepts of Privacy, edited by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson (2002); and Love-Letters and Privacy in Modern China: The Intimate Lives of Lu Xun and Xu Guangping (2002) by Bonnie S. McDougall. Among insights raised by these studies is the often-ignored fact that privacy is more frequently a condition shared by lovers, families, or friends than one experienced alone by a single individual. As concluded in the preface to Chinese Concepts of Privacy, "The apparent chaos in privacy studies is a reflection of real-life complexity and will not be resolved by including more cultures in the debate. But by taking Chinese and other non-Western cultures into account, a global understanding of privacy will help to clarify crucial issues such as universal awareness of privacy and universal privacy rights" (McDougall and Hansson, p. 24).


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Bonnie McDougall

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPrivacy - A Sense Of Privacy, Privacy And Popular Fiction, Public And Private Realms, Rights Of Privacy In National And International Law