Privacy and the threat to the self

Michael P Lynch writes: In the wake of continuing revelations of government spying programs and the recent Supreme Court ruling on DNA collection – both of which push the generally accepted boundaries against state intrusion on the person — the issue of privacy is foremost on the public mind. The frequent mantra, heard from both media commentators and government officials, is that we face a “trade-off” between safety and convenience on one hand and privacy on the other. We just need, we are told, to find the right balance.

This way of framing the issue makes sense if you understand privacy solely as a political or legal concept. And its political importance is certainly part of what makes privacy so important: what is private is what is yours alone to control, without interference from others or the state. But the concept of privacy also matters for another, deeper reason. It is intimately connected to what it is to be an autonomous person.

What makes your thoughts your thoughts? One answer is that you have what philosophers sometimes call “privileged access” to them. This means at least two things. First, you access them in a way I can’t. Even if I could walk a mile in your shoes, I can’t know what you feel in the same way you can: you see it from the inside so to speak. Second, you can, at least sometimes, control what I know about your thoughts. You can hide your true feelings from me, or let me have the key to your heart.

The idea that the mind is essentially private is a central element of the Cartesian concept of the self — a concept that has been largely abandoned, for a variety of reasons. Descartes not only held that my thoughts were private, he took them to be transparent — all thoughts were conscious. Freud cured us of that. Descartes also thought that the only way to account for my special access to my thoughts was to take thoughts to be made out of a different sort of stuff than my body — to take our minds, in short, to be non-physical, distinct from the brain. Contemporary neuroscience and psychology have convinced many of us otherwise.

But while Descartes’s overall view has been rightly rejected, there is something profoundly right about the connection between privacy and the self, something that recent events should cause us to appreciate. What is right about it, in my view, is that to be an autonomous person is to be capable of having privileged access (in the two senses defined above) to information about your psychological profile — your hopes, dreams, beliefs and fears. A capacity for privacy is a necessary condition of autonomous personhood. [Continue reading…]

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