In this post, I will attempt to defend that there exist situations where it is morally acceptable to violate a given agent's privacy in favour of the security of the group to which the agent belongs. To note, it is possible, and the same (or analogous) argument has been hypothesised from other standpoints, namely that of social contract theory.
Definitions and Axioms
It is necessary, however, to clarify a few definitions. Take the state of security, for a given individual, as his interest to continue life, to avoid physical and financial injury that impedes him from extreme poverty or life-threatening disease, in being free of psychological trauma inflicted by others that prohibits him from taking care of himself. Again, one must note that this definition of privacy is the most consensual definition amongst prevalent authors in the field to the degree that consensus is possible amongst different authors. Nonetheless, it would be negligent not to inform the reader that other definitions do exist.
Definitions for privacy are equally varied, and each one presents its own set of unique issues. One can highlight four major definitions, the product of four distinct papers.
In 1988 in her essay, Uneasy Access: Privacy for women in a free society, Anitta Allen forwards a definition of privacy fundamentally based on a given individual's ability to limit access to information about themselves. It firmly contrasts and distinguishes privacy from autonomy and solitude. Postulating an initially intuitive concept of zones, similar, in layman's terms, to social circles, where the individual limits the access to information known about themself by placing others in different zones with different levels of information access between them. In essence, per Allen's theory, a given individual only has privacy if they can limit access to information about themselves. However, this definition fails to contemplate the role of control and choice for a given individual to have privacy.
Later, in 1990 Charles Fried proposes a theory based on control, which correctly, all be it incompletely, addresses the shortcomings of Allen's theory. For Fried, a given individual has privacy if and only if they can have complete control over information on themselves. As he clarifies in his paper, this is not simply the absence of information about us in other people's minds but it is the control of the information others possess about us. Yet the theory fails to clarify the nature of the supposed control, including what kind of information we can expect to have control over or how much control we can feasibly have over said information.
A humorous theory was presented by Ruth Gavinson in 1980. It dictated that a given individual can only have privacy if they are alone. However, critics, we're quick to point out that privacy does not exist if one is alone. Privacy fundamentally requires interaction between multiple agents.
A more recent theory forwarded by Herman Tavani in 2007 can be viewed as a more moderate interpretation of Gavinson's theory where privacy is described as "being let alone". It is not as radical as Gavinson's theory, which requires total isolation. However, it fails to adequately distinguish between privacy and freedom.
For the rest of this essay, please consider privacy to be defined concordant with Fried's theory, later consolidaded by Clarke.
An object has intrinsic value if and only if it has value as means in itself.
An object has instrumental value if and only if it has value as a means to another valuable end.
The Relativism and Absolutism of Rights
Maybe the best definition of an absolute right can be found within the legal realm, the UN Human Rights Council, within the context of a "state of emergency" proposed the following definition of an absolute right:Absolute rights cannot be limited for any reason. No circumstance justifies a qualification or limitation of absolute rights. Absolute rights cannot be suspended or restricted, even during a declared state of emergency. United Nations (2002). Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 29, State of Emergency (Aritcle 4). Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, 20(1), pp.139–146.
From this, we can extrapolate, that, morally, these rights triumph over any others, nonetheless, those who defend the moral relativism of rights claim that this may not always be the case.
However, the recent COVID lockdowns have shown that the right to the permanence of people in public areas is a relative right, which can be violated to the detriment of public safety.
As such, it is necessary to ascertain if security is an absolute right or could conceivably be relativized when it conflicts with others, like privacy.
If security is deemed an absolute right and privacy necessarily buckled when they conflict it would be morally acceptable for a state to sacrifice all interests in privacy for a marginal improvement in security. For example, it would be permissible to expose the private information of 1000 people to save a singular person from severe injury.
