Right to privacy

Published 21 Feb 2017

The evolution of a right to privacy parallels the development of the humanist tradition. A right of privacy is predicated on the belief that each human being has intrinsic value, that is, is valuable in and of him or herself. Respect for this belief becomes the fundamental source of all human rights. The term “privacy” is used frequently in ordinary language as well as in philosophical, political and legal discussions, yet there is no single definition or analysis or meaning of the term. The concept of privacy has broad historical roots in sociological and anthropological discussions about how extensively it is valued and preserved in various cultures. Moreover, the concept has historical origins in well known philosophical discussions, most notably Aristotle’s distinction between the public sphere of political activity and the private sphere associated with family and domestic life. Yet historical use of the term is not uniform, and there remains confusion over the meaning, value and scope of the concept of privacy.

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The “right to privacy” has meant different things to different people and different things in different times. Scholar W. A. Parent considers the following to be the most common views of what the right entails: 1) the right to be left alone, 2) the right to exercise autonomy or control over significant personal matters, and 3) the right to limit access to the self (269-88). Given the variety of beliefs regarding the content of privacy rights, and the absence of an explicit reference to privacy in the Federal and in most state constitutions, it is no surprise that courts interested in protecting privacy have protected an array of interests in its name. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court has within the scope of privacy protected child rearing and education, contraception, and abortion. It has also considered the issues of peddlers going onto private property and disturbing homeowners, and loud trucks running through residential neighborhoods to involve privacy interests.

Early invasions of privacy could be treated as trespass, assault, or eavesdropping. Part of the reason for the delay in recognizing privacy as a fundamental right is that most modern invasions of privacy involve new technology (e.g., telephone wiretaps, microphones and electronic amplifiers for eavesdropping, photographic and video cameras, computers for collecting/storing/finding information). Before the invention of such technology, one could be reasonably certain that conversations in private (e.g., in a person’s home or office) could not be heard by other people.

Before the invention of computer databases, one might invade a few persons’ privacy by collecting personal information from interviews and commercial transactions, but the labor-intensive process of gathering such information made it impossible to harm large numbers of victims. Further, storing such information on paper in file cabinets made it difficult to use the information to harm victims, simply because of the disorganized collection of information. Moreover, privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if nothing wrong is done at the time of surveillance. Problem with quip like this — as right as they are — is that accepting the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It’s not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect. The bottom line is clear. If other people’s privacies are continually, gratuitously revealed, then they will be harmed and much, ourselves.

The richness of the personal life is undermined and a social atmosphere of mutual exploitation fueled. Let me put it another way: Little in life is as precious as the freedom to say and do things with people you love that you would not say or do if someone else were present. And few experiences are as fundamental to liberty and autonomy as maintaining control over when, how, to whom, and where you disclose personal material. Privacy is a basic human need. Because privacy is an emerging right, a discussion of privacy is typically a list of examples where the right has been recognized, instead of a simple definition. As you go about of course you don’t have to worry about the fact that you dyed your hair in rainbow colors, with this sort of liberalist liberty you let it all hang out, or if you prefer a more traditionally conservative notion for the same idea, you can “wear your ideals as badges of honor”, you have not “merely” a right to free thought after all, but to free speech, the right to do your part of creating an encounter with another person over your thought (Privacy). It is the right to interact. Concern for people or humanism, in which gradual development of right to privacy is parallel, reached its greatest flowering in the works of such a diverse set of thinkers as Voltaire, Montesqueiu, Diderot, Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, Gibbon, Hume, Adam Smith, Kant, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The job of drafting the Declaration of Independence fell to the youngest member of the committee, Thomas Jefferson. In composing the declaration, Jefferson drew on ideas from the Humanist tradition, especially those of John Locke. Not only did the declaration represent a milestone in the history of the United States, it also turned the political philosophies of 18th century Europe into real political practice. The introduction to the Declaration of Independence also is important for the ways it contributed to Americans’ understanding of their rights as citizens including privacy. Americans continue to believe that the phrase “all men are created equal” is a fundamental “law” in the country. While this phrase was included in the introduction to the declaration, it appears nowhere else in official documents defining rights granted under the U.S. Government. The Declaration of Independence holds no legal authority in the country, yet it continues to be cited as the foundation for American equality and rights.

