Privacy and Moral Philosophy

What does privacy have to do with moral philosophy? A lot, depending on how we conceptualize privacy. Privacy was a word people used in the eighteenth century, albeit not in the exact same way as we do today. The notion of a ‘right to privacy’ did not exist, neither legally nor in the minds.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, privacy is defined as ‘1. the state or condition of not being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion’. One may note a particular legal and political undertone is this definition with the word right and choice, the words freedom and the liberal definition of liberty as freedom from interference or intrusion. Privacy is also the avoidance of publicity, protection from public knowledge. Again a legal and political understanding.

If we look at Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, ‘privacy’ is identified as stemming from the French privauté, meaning ‘familiarity’, but also retirement or secrecy. French dictionaries at the time also defined ‘privauté’ as ‘familiarité’. Privacy as privauté is not of our concern here.

A Dictionary of the English Language 1755 If we look at the 1768 edition of Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language, privacy is defined as stemming from ‘private’ and designating 1) the state of being secret, secrecy, or 2) retirement, retreat, or 3) privity, grand familiarity, joint knowledge, or 4) taciturnity. ‘Private’ stems from the Latin privatus, meaning 1) not open, secret, 2) alone, not accompanied, 3) being upon the same terms upon the community, particular, opposed to public, 4) particular, not relating to public, 5) in private, secretly, not in public.

One may notice the absence of any legal or political connotation, except perhaps that it denotes something ‘secret’ and ‘retired’ from others. It is first in Brandeis and Warren’s 1890 article on ‘the right to privacy’ that we have a clear legal notion of a ‘right to be left alone’. This right to privacy, also adds to other rights defined in the American and French declarations in the late eighteenth century.

Now, there is clearly a cultural, philosophical, and political change in minds that explains the notion of rights. But, what about the notion of privacy? And why study the history of moral philosophy in particular for an intellectual history of this notion of privacy?

Rubens, Adam and Eve, 1628-29

In the Book of Genesis, the reader learns that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings. They were free to do what they wanted and prosper in the Garden of Eden to create humankind. God made them in his image. However, God forbid Adam and Eve to eat fruits from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as well as the tree of life. Tricked by a snake, Eve ate a fruit from the tree of knowledge and offered it to Adam. As a result, they gained knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge came shame, the shame to discover they were naked. They hid their genitals from each other. They equally tried to hide from God as they knew they did something wrong and disobey his command. God found out, and, fearing they could also eat from the tree of life and become immortal like Him, He banned them from Eden to suffer on earth.

If we think about privacy in this well-known story, we can see that knowledge of good and evil is tightly related to secrecy and publicity. The reason for retiring and concealing something shameful is the fear of judgement and knowledge by others. It is a moral judgement we are here interested in, not legal judgement. One would also hide and conceal something illegal in the fear of being sentenced as a result, but that is not of our concern here.

My hypothesis, then, is that looking at how people conceived morality determined how people acted in public and in private. I am here conceptualizing privacy with a restriction to being a state of privation from others, a retreat from others, therefore a voluntary act. It is others’ knowledge of one’s actions. We acquire knowledge through our senses: sight, hearing, smell, and to a certain extent touch and taste.

If someone choses to retreat from other people’s senses, the retreat is voluntary. If the retreat is voluntary then there is a reason for it: a will to keep something away from others. This will is thus influenced by something, which may be a certain public image as opposed to a private one. It may also be that there is a will to keep something away from others. Society may frown upon the condition of solitude because it is suspect: someone may be hiding something contrary to moral standards.

Moreover, if there is a will, it also supposes that the person is alive, but what about after death and the will of the person? This touches upon questions as wide ranging as opening a private diary, and opening a cadaver to gain knowledge of the soul or the body. This will to retreat also imply that we study how the person in question understands this retreat and privacy. Closing one’s eyes and joining hands in prayer in the middle of a crowded room may not seem like privacy to us, but might be for the person. By the same token, this person may believe to be alone and thus away from the knowledge of others, but not of God. A private conduct may also be influenced and not considered as privacy by this person.

The teaching of moral philosophy at the university in the early modern period may seem remote from social realities. It is difficult to assess the real impact and it is certainly limited to a society’s elite. However, since society was hierarchically organized, it is relevant to study the elite’s mind-set in order to understand the rules according to which it ruled lesser ‘classes’ or estates. Studying at the university was reserved to a certain elite in the eighteenth century, and this was also true of Glasgow.

The professorial chair was subject to political scrutiny, even if to a lesser

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

extent at Glasgow compared to Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. The eighteenth century saw an increasing patronage by the crown and politicians over the church and universities.[1] The politics of the church and the university is important because it shaped the ideas and values of the Scots. The most influential persons who managed to monopolise patronage were Archibald Campbell, first earl of Ilay, and, after 1743, third duke of Argyll (1682-1761), and afterwards Henry Dundas, first Viscount of Melville (1742-1811).[2] Francis Hutcheson’s appointment at the Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1729 was the result of Ilay’s decisive influence over factional disputes.[3]

This is the first step for building my research programme on privacy as it relates to moral philosophy. I start from the hypothesis that moral philosophy is significant for understanding privacy because it defines the standards by which people judged one another. It formed their ‘moral sense’ in a way. The next step is to look at the actual teaching of moral philosophy. I work on the Glasgow case together with my colleagues at the Centre for Privacy Studies, and I focus on Francis Hutcheson’s teaching of moral philosophy. A third step would be to collect sources and information about how his teaching spread through society by looking at his students and if and how his ideas were discussed in society.

[1] Roger L. Emerson, ‘Politics and the Glasgow Professors, 1690-1800’, in The Glasgow Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Hook and Richard B. Sher (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1995).

[2] Emerson, 22.

[3] Roger L. Emerson, Academic Patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment: Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 96–97.


This post is based on the paper I presented at the 49th Annual Conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 8-10 January 2020 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, United Kingdom : “Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural”.


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