Thus, due to the ridiculous nature of the aforementioned abstraction, it is necessary to presume that security is a relative right, however, this implies a vertical scale of moral values, where certain moral values prevail over others. By denying the moral supremacy of security over privacy we are articulating the somewhat intuitive preconception that security and privacy exist on the same plane of moral equity, as in, to some degree they can be deemed equivalent when they conflict.
To conclude, it is outlandish to claim that either security or privacy are absolute rights, as such, we are led to conclude they can be relativized upon conflict.
Considerations of Instrumental and Intrinsic Value
Before one can draw any conclusions about the relation between privacy and security, it is first necessary to establish their respective moral values, as intrinsic or instrumental.
In truth, there exists no piece of information about a given agent, that said agent wishes to maintain private, that exists as an end within itself. For example, the fact I have brown hair is subject to no protection by myself, however, my television habits may be (for example, if I watched a lot of soap operas and it was frowned upon in my social circle). The objective of privacy, is, per definition, to avoid embarrassing or otherwise damaging social consequences.
In contrast, security is viewed by an agent as possessing both instrumental and intrinsic value. It possesses instrumental value as it is a pre-condition to living in life with the due usufruct, it is also seen as possessing intrinsic value because a continued sentient existence and one's physical integrity are means within themselves.
As such, we can formulate the following arguments:
1st Argument of Moral Value
If our interests in X are purely instrumental as a means of securing Y and both X and Y are morally protected in terms of our interests in them, it seems clear that what is of ultimate importance from the point of view of morality is Y.
X is protected just because it makes it easy to get Y if X didn't lead to Y it wouldn't be protected but Y would be.
Given that Y is of ultimate importance from a moral point of view and that its value is not contingent on securing something else of moral importance and X lacks this property, it seems reasonable to conclude that from a moral point of view Y is a more important interest than X.
Therefore, one can ascertain that Y is protected because it has intrinsic value however X's value to a given agent merely derives from its utility to obtain Y.
Applying this argument to our use case, one can conclude that, as privacy merely serves as a means to obtain security (as it only has instrumental value), it is of lesser moral value than security (as it has intrinsic value)
2nd Argument of Moral Value
John Finnis, despite identifying himself as a cultural relativist, postulates a plethora of values that serve as criteria for the formation of transcultural moral rules, he calls these values “basic goods”. He highlights, among others, “the care for human life in which self-preservation is generally accepted as the proper motive for action” (Danielson and Finnis, 1980). In other words, he states that safety has intrinsic value, corroborating our previous thesis.
He also presents the following argument:
If X is essential to obtain one of the basic goods and is not morally objectionable, it is reasonable to think that morality will offer some protection to any agent trying to obtain X, however, the value of X will be derived from and of lesser importance than the value of the basic good that X is needed to obtain.
Therefore, it follows that what is a necessary means to an end, which receives moral protection, also receives moral protection in itself, but is less important from the point of view of morality than the "basic good" that it is necessary to achieve.
AboveAvgJane (2005). An Interview with Patrick Murphy. [online] aboveavgjane.blogspot.com. Available at: https://aboveavgjane.blogspot.com/2005/12/interview-with-patrick-murphy.html [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].
Clarke, R. (1999). Internet privacy concerns confirm the case for intervention. Communications of the ACM, 42(2), pp.60–67.
Danielson, P. and Finnis, J. (1980). Natural Law and Natural Rights. The University of Toronto Law Journal, 30(4), p.441.
Himma, K. (2007). Privacy versus Security: Why Privacy Is Not an Absolute Value or Right. San Diego Law Review, [online] 44(4), p.857. Available at: https://digital.sandiego.edu/sdlr/vol44/iss4/10 [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].
Gavison, R. (1980). Privacy and the Limits of Law. The Yale Law Journal, 89(3), p.421.
Allen, A.L. (1992). Uneasy Access: Privacy for Women in a Free Society. The Philosophical Review, 101(3), p.709.
Fried, C. (1970). An Anatomy of Values: Problems of Personal and Social Choice. Harvard Law Review, 84(4), p.1045.