8 pages essa

 8 pages essa. All Instructions and formatting should be followed. This is Current Moral and Social Issues. So, topic you will choose must be related to those. I also attached the class reading. As pointed in the Instructions, at least one philosophical perspective from the class. Check the images in order for the Instructions 

 

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What Does it All Mean? A Very Short
Introduction to Philosophy

Thomas Nagel
1982, Oxford University Press; selected chapters; selections made and
produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for pedagogical
purposes.

Ch. 7 — Right and Wrong
Ch. 8 — Justice

Chapter 7 — Right and Wrong
Suppose you work in a library, checking people’s books as they leave, and a
friend asks you to let him smuggle out a hard-to-find reference work that he
wants to own.

You might hesitate to agree for various reasons. You might be afraid that
he’ll be caught, and that both you and he will then get into trouble. You
might want the book to stay in the library so that you can consult it
yourself.

But you may also think that what he proposes is wrong — that he
shouldn’t do it and you shouldn’t help him. If you think that, what does it
mean, and what, if anything, makes it true?

To say it’s wrong is not just to say it’s against the rules. There can be bad
rules which prohibit what isn’t wrong — like laws against criticizing the
government. A rule can also be bad because it requires something that is
wrong — like a law that requires racial segregation in hotels and
restaurants. The ideas of wrong and right are different from the ideas of
what is and is not against he rules. Otherwise they couldn’t be used in the
evaluation of rules as well as of actions.

If you think it would be wrong to help your friend steal the book, then
you will feel uncomfortable about doing it: in some way you won’t want to
do it, even if you are also reluctant to refuse help to a friend. Where does
the desire not to do it come from; what is its motive, the reason behind it?

There are various ways in which something can be wrong, but in this
case, if you had to explain it, you’d probably say that it would be unfair to
other users of the library who may be just as interested in the book as your

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friend is, but who consult it in the reference room, where anyone who needs
it can find it. You may also feel that to let him take it would betray your
employers, who are paying you precisely to keep this sort of thing from
happening.

These thoughts have to do with effects on others — not necessarily
effects on their feelings, since they may never find out about it, but some
kind of damage nevertheless. In general, the thought that something is
wrong depends on its impact not just on the person who does it but on other
people. They wouldn’t like it, and they’d object if they found out.

But suppose you try to explain all this to your friend, and he says, “I
know the head librarian wouldn’t like it if he found out, and probably some
of the other users of the library would be unhappy to find the book gone,
but who cares? I want the book; why should I care about them?”

The argument that it would be wrong is supposed to give him a reason
not to do it. But if someone just doesn’t care about other people, what
reason does he have to refrain from doing any of the things usually thought
to be wrong, if he can get away with it: what reason does he have not to kill,
steal, lie, or hurt others? If he can get what he wants by doing such things,
why shouldn’t he? And if there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, in what sense
is it wrong?

Of course most people do care about others to some extent. But if
someone doesn’t care, most of us wouldn’t conclude that he’s exempt from
morality. A person who kills someone just to steal his wallet, without caring
about the victim, is not automatically excused. The fact that he doesn’t care
doesn’t make it all right: He should care. But why should he care?

There have been many attempts to answer this question. One type of
answer tries to identify something else that the person already cares about,
and then connect morality to it.

For example, some people believe that even if you can get away with
awful crimes on this earth, and are not punished by the law of your fellow
[humans], such acts are forbidden by God, who will punish you after death
(and reward you if you didn’t do wrong when you were tempted to). So
even when it seems to be in your interest to do such a thing, it really isn’t.
Some people have even believed that if there is no God to back up moral

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requirements with the threat of punishment and the promise of reward,
morality is an illusion: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

This is a rather crude version of the religious foundation for morality. A
more appealing version might be that the motive for obeying God’s
commands is not fear but love. [God] loves you, and you should love
[God’s] commands in order not to offend [God].

But however we interpret the religious motivation, there are three
objections to this type of answer. First, plenty of people who don’t believe
in God still make judgments of right and wrong, and think no one should
kill another for his wallet even if he can be sure to get away with it. Second,
if God exists, and forbids what’s wrong, that still isn’t what makes it wrong.
Murder is wrong in itself, and that’s why God forbid it (if [God] does.” God
couldn’t make just any old thing wrong — like putting on your left sock
before your right — simply by prohibiting it. If God would punish you for
doing that it would be inadvisable to do it, but it wouldn’t be wrong. Third,
fear of punishment and hope of reward, and even love of God, seem not to
be the right motives for morality. If you think it’s wrong to kill, cheat, or
steal, you should want to avoid doing such things because they are bad
things to do to the victims, not just because you fear the consequences for
yourself, or because you don’t want to offend your Creator.

