Benchmark Ethics: Privacy and Association Are Not Optional Values

Two benchmark ethical values that deserve our careful attention today are privacy and association. These two are conceptually related: privacy is about being left alone — association is about being allowed together. These are critically important benchmark values — not eccentric options or luxuries — because they have to do with the very core of our humanity and personhood.

Today’s technology can actually help us to achieve these values, but it can also threaten our privacy and adversely affect our associations. There are no easy answers in this arena, but let’s reflect a little more deeply on what privacy and association are, on why they are benchmark values, and on how we might move our policies and practices in the right direction.

Privacy is being left alone. Privacy is being unobserved and uninvaded by others. When something is private it is known only to me (or perhaps shared with a just few intimate friends). Private is the opposite of public.

You may not have many other possessions but don’t you at least own yourself in this modern era? Isn’t the burden of proof on anyone who would wish to possess or control you, or personal information about you? On what possible grounds could anyone claim a right to take this away from your authority?

And yet today, our financial, educational, and medical records are vastly more comprehensive, and more widely shared, than ever before thanks to computerization. New technologies mean we can be observed, photographed, and listened to more of the time, by more people, than ever in history. Scott McNealy said recently that our privacy is gone and we should just “get over it.”

Why shouldn’t we go along with McNealy and just give up our privacy? Because we cannot be healthy people unless we can create and sustain a personal sense of self in a zone uninvaded by others. Without some kind and degree of privacy our humanity will be crushed.

It is in our privacy that we find rest: we do not need to explain or justify what remains private. In privacy we find safety: we avoid the accusation and assault that result from someone’s (partial) knowledge of us. In privacy we find our selfhood: privacy allows us to be self-critical and reflective, to create and nurture our emerging self.

Not to allow people to draw boundaries around the self, its thoughts and activities, its musings and silences … to put people under constant surveillance, keeping voluminous records of their movements … to distribute this surveillance data to others … to then badger people with telephone, email, and postal messages … all of this is an assault on health and humanity.

I do not know where the public/private line should be drawn but, contra McNealy, it is crucial for some line, somewhere, to be drawn. How might this be done? We must recognize that privacy needs vary from person to person — and thus allow for as much individual flexibility as possible.

At the very least, individuals should be asked for permission to keep or share records of their health, finances, purchases, travel, family structure, or activities.

Context also matters. Passengers entering airplanes do not have rights to privacy concerning the weapons they may be carrying. Spouses do not have absolute privacy rights regarding lethal diseases they might pass on to each other. In businesses, we cannot claim privacy rights as a way of shielding ourselves from legitimate supervision and evaluation of our performance by our employers.

But, even at work, some privacy boundary must be established (bathroom visits, obviously; off-site lunch break activities; personal telephone calls and e-mails? etc.). A good starting point for policy-makers is the ancient Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Grant others the privacy you would wish for.

The Golden Rule approach is not quite enough, however, because our own preferences are not always a reliable guide to those of others. Thus, we must also include in the policy-making group representatives from the affected population. Only when those affected by policies are asked to help create them do they feel a sense of ownership and an inclination to comply with decisions. Furthermore, the best and most creative insights into business challenges usually result from including the input of those on the front lines.

Next issue: Association. Does technology isolate us in unhealthy ways? or does it enable us to create and sustain the human relationships essential to our humanity and health?

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.