Privacy: What is it and why should it be protected?

Do we have a right to privacy? We cannot base the right to privacy on the Lockean conception of natural rights, since privacy is not a property right. A possible solution is to introduce the right to privacy as a new, freestanding right. From a legal point of view, this is a simple fix. However, from an ethical point of view this maneuver seems somewhat arbitrary. If we cannot derive all rights from a single criterion (in natural rights theory, Locke’s theory of ownership),how can we then be sure we actually have a moral right to privacy?

An alternative approach is to conceptualize the right to privacy as a socially constructed right. On this view, the moral justification of the right to privacy ultimately relies on the consequences of respecting people’s privacy. We have a right to privacy just in case a society in which people’s privacy is respected is a better one than a society in which we don’t respect privacy.

Rather than claiming that people have a right to privacy, it could be argued that privacy is an important moral value, just like justice, freedom, and happiness. The difference between rights and values is that the former tends to be binary in ways that values are not. You either have a right or you don’t, and every violation of your moral rights is morally wrong. However, moral values vary in strength and typically have to be balanced against other conflicting values. Therefore, if privacy is conceptualized as a value rather than a right, it will not always be morally wrong to violate people’s privacy.

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