This third objection also applies to other explanations of the force of
morality which appeal to the interests of the person who must act. For
example, it may be said that you should treat others with consideration so
that they’ll do the same for you. This may be sound advice, but it is valid
only so far as you think what you do will affect how others treat you. It’s
not a reason for doing the right thing if others won’t find out about it, or
against doing the wrong things if you can get away with it (like being a hit
and run driver).

There is no substitute for a direct concern for other people as the basis of
morality. But morality is supposed to apply to everyone: and can we assume
that everyone has such a concern for others? Obviously not: some people
are very selfish, and even those who are not selfish may care only about the
people they know, and not about everyone. So where will we find a reason
that everyone has not to hurt other people, even those they don’t know?

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Well, there’s one general argument against hurting other people which
can be given to anybody who understands English (or any other language),
and which seems to show that he has some reason to care about others, even
if in the end his selfish motives are so strong that he persists in treating
other people badly anyway. It’s an argument that I’m sure you’ve heard,
and it goes like this: “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

It’s not easy to explain how his argument is supposed to work. Suppose
you’re about to steal someone else’s umbrella as you leave a restaurant in a
rainstorm, and a bystander says, “How would you like it if someone did that
to you?” Why is it supposed to make you hesitate, or feel guilty?

Obviously the direct answer to the question is supposed to be, “I
wouldn’t like it at all!” But what’s the next step? Suppose you were to say,
“I wouldn’t like it if someone did that to me. But luckily no one is doing it
to me. I’m doing it to someone else, and I don’t mind that at all!”

This answer misses the point of the question. When you are asked how
you would like it if someone did that to you, you are supposed to think
about all the feelings you would have if someone stole your umbrella. And
that includes more than just “not liking it” — as you wouldn’t “like it” if
you stubbed your toe on a rock. If someone stole your umbrella you’d
resent it. You’d have feeling about the umbrella thief, not just about the loss
of the umbrella. You’d think, “Where does he get off, taking my umbrella
that I bought with my hard-earned money and that I had the foresight to
bring after reading the weather report? Why didn’t he bring his own
umbrella?” and so forth.

When our own interests are threatened by the inconsiderate behavior of
others, most of us find it easy to appreciate that those others have a reason
to be more considerate. When you are hurt, you probably feel that other
people should care about it: you don’t thing it’s no concern of theirs, and
that they have no reason to avoid hurting you. That is the feeling that the
“How would you like it?” argument is supposed to arouse.

Because if you admit that you would resent it if someone else did to you
what you are now doing to him, you are admitting that you think he would
have a reason not to do it to you. And if you admit that, you have to
consider what that reason is. It couldn’t be just that it’s you that he’s
hurting, of all the people in the world. There’s no special reason for him not

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to steal your umbrella, as opposed to anyone else’s. There’s nothing so
special about you. Whatever the reason is, it’s a reason he would have
against hurting anyone else in the same way. And it’s a reason anyone else
would have too, in a similar situation, against hurting you or anyone else.

But if it’s a reason anyone would have not to hurt anyone else in this
way, then it’s a reason you have not to hurt someone else in this way (since
anyone means everyone). Therefore it’s a reason not to steal the other
person’s umbrella now.

This is a matter of simple consistency. Once you admit that another
person would have a reason not to harm you in similar circumstances, and
once you admit that the reason he would have is very general and doesn’t
apply only to you, of to him, then to be consistent you have to admit that
the same reason applies to you now. You shouldn’t steal the umbrella, and
you ought to feel guilty if you do.

Someone could escape from this argument if, when he was asked, “How
would you like it if someone did that to you?” he answered, “I wouldn’t
resent it at all. I wouldn’t like it if someone stole my umbrella in a
rainstorm, but I wouldn’t think there was any reason for him to consider my
feelings about it.” But how many people could honestly give that answer? I
think most people, unless they’re crazy, would think that their own interests
and harms matter, not only to themselves, but in a way that gives other
people a reason to care about them too. We all think that when we suffer it
is not just bad for us, but bad, period.