Main article on civil liberties of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in article 12, states: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, or to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Privacy of individuals or organizations requires adequate safeguarding by law. It is one of the most important aspects of security. Without it, personal safety may be threatened. Public figures realize its importance further. Sometimes people may sacrifice it for any perceived benefit but may run into danger and consequent loss. One of the commonest sacrifices of privacy is for making up to a competition where you are required to give your personal details to attempt a winning prize. Government needs the details of your earnings for collecting taxes. If the exact information about your earning is made public you may land into trouble becoming a prey to extortionists and kidnappers. While there are innumerable reasons of maintaining personal and professional privacy it is also significant to look at the aspects that do not support privacy.

One of the potent reasons can be the mistrust and intolerance that arises when you maintain strict privacy code. This may further lead to perpetuation of false information. Undue restrictions on transmission of information prevent an exact analysis of the underlying problems relating intolerance and suspicion. Many writers have urged a philosophical or common-sense right to privacy in one’s personal information. These writings emphasize the link between privacy and freedom and privacy and the “personal life,” or the ability to develop one’s own personality and self-expression. Constitution does not explicitly grants the privacy right and thus its application in cases remains arbitrary under the jurisdiction of the court. Other countries such as and many others guarantee the privacy right strongly. It never occurred to them to call out privacy as an explicit right. Privacy was inherent to the nobility of their being and their cause.

The right to privacy is essential to the preservation of freedom for the simplest of reasons. If no one knows what I do, when I do it, and with whom I do it, no one can possibly interfere with it. Intuitively, we understand this, as witness our drawing the curtains and pulling the window shades down when prowlers are about. The threat to freedom comes from both the criminal and the state, from any and all ways and means in which others forcibly overcome our will. Just as we do not want burglars casing our homes, we should fear the government’s intimate knowledge of the many details of our daily lives (Machan).

Of course being watched in ones own home was unreasonable. Watching at all was an act so unseemly as to be inconceivable among gentlemen in their day. Watching convicted criminals, not free citizens. One must rule thy self and home. It’s intrinsic to the concept of liberty. If observed in all matters, people are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of their own uniqueness. Populace become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns leave behind will be brought back to implication, by whatever authority has now become focused upon once-private and innocent acts. Individuality will be unable to find because everything is observable and recordable. That concept of privacy is still related to secrecy and discretion as a generalization of it, it is a definition of liberty that draws from privacy concerns. It’s shy.

More than a century, privacy continues to play an important role in Americans’ lives. In their book, The Right to Privacy, (Alfred A. Knopf 1995) Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy describe the importance of privacy in this way: Privacy covers many things. It protects the solitude necessary for creative thought. It allows us the independence that is part of raising a family. It protects our right to be secure in our own homes and possessions, assured that the government cannot come barging in (6-12). Privacy also encompasses our right to self-determination and to define who we are. Although we live in a world of noisy self-confession, privacy allows us to keep certain facts to ourselves if we so choose. The right to privacy, it seems, is what makes us civilized. The right of privacy is: “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated (Privacy).”

Privacy has no one single meaning in society; it has many. It is one of many universal rights held to belong to individuals by virtue of their being human, encompassing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights and freedoms, and based on the notion of personal human dignity and worth. Privacy is the great shield of freedom from interference. The American philosophical contribution to the concept of right to privacy is great, perhaps a greatest contribution to the world consciousness, even regardless of if one live up to it or not in the end. The concept is glorious in its own right; right to privacy as to liberty. The metaphor of a river is an appropriate one, the concept that liberty is like a river, mighty by the time it achieves the form of an ethical nation state, and it has been contributed to by many tributary rivers, streams, and springs (Value of Privacy). Everyone who savors freedom will champion the right to privacy.


  • W. A. Parent, “Privacy, Morality, and the Law.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 12, no. 4. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. 269-88.
  • Alderman, Ellen, & Caroline Kennedy. The Right to Privacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. 6-12.
  • “The Value of Privacy.” created September 1996, last revision 24 May 1998. 23 July 2006. <http://www.rbs2.com/privacy.htm>.
  • Machan, Tibor, ‘The Right to Private Property’, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, J. Fieser (University of Tennessee/Martin), editor. 1983. <http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/p/property.htm>
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