Warren and Brandeis on Privacy

Notes for November 5

Main points

Warren and Brandeis maintain that the right to privacy consists in the right to control two things:

  1. Information that they deem private
  2. Images of oneself

(It’s a nice question exactly what those two things have in common.) In any event, their case was a legal one. They maintained that a right to privacy made better sense of the decisions courts had made than the rationales that the judges themselves offered for their decisions. But it’s pretty easy to see how there would be a moral analog to the legal right they describe.

Our discussion

We had an exceptionally rich discussion. If I may, I’d like to propose some distinctions.

Of course I may. I’m the one at the keyboard.

Warren and Brandeis pretty clearly think of the right to privacy as a right to control information (and images). Zach tried out an alternative, that the right to privacy involves controlling private spaces, such as the home, dorm room, and so on. Rebecca added that she thought that any definition we have of what counts as a private space has to include a reference to the expectation of privacy that a psychologically normal person would have. So she might be willing to extend Zach’s spaces to, for instance, a bench in a public park.

Robert introduced a sharp position on when the right to privacy is surrendered or waived. Warren and Brandeis thought that your privacy could be violated if someone published the contents of your letters, even if that person was the recipient of the letter.And I added that this is a persuasive analysis of what is wrong about so-called revenge porn. Robert was suspicious: once the letter is sent, the information is no longer private, where that could mean either that the author no longer controls the information as a matter of fact or that the author has waived his or her right to control it.

Aidan suggested a more moderate position. There is a distinction between communicating some information to another person and publishing it to the world. That, he thought should be relevant to at least the question about when the right to control the information has been waived: you clearly waive the right by publishing, but arguably not by communicating.

There is a lot more, but I’ll leave it there. Well done, seminar!

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted November 5, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being