How Rawls Could Support a Right to Privacy

by Dr. Jan Garrett

March 15, 2005

This webpage assumes that the reader is familiar with the elements of John Rawls' philosophy described in John Rawls on Justice.

What is privacy? In Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 5th ed., Manuel Velasquez does not define privacy, although he does define a right to privacy. From what he says we can extract his concept of privacy as something like "a capacity of a person not to have others observe or record for later observation his or her private life" or

a power a person has to determine what, to whom, and how much information about themselves will be revealed to other parties. (Cf. Velasquez, p. 365.)

It is important to recognize that the phrase "socially and politically determined" should be understood to qualify "capacity of a person," "private life," and "power a person has . . . " in the previous definition. Privacy is not simply a matter of what I can physically refuse to reveal about myself, but a matter of what I can refuse to reveal about myself given the habits of other people that dispose them to permit me to keep certain things to myself or within my marriage or home. These habits are socially and politically created.

Now, the socially and politically determined capacity to determine what, when, and how much information about oneself will be divulged may be below the level that is morally justified.

If somebody can get away with being a peeping Tom because there are no laws against it or because others will excuse the activity by saying, "Boys will be boys," then effective privacy is perhaps less than our moral right to privacy would guarantee.

A right to privacy would then be a right to a specified minimum degree of capacity . . . or a right to a specified degree of power . . . It would set a minimum threshhold that others would not be morally permitted to violate.

John Rawls could defend the right to privacy by pointing out that our representatives in the Original Position would include privacy rights among the adequate scheme of Equal Liberties guaranteed by his First Principle.

Privacy enables us to pursue our personal conceptions of the good, with those we wish to associate, so long as we do not violate the rights and liberties of others.

Jeffrey Reiman, who develops a political philosophy similar to Rawls in several ways, conceives the major purpose of the principles of social justice as protecting autonomy. More precisely, Reiman understands the purpose of such principles to be preventing subjugation of persons by others. (Jeffrey H. Reiman, Justice and Modern Moral Philosophy [Yale University Press, 1990])

In other words, Reiman does not conceive social justice primarily in terms of avoiding mutual destruction or in terms of dividing up ownership of things. Rather he thinks of it as avoiding, so far as possible, the unjustifiable domination of persons over persons, avoiding power trips (bullying) and oppression and exploitation. Reiman's interpretation of Rawls-like principles is especially important in connection with privacy issues.

For a thorough introductory discussion of privacy see the treatment of consumer privacy in Manuel Velasquez's Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 5th edition (Prentice Hall), pp. 365-68.) Velasquez distinguishes two types of privacy--psychological and physical, explains the several protective and enabling functions that a right to privacy serves, and offers several guidelines regarding collection of information about individuals.

It would seem that these restrictions, which could be further discussed (as Velasquez does, pp. 365-68), would be endorsed by representative persons in the Rawlsian Original Position and included in the understanding of the Equal Liberties Principle that they would adopt to govern a just social order.