A cantankerous quarrel has been roiling the philosophic guild in the aftermath of Richard Swinburne’s address to the Society of Christian Philosophers. As I explained a few days ago, one side of the quarrel is outraged because Swinburne committed sacrilege with his irreverent handling of the holy object of homosexuality. Since I made this trenchant (albeit ignored) observation, the quarrel has evolved. The anti-Swinburne faction is now howling against the plucky website Rightly Considered, which has published screenshots of some of their salty philippics against traditional Christians, and by so doing has allegedly violated their right to privacy.
The salty philippics were private, the anti-Swinburne faction claims, because they were written for the enjoyment of a limited audience, and were not written with the intention of publication. The editor of Rightly Considered has answered this charge with the argument that a “right to privacy” requires more than a decided preference that one’s unguarded remarks not fall into the wrong hands. The “right to privacy” is not, in other words, a right to freedom from the embarrassment that follows putting one’s foot in one’s mouth.
First of all, to use the language of the Fourth Amendment, the right to “security in one’s papers” depends on one making a reasonable effort to actually secure those papers by placing them under some sturdy seal. If someone publishes a letter that he has purloined by picking the lock on my desk or hacking the password on my hard-drive, he may have violated my right to privacy. If he publishes a shameful letter of mine that he found blowing down the street, he probably has not.
Second, a right to privacy is not absolute, and therefore depends on responsible use of that privacy. No one is obliged to respect my privacy when my utterance discloses a plot to assassinate the President or rob a bank. Two-faced backstabbers and double-dealing weasels likewise forfeit their right to privacy. If, behind his back, I give voice to a salty philippic against my friend, his right to know of this treachery trumps my desire to keep him in the dark.
The uses of privacy reduce to two general classes, the one innocent, wholesome and necessary, the second, suspect, corrupting and malign. The first use is to foster the human good of intimacy; the second is to facilitate the human evil of conspiracy. A right to privacy resides only in the former of these two.
Intimate relations are essential to our sense of being somebody, and not just anybody, or even nobody at all. Thus a private communication, such as a personal letter or a cozy tête-à-tête, sustains my sense of self because it is addressed just to me. When I say that it is addressed just to me, I mean that it is “for my eyes (or ears) only,” and that it is also bespoke and tailored to suit just me. Thus every intimate relationship necessarily involves secrets, but these are innocent secrets. Every real friendship in some sense contra mundum, but it does not plot to burn down the world.
The connection between intimacy and privacy is obvious if we consider sexual relations, which are properly the archetype of intimacy. The sexual act is properly private, not because it is shameful (although it can be shameful), but because, in it, the man and woman properly address one another exclusively. This act should not be in any sense a public performance for real or imagined spectators, but must be imbued with the assurance that I do this for you and you alone. I do this because you are you!
If there is no privacy, there can be no intimacy, and if there is no intimacy there can be no sense of self. This is why sex divorced from privacy and intimacy will tend to destroy the sense of self, and why sexual promiscuity is so often an expression of self-hatred and a form of self-abuse. This is why institutions that aim to destroy the self invade privacy, sniff out secrets, and place the ban on every sort of intimacy. This is why we should defend a “right to privacy.”
The difficulty arises because privacy may also serve as the mask of conspiracy, by which I mean a plot to harm the innocent. There is no “right to privacy” in the sexual act when the man and woman are engaged in an adulterous conspiracy, and there is no right to privacy when writing salty philippics against classes of people (such as philosophers who agree with Richard Swinburne) with whom one pretends to be friendly.
The right to privacy is in both of these cases invoked as an aid to deception, and deception is an an abuse of privacy.