Privacy and Personae

Why
do we value privacy? Some authors, including Steven Davis (2009),
propose that privacy only contingently enables us to attain other
desires (e.g. dignity, love, friendship) (466). Michael Lynch
opposes such a conclusion. Instead, he proposes that privacy always
has value because it is a constitutive element of autonomy (2013, 8).
I agree with Lynch that privacy is always valuable, but I disagree
that this value stems from being constitutive of autonomy because
this seems to make obscurity an essential feature of autonomy.
However, Lynch also makes a secondary argument that privacy is
contingently valuable because it is usually an important component of
human liberty. I believe that if we push this argument further we
find that privacy is not just a contingent but rather a necessary
condition for certain liberties, namely, the liberties associated
with the adoption of different personae.
1.
Davis and Instrumental Privacy
I
will begin by providing an example of the kind of position that Lynch
and I are arguing against, using Steven Davis’s paper Is there a
Right to Privacy?
(2009). Davis proposes that all privacy is
informational, and that it is only instrumentally valuable as a means
to other ends. By Davis’s definition privacy loss is a very neutral
term: you lose privacy in respects to a specific person and a
specific piece of information when that person gains information (or
ready access to information) about you that they did not have
previously (456). This means that you lose informational privacy
when you tell a friend a secret (455). Loss of privacy is only bad
when we do not want a particular piece of information disseminated.
Davis calls information that we do not want widely disseminated
‘personal’ (456). Given Davis’s account it is theoretically possible
that a society could exist where privacy has no value, because the
harm that privacy loss can cause is always contingent on the
attitudes and dispositions that the members of society have towards
any particular piece of information. To give an example, it only
seems sensible for sexual preference to be deemed personal in a
society where one is at risk of stigmatization. So it goes for all
personal information: the value of privacy is always contingent on
the attitudes of the agents involved. On this basis Davis dismisses
privacy as a necessary condition for essential features of human
well-being such as ‘respect, dignity, friendship, and love’ (465).
2.
Lynch on Privacy as Constitutive of Subjectivity
Michael
Lynch, contra Davis, proposes that privacy has value in itself. His
central argument is that part of what makes an individual’s mind
their own is the fact that they have privileged access to and control
over their mental states (including access control) (2013, 8). He
uses a thought experiment to illustrate: imagine if a mind reader had
systematic access to all of your thoughts. Lynch thinks that this
would dehumanize the person being observed:
“…from
[the mind reader’s] perspective, the perspective of the knower, your
existence as a distinct person would begin to shrink. [The]
relationship would be so lopsided that [the mind reader] may well
cease to regard you as a full subject…” (9)
Lynch
argues that privacy invasion essentially renders people into
objects1,
therefore affronting human dignity by dehumanizing us.
I
question Lynch’s argument on the following basis:
arguing
that loss of privacy dehumanizes us seems equivalent to saying that
we attain autonomy through obscurity. Lynch’s account seems to take
the materialist stance that human’s
are,
in a very real sense, objects in the world: if we understand someone
(by invading their privacy or through other means), we can manipulate
them in the same way we can manipulate a comprehended object. Since
privacy is all that stands between us and object-hood it seems to
follow that agents are obscured objects.
This
seems to come with some unintended consequences.
For
example, it
seems to follow that with
those who know you best you are at your least autonomous.
Ultimately, though, my
main criticism of Lynch’s argument is that he seems to say that our
autonomy exists by virtue of others being ignorant of our nature:
that which depends on
incomprehension
for its existence hardly seems to exist. By this I do not mean to
claim that autonomy does not exist,
rather,
I think we should reject Lynch’s argument because causes significant
problems for the existence of autonomy.
3.
Privacy and Personae
Though
I think that Lynch’s central argument is flawed, I believe that his
secondary argument for privacy based on liberty provides a basis on
which to argue that privacy is always valuable. I will first
explicate Lynch’s secondary argument, and then I will expand on his
account with my own idea of personae. First I will define the
notion, and in doing so I will demonstrate how privacy is a
prerequisite for the formation of multiple personae. I will then
argue that having some ability to create multiple personae is an
integral aspect of liberty. Finally, I will address a potential
criticism.
Lynch’s
secondary argument is fairly straightforward: he proposes that when
we lose informational privacy our liberty can be adversely affected.
Loss of privacy can curtail our liberty in two ways: we can be
manipulated by those with access to our information, and we can be
forced to regulate our own behaviour because we are aware of the fact
that we are being observed. This loss of liberty is not inevitable,
according to Lynch, but it is still a matter of serious concern (4).
I
propose to expand Lynch’s account by adding the idea that privacy
provides us with the liberty to create personae.
I
define a persona as follows: a persona is an appearance that we
develop through acting in certain ways and disseminating specific
information to individuals or groups.
2
I do not intend appearance to be in any way derogatory or imply
superficiality; how we want to appear to others seems to be an
integral aspect of our identity. It seems to be the case that we
inevitably adopt different appearances in different aspects of our
lives. Someone may be a ruthless businessperson by day and a loving
parent by night, a politician may be diplomatic in public but tell
dirty jokes behind closed doors, most people are politely reserved
with strangers but reveal emotions much more freely to
their
friends. However, we cannot have multiple personae without privacy.
Privacy acts as the barrier between different personae. Without this
barrier, two personae bleed together. Imagine that I have two groups
of friends, and that there are certain ways in which my behaviour
differs depending on which group I am with. If both groups had
access to how I acted and what I said with the other group, then the
whole set of behaviours and revealed information would become a
single personae. I do not mean to suggest here that such aggregation
is intrinsically bad for an agent: personae collapse together
regularly in our day-to-day lives. I do believe, however, that our
liberty
suffers a serious blow if we are greatly deprived of the ability to
adopt various personae.
Being
able to adopt different personae is an integral aspect of human
liberty,
and it is by virtue of being a constitutive element of personae that
some degree of privacy is always
valuable
. Davis objects to the notion
that privacy has intrinsic value on the basis that the badness of
lost privacy is contingent on there being a reason to keep the
information private (2009, 465). I would argue, however, that
creating personae has value regardless of the benignity of the
observers. To illustrate this value, let us take the extreme example
of an individual who only has a single persona. Let us imagine that
we have a person, Theon, who is under constant video surveillance.
The video feed is constantly played on video screens all over his
city of residence in every home. As a consequence of this constant
surveillance, nothing that Theon says or does can be directed purely
at a single individual; he is also always at least potentially in the
eye of all other people in the city. Theon has therefore been
deprived of the ability to have multiple personae: he is one person
to everyone. It seems quite clear to me that Theon is deprived of
many liberties that we take for granted, regardless of the benignity
of his observers. There are certain ways that Theon simply cannot
be.
He cannot be the kind of person who surprises his significant other
with a rose, he cannot be suave with one group of friends and
laid-back with another, he cannot escape any mistake through
anonymity, and he can never say anything about anyone without saying
it directly to them.
This list is not
meant to be exhaustive, I only intend to demonstrate
that
there are
kinds
of liberty of which we are
inevitably
deprived when we are completely without privacy. It is not
impossible to live in such circumstances, but it seems clear to me
that Theon’s life has been seriously diminished. I would say that
this diminishment holds even if all members of the society were
subject to the same surveillance: the harm is not contingent on
interpersonal comparison.
I would also
say that the diminishment holds whether Theon is aware that he is
being observed, since we can be deprived of the liberty to act in
certain ways
without being aware of our
deprivation
(return
to the
example of surprising one’s
significant other a rose: Theon is deprived of such liberty
regardless of whether he is aware of his surveillance).

