What Must We Hide: The Ethics of Privacy and the Ethos of Disclosure

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

We live in an era of personal revelation. We are preoccupied by seeking, gathering, and disclosing information about others and ourselves. In the age of revelation, individuals and enterprises are fond of ferreting out what is buried away. We are fond of broadcasting what we know, think, do, and feel; and we are motivated by business and pleasure because we care about friendship, kinship, health, wealth, education, politics, justice, and culture. A lot of this has to do with technology, of course. We live at a historical moment characterized by the wide availability of multiple modes of communication and stored data, easily and frequently accessed. Our communications are capable of disclosing breadths and depths of personal, personally identifiable, and sensitive information to many people rapidly. In this era of revelation--dominated by portable electronics, internet social media, reality television, and traditional talk radio--many of us are losing our sense of privacy, our taste for privacy, and our willingness to respect privacy. Is this set of losses a bad thing? If it is a bad thing, what can be done about it?

My reflections on these questions begin with a series of diverse examples from the past several years. The examples illustrate the emergent ethos of our revelatory era. The first and second examples portray voluntary self-revelation for amusement and monetary gain; a third and fourth example depict revelations concerning others, motivated by a desire for amusement in one case and geopolitical justice in another.

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner was a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives elected by the people of New York. (1) Congressman Weiner sent sexually suggestive images of himself as attachments to Twitter messages to young women, ages twenty-one and seventeen, he did not even know. (2) When knowledge of his "sexting" conduct became public in 2011, he was forced to resign from office under pressure from fellow Democrats. There was no obvious, objectively urgent need for Congressman Weiner's messages. We have to assume he was simply amusing himself in an especially risky and presumptuous manner. He cared little for the privacy of his body and sexual urges, so little that he risked the grave consequences of their exposure to strangers whom he had no reason to trust. (3)

When Joyce Maynard was only eighteen years old, she had an intimate affair with famed writer J. D. Salinger. He was fifty-three years old. For a short while, the mismatched lovers lived together in his New Hampshire hideaway where his fame and genius seduced her. In 2006, Maynard announced she would sell the fourteen unpublished love letters that the reclusive Salinger wrote to her between April 25, 1972, and August 17, 1973. Sotheby's auction house agreed to manage the sale. Maynard knew how greatly Salinger valued his privacy and that he would be offended by her decision; but, she said that the letters were her property and, moreover, that she needed money to send her children to college. Her own privacy no longer mattered to her since she had already published At Home in the World, a memoir of the fascinating, scandalous affair. (4) Was it ethical for Maynard to exploit the law and further offend and embarrass a former lover for profit? It is not self-evident that ethics allow a person in Maynard's position this particular freedom.

My next example, like the Congressman Weiner example, involves contemporary communications technologies. In 2010, a talented young musician named Tyler Clementi was a freshman at Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey. He asked his roommate, Dharun Ravi, to let him have their room for the night for a date. Ravi consented, but decided to pull a prank on Clementi. He switched on a webcam in their dormitory room, webcasting Clementi's same-sex intimacies all over the Internet. When Clementi learned what had been done to him, the distraught, gay youth bid farewell to his friends online and then committed suicide. …