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”.

Towards a history of privacy: conceptual and methodological considerations

If privacy is a highly debated topic today, particularly in the USA, it is mainly because of increasing concerns in the last two decades regarding the rise of digitalization, on the one hand, and surveillance promising security against “terrorism,” on the other. As a look at the surge of the term “privacy” in an n-gram Google books search shows, this had been a rising concern since the 1960s.

Alan F. Westin published the first seminal book on privacy in 1967, Privacy and Freedom, which influenced several legal reforms in the 1970s and 1980s in the USA. He devised a taxonomy with four different states of privacy: solitude, intimacy, reserve, and anonymity. The central issue was already the interception of communications, physical and increasingly electronic. In a similar vein, the growing use of the internet triggered concerns regarding a seemingly limitless invasion of privacy. Jeffrey Rosen published The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America in 2000, and The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age in 2004, with an emphasis on privacy in a digital world. James B. Rule in 2007 Privacy in Peril, offered an account of the tradeoff involved between privacy and security or other conveniences by individuals willingly giving electronic information to government and corporations.

In his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain showed how the transition to a web 2.0 also involved a transition from a “Privacy 1.0” (data gathered by and stored in government and corporate databases) to a “Privacy 2.0” (data created and freely shared by individuals). In that spirit, in Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes in 2011, leading US scholars imagine the state of things to come and suggest policies and legal solutions to issues related not only to technological advances in surveillance but also neuroscience and genetics.

In conceptualizing privacy, these works have in common that they consider privacy as a valuable good from an individual point of view, an individual right that needs protection. Of course, I do not contend that we should not see privacy as a right that needs protection, but as a historian, and particularly an intellectual historian, this present conceptualization is problematic and is the starting point of a Foucauldian interrogation on a “history of the present.” How did we come to consider privacy as a human right? It was not present in the 1789 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but is in article 12 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Privacy is however difficult to conceptualize and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing. Daniel J. Solove, in his 2008 Understanding Privacy, noted this difficulty and suggested a new taxonomy different from Westin’s (information collection, processing, dissemination, and invasion of privacy). Solove suggests avoiding an essentialist conception of privacy with a defined “core.” Instead, one should consider Wittgenstein’s theory of language and “family resemblances” when studying privacy. Rather than looking at one issue, Solove suggests a bottom-up approach by understanding “privacy as a set of protections against a plurality of distinct but related problems” (p. 171). This set of related problems forms a cluster of disparate notions that we solely for practical purposes unite under the common denomination “privacy.”

As a parenthesis on Wittgenstein, one may note that he exiled himself in Skjolden, Norway, in a secluded and isolated hut, which was visible to all in the village downhill. A sort of “conspicuous privacy.” This points the finger on one issue, which is also identified by many book covers and also the logo chosen for the Centre for Privacy Studies: an external eye witnessing the “private.”Eye dilate

Now, a key issue in intellectual history concerns the methodological and conceptual characterization of the object of study, typically a concept, idea, any intellectual production. Consider liberty. One could chose to define liberty first, and then look to the past to identify how the defined liberty was used and thought of, and how the concept was formed. This way of writing history, however, runs the risk of anachronism. As Quentin Skinner showed in Liberty Before Liberalism, one may overlook other conceptions of liberty, a neo-Roman or neo-Republican conception, than the one determined by the dominant paradigm of liberalism. The issue is this: writing the history of an intellectual object has two occupations. First, writing the history of the object in the past. Second, writing the history of the formation of the object in the past–how we got this object today.

Privacy is no different and is a typical case of an object of study, for which the word did not necessarily exist in the past or rarely occured. As Ferdinand de Saussure put it, an object has two components: a signifié (signified), or the concept that a word is designating, and a signifiant (signifier) or the word that designates the concept. Now a historian looks at sources, documents, that prove the existence of an object in the past. However, looking at the word is only looking at one side of the object when it is an intellectual one. A concept may exist before a word appears to define it. Also, the same word may designate a different concept than the one we have today. One could see this as making the object of study two dimensional rather than one-dimensional.

Of course, the concept of privacy obeys the same methodological considerations for the historian. From an intellectual historian’s point of view, it is, therefore, a double endeavor: investigating how past human beings thought of privacy, and investigating how the notion itself developed and became a word. For the first endeavor, we often lack a word, so there is a need to consider alternative methods. For the second, we lack a clear conceptualization of what notions to look for that will create the word. A quick look again at Google books shows the beginnings of the use of the word “privacy” and a peak in the mid-17th century after the end of the English civil war.

Moreover, privacy is more than just a concept. It is also a feeling and a condition.  Beate Rossler has theorized three dimensions of privacy: decisional privacy (the privacy of actions), informational privacy (the proper “right to privacy” or “right to be left alone” from Warren and Brandeis), and local privacy (the traditional private home separate from the public). That may be a third dimension to understanding privacy as an object of study. Privacy is, therefore, a great case for a truly interdisciplinary study program and deserves to be expanded into a whole field of study: privacy studies.

The Centre for Privacy Studies opted for an ambitious methodological and theoretical approach while maintaining a firm and clearly delineated bottom-up case-based study. Centre director Mette Birkedal Bruun published two papers on the centre’s working method. One is “Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches” Annali Istituto storico italo-germanico/Jahrbuch des italienisch-deutschen historischen Instituts in Trient 44 (2018/2), 33-54. Another one is available on the Centre’s homepage. We understand privacy both as a quality and a threat from the perspective of all parts involved. In order to examine family resemblances, we not only analyze the stem “priv” in a corpus of texts–“priv- words”, i.e. words like “ “private,” “privacy,” “privy,” in various languages–but we also use a semantic mapping of words related and/or opposed to “private”–such as “common,” “professional,” “public,” etc. We also use heuristic zones to delineate the intersection, exclusion, and overlap of various spheres of privacy:

By examining how some problems related to privacy occurred at different places and times, we want to present a micro-historical observation of the human condition. All these cases could then serve for the basis of a bigger macro-analysis of the variations in thinking of and living with privacy.

This is what a scientific research program in the humanities aims to achieve: to provide society the tools to understand itself and the human condition in order to make better-informed decisions for the future. However, humankind does not understand universally the concept of “privacy” in the same way. Barrington Moore wrote a seminal anthropological and historical study comparing an Eskimo community, classical Athens, the Old Testament, and Ancient China. The first issue lies in the translation of this cluster we call “privacy” in other languages and in wondering with Moore whether it is universal at all. In my next post, I shall consider “privacy” in the French language as an example.