One of the most fraught ethical issues of our day is privacy. On a personal level we feel betrayed if a friend broadcasts secrets we have shared. But we also feel distressed to hear of an old person found at home weeks after their death. Their neighbours saw nothing, failed to register their absence, did not enquire.
On a public level we may also be ambivalent about privacy. We may feel outraged when a government department releases confidential information about people who complained about their treatment. We may feel uneasy when photos and speculation on the guilt of people accused of a crime are released before their trial.
If we see a satellite in the night sky, we might fear it is sending back images of us putting out the cat. But because we want to feel secure we may be prepared to sacrifice some of our privacy for safety.
We may be concerned when governments and corporations appeal to commercial in confidence clauses to hide details of their behaviour that affect the public interest; when governments criminalise the exposure of mistreatment of people held in detention centres; and when church authorities fail to disclose the actions of abusive priests. In these cases the appeal to privacy is a weapon to arm the powerful against the weak.
Our ambivalence suggests that privacy does not automatically trump all other values. Its claims needs to be negotiated in each situation and be set within larger values that govern its reach.
I would argue, perhaps paradoxically, that privacy is important because it is the condition of good human communication. To assess the demands of privacy properly we need to recognise that we are not solitary individuals but persons who depend for their wellbeing on one another. Privacy protects and enriches the quality of our engagement with one another.
This argument presupposes that each human being is unique and deserving of respect simply by being human, not by achievement or status. In each of us is a personal centre able to reflect, to wonder, to explore the world and to evaluate it, to long and to love, to make decisions, and to engage freely with other human beings.
To respect other human beings means respecting that inner space. Privacy is the gate that allows us to leave and others to enter the garden of our deepest and most vulnerable selves. If it is torn off its hinges we shall live on a shallow level, preoccupied with defending ourselves. That is why the invasion of our privacy by governments and corporations in order to control our lives is unjustifiable.
"To use privacy to allow exploitation, abuse and brutality to flourish unseen is to disrespect others and to prevent the public communication on which a just society depends."
The purpose of a gate is only secondarily to keep people out. It is primarily a passage through which we can pass. Privacy enables us to go freely out of ourselves by engaging with others, forming relationships, providing space for those relationships to deepen as we give ourselves freely to one another. It is the condition of good working relationships in which the gift we make of ourselves is real but limited.
Privacy is also a condition of forming deeper relationships where we give ourselves to others, entrusting them with our own vulnerability. It is not a wall to protect ourselves from others but a gate that guarantees our freedom in relationships. It enables communication to be a gift and not a contract.
The test of privacy in any situation is whether it is a necessary condition of respecting the value of each person, and of encouraging people to give themselves freely to one another. In some cases respect for the value of persons may make it necessary to breach privacy. The disclosure of the sexual abuse of children and the monitoring of the communications of people suspected of serious crimes are cases in point. But authorisation for such breaches of privacy should be carefully limited and monitored.
More generally, to disclose and be careless with the personal information that others have entrusted to us is lacking in respect and inhibits the trust essential in any communication. To so privilege privacy that we allow a neighbour to live and die unnoticed is a failure both in respect and in due responsibility to others.
To use privacy to allow exploitation, abuse and brutality to flourish unseen, and even worse to design a regime of privacy in order to practice brutality, is to disrespect the value of others and to prevent the public communication on which a just society depends.
Privacy flows out of our responsibility to one another. It is the gate that protects and encourages our communication with one another. Either to padlock it shut or to force it open out of self-interest is destructive.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
25 May 2017
What a thoughtful article, thanks Andy. I have a friendship of some 10 years standing which has some comfortable boundaries for both of us. Her welfare and happiness is of great importance to me but, above that, is my respect for her privacy. It's her wish that it is that way, and mine too. Forcing an issue is never respectful. We can be concerned about government actions not as private persons but as citizens. That's different. From Robert Frost: "We're too unseparate. And going home/From company means coming to our senses."
26 May 2017
This is a helpful article Fr. Andrew to refine our own stance to privacy. I like particularly your comment that"the test of privacy .....is whether it is a necessary condition to respect the value of each person, and or encouraging people to give themselves freely to one another."
On a mundane level I query the motives of the staff room gossip , the unlimited chatter and banter of some family networks and old - school cliques,and Journalists who have the difficult path to walk in the revelation of useful appropriate disclosures.
In private and public life to reveal information to enable people to flourish and be supported seems appropriate . If it doesn't do this and has oblique and dishonest motives it can truly be destructive.
26 May 2017
I find this a very balanced challenging and encouraging article on the relationships between disclosure and privacy. It is challenging in highlighting the value of readiness to give of ourselves in relationships while owning our own need for privacy. "... the appeal to privacy is a weapon to arm the powerful against the weak." is a particularly succinct expression of the misuse of an appeal to the right to privacy.
26 May 2017
An excellent, insightful article which should be read by all those 'held in authority over us', such as politicians; the bureaucracy and the episcopate. I am reminded of that refrain from the old song: 'When will they ever learn?'
26 May 2017
Respect is an interesting word which has an element of admiration. Sadly there are people for whom I have no respect. However Courtesy is a different thing and something that should be shown to all. It has nothing to do with whether you like someone or have anything in common, it's about being polite to everyone, no matter what and hopefully with goodwill. Please God, if I have both courtesy and kindness as a giver and receiver, then the rest will fall into place. Btw I hope when the stars are out, that the cat will be brought in and all the little creatures that forage at night will be grateful.
26 May 2017
I often get emails with a note at the top saying "to protect your privacy, some pictures with this message were not downloaded. I find this insulting: the pictures are always anonymous and harmless, and the suggestion that I mightn't be able to handle them infuriates me.
08 June 2017
a belated response
This article touches on something that I have been concerned about for a long time: the way the media intrudes into people's private space in times of grief and anguish in order to get close-ups of tears, pain, surprise, and sometimes gruesome details.
It appears that there is competition going on within the media to put on public display things that once upon a time were considered private and to be respected by allowing personal space. These days everything is "up for grabs" so long as the camera gets the "best shot" and a station, channel, paper, magazine, is able to publish the "best shot".
To me this demonstrates a general lack of respect for people's inner sanctity, turning them into just another thing to be commodified for the purpose of gain by a media organisation. It also requires the individuals holding the camera to jostle with others intrude into that personal space, demeaning themselves and the individual being photographed.
Perhaps you could write an article about this Fr. Andrew. I'm sure there are many people who believe things have gone too far.