Why hide anything?
An answer to the question is suggested by the entry in John Adams’ diary dated Monday, August 20, 1770. In Adams’ view, privacies of concealment, secrecy, and reserve are both moral virtues and duties. Worldly wisdom dictates that we protect ourselves from “damage, danger and confusion” by generally keeping “our sentiments, actions, desires, and resolutions” to ourselves. Revelations to enemies and indiscreet friends alike risk “loss, disgrace or mortification.” On occasion, however, virtue and duty run in the other direction, Adams wrote: “the cause of religion, of government, of liberty, the interest of the present age and of posterity, render it a necessary duty for a man to make known his sentiments and intentions boldly and publicly.”
Adams’ take is modern. Privacy aligns not with raw preference, but with prudent self-interest. The good of privacy is contingent. Sometimes we ought to go public when we might prefer to hide; sometimes we ought to hide when we might prefer to go public. The important thing is that privacy, like information sharing, has a place in free society. Our moral interests include freedom from judgment, freedom to don masks, freedom to build and maintain reputations, and freedom to and from intimacy.1
What must we hide?
Adams’ diary points to a general answer: hide the things whose disclosure would lead to danger, disgrace, and dishonor. But a distinctly different answer is suggested by the book of Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible. We should hide the things whose disclosure leads to approval and admiration. The righteousness of pious acts such as giving to the poor, praying, and fasting is undermined by intentionally seeking public notice. Through modesty and reserve we are taking God alone into confidence. Thus:
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hyp-
ocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by
others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms
may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.