If you’ve nothing to hide…..Secrecy and the Open Society

Debate on whether privacy is necessary in an open society to a large degree. Should only criminals fear not having secrets? Social and political philosophy resource.

Mirko Bagaric | August 13, 2008

HOW worried do you reckon people in developing countries are about their privacy when they are struggling with the necessities of life? The question seems stupid. But it is important because it underlines the fact that privacy is a middle-class invention by people who have got nothing else to worry about.

The recommendation earlier this week by the Australian Law Reform Commission to introduce an Australia-wide legally protected privacy right ismorally misguided and socially destructive. History confirms that humans don’t need a strong right to privacy to flourish.

Moreover, the suspicion that results from us not sharing information about ourselves may be destructive of the common good.

Although not without qualification, the principle that “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” has considerable merit. Privacy is often no more than code for the “right to secrecy”, which is destructive of an open and free society.

If there were less privacy, criminals would find it harder to plot harmful acts (hundreds of crimes have been thwarted by closed-circuit television). We would be better placed to make informed investment decisions (no more tiresome “commercial in confidence” conversation-stoppers) and know more about the real agendas of our politicians.

Moreover, there is an important paradox that emerges in relation to giving too much ground to the right to privacy. The more tightly certain types of information is guarded, the more entrenched is likely to remain its significance and the prejudice that it can induce. Familiarity and exposure to a particular experience and trait often leads to greater tolerance levels.

A good example of familiarity leading to greater acceptance is the changed community attitude towards homosexuals. The courage displayed by some high-profile people to come out during the past decade or so seems to have blazed the trail for many previously closeted homosexuals to do likewise. This has resulted in a dampening down of previously existing widespread homophobic attitudes.

It is not difficult to multiply such examples. Presently, a similar enlightenment seems to be occurring in the context of mental illness. Not long ago, a similar process occurred in relation to HIV-AIDS sufferers.

Wide-ranging recent research into the human condition has shown that as a species we are all pretty much the same in terms of what makes us happy. Things that are important to wellbeing are liberty, close relationships, good health. Things that don’t make us happy are money (once we are beyond average income) and passive forms ofconduct.

This knowledge that we are all similarly wired can lead only to a greater acceptance of each other. Acquisition of this knowledge will be retarded by the Trojan Horse that is the right to privacy.

Given that knowledge normally leads to enlightenment, why is that the government is moving towards introducing laws that fuel ignorance and therefore moral and social regression?

The explanation rests in the fact that contemporary moral discourse is built on the notion of rights. We have an insatiable appetite for rights. They appeal to those with a “me, me, me” approach to moral issues.

This approach is flawed. Buried only slightly beneath such an approach are the inescapable realities that as people we live in communities; communities are merely the sum of a large number of other individuals; and the actions of one person (exercising their rights) can have a (negative) effect on the interests of others.

We too often drum up rights without taking into account how they will affect the capacity of others to exercise their rights.

Thus we see that the right of privacy for pedophiles still trumps the rights of parents and children to know the identity of their neighbours, even though pedophilia destroys lives and the number of vigilante attacks on pedophiles in Australia is negligible compared with the number of repeat attacks by pedophiles.

In the end, the right to privacy is the adult equivalent of Santa Claus and unicorns. No one has yet been able to identify where the right to privacy comes from and why we need it.

Rather than enhancing our wellbeing privacy prevents us attaining things that really matter, such as safety and security, and makes us paranoid of one another.

The advantages that we as individuals and the community as a whole will derive from an unchecked right to privacy will be outweighed by the benefits from living in an open and transparent society.

Sure, we all need a little solitude, a space where we can let our hair down. Property rights already confer this quite well; others aren’t allowed to peep through our doors or curtains.

But, beyond this, there is no need to obsess about controlling what information is revealed about us. We are flawed, but so are the others. That information will unite us.

Mirko Bagaric, from Deakin University, is the co-author of Privacy Law in Australia.

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This entry was posted in Ethics and Moral Philosophy, Media Articles, Cartoons, Philosophy of Mind - Consciousness, Social and Political Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

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