I argue that it is therefore is the case that Theon’
s
liberty
has been dealt a significant
blow. His is, of course, the most extreme case. The exact degree of
privacy
required to
avoid significant harms to our liberty is

ambiguous,
what I
have aimed to demonstrate here is that at least some privacy is a
necessary component of a flourishing life.
Philosophers
such as Davis would potentially object that it does not seem
necessary that an individual desires the ability to adopt different
personae: there may be people so boldly constituted that they act
wholeheartedly in a single and universal fashion. If such is the
case, they might argue, then the value of the privacy to adopt
personae is contingent on individual disposition. To this I would
respond that
being deprived of a
significant amount of liberty
should be
deemed as harmful whether or not the individual values the
liberty
of which they have been deprived. Imagine that a slave desires
nothing but to be a slave; it still seems to be the case, to me, that
freedom remains valuable.
4.
Conclusion
In
this essay I proposed, in opposition to Davis, that privacy
always
has value
by virtue of the fact that it
enables us to adopt different personae. I developed this argument by
drawing on arguments made by Lynch in his
Amicus
Brief
. I disagreed with his central
argument, but then developed his secondary argument on the relation
between privacy and liberty further. I proposed that privacy is a
constitutive component of the ability to adopt personae, and that, to
some degree, the ability to adopt personae is an essential aspect of
liberty.

Bibliography

Davis,
Steven. 2009. “Is There a Right to Privacy?”
Pacific
Philisophical Quarterly

90: 450–75.

Brief
for
Michael
P. Lynch,

as Amicus Curiae,

ACLU
vs. Clapper.

(2013).
1Lynch
could alternatively be interpreted as arguing that we are harmed by
others viewing us as objects, rather then my interpretation that
loss of privacy makes us into objects.
I think that this interpretation is too weak: though we can be
contingently harmed by the fact that others view us as objects, the
harm only seems intrinsic if it somehow diminishes our humanity
(i.e. makes us more
object-like)
.
2It
is not necessarily the case that the personae that we develop are
those we wish to develop. A shy person at a party, for example, may
desire to be social but be unable to force themselves to be so.
Their actions still contribute to a personae.

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