The basis of morality is a belief that good and harm to particular people
(or animals) is good or bad not just from their point of view, but from a
more general point of view, which every thinking person can understand.
That means that each person has a reason to consider not only his own
interests but the interests of others in deciding what to do. And it isn’t
enough if he is considerate only of some others — his family and friends,
those he specially cares about. Of course he will care more about certain
people, and also about himself. Bt he has some reason to consider the effect
of what he does on the good or harm of everyone. If he’s like most of us,
that is what he thinks others should do with regard to him, even if they
aren’t friends of his.

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Even if this is right, it is only a bare outline of the source of morality. It
doesn’t tell us in detail how we should consider the interests of others, or
how we should weigh them against the special interest we all have in
ourselves and the particular people close to us. It doesn’t even tell us how
much we should care about people in other countries in comparison with
out fellow citizens. There are many disagreements among those who accept
morality in general, about what in particular is right and what is wrong.

For instance: should you care about every other person as much as you
care about yourself? [emphasis added] Should you in other words love your
neighbor as yourself (even if he isn’t your neighbor)? Should you ask
yourself, every time you go to a movie, whether the cost of the ticket could
provide more happiness if you gave it to someone else, or donated the
money to famine relief?

Very few people are so unselfish. And if someone were that impartial
between himself and others, he would probably also feel that he should be
just as impartial among other people. That would rule out caring more about
this friends and relatives than he does about strangers. He might have
special feelings about certain people who are close to him, but complete
impartiality would mean that he won’t favor them — if for example he has
to choose between helping a friend or a stranger to avoid suffering, or
between taking his children to a movie and donating the money to famine
relief.

This degree of impartiality seems too much to ask of most people:
someone who had it would be a kind of terrifying saint. But it’s an
important question in moral thought, how much impartiality we should try
for. You are a particular person, but you are also able to recognize that
you’re just one person among many others, and no more important than
they are, when looked at from outside. How much should that point of view
influence you? You do matter somewhat from outside — otherwise you
wouldn’t think other people had any reason to care about what they did to
you. But you don’t matter as much from the outside as you matter to
yourself, from the inside — since from the outside you don’t matter any
more than anybody else.

Not only is it unclear how impartial we should be; it’s unclear what
would make an answer to this question the right one. Is there a single

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correct way for everyone to strike the balance between what he cares about
personally and what matters impartially? Or will the answer vary from
person to person depending on the strength of their different motives?

This brings us to another big issue: Are right and wrong the same for
everyone? [Are moral requirements universal, that is, when we compare the
motives of different individuals?]

Morality is often thought to be universal. If something is wrong, it’s
supposed to be wrong for everybody; for instance if it’s wrong to kill
someone because you want to steal his wallet, then it’s wrong whether you
care about him or not. But if something’s being wrong is supposed to be a
reason against doing it, and if your reasons for doing things depend on your
motives and people’s motives can vary greatly, then it looks as though there
won’t be a single right and wrong for everybody. There won’t be a single
right and wrong, because if people’s basic motives differ, there won’t be
one basic standard of behavior that everyone has a reason to follow.

There are three ways of dealing with this problem, none of them very
satisfactory.

First, we could say that the same things are right and wrong for
everybody, but that not everyone has a reason to do what’s right and avoid
what’s wrong: only people with the right sort of “moral” motives —
particularly a concern for others — have any reason to do what’s right, for
its own sake. This makes morality universal, but at the cost of draining it of
its force. It’s not clear what it amounts to to say that it would be wrong for
someone to commit murder, but he has no reason not to do it.

Second, we could say that everyone has a reason to do what’s right and
avoid what’s wrong, but that these reasons don’t depend on people’s actual
motives. Rather they are reasons to change our motives if they aren’t the
right ones. This connects morality with reasons for action, but leaves it
unclear what these universal reasons are which do not depend on motives
that everyone actually has. What does it mean to say that a murderer had a
reason not to do it, even though none of his actual motives or desires gave
him such a reason?

Third, we could say that morality is not universal, and that what a person
is morally required to do goes only as far as what he has a certain kind of
reason to do, where the reason depends on how much he actually cares

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about other people in general. If he has strong moral motives, they will
yield strong reasons and strong moral requirements. If this moral motives
are weak or nonexistent, the moral requirements on him will likewise be
weak or nonexistent. This may seem psychologically realistic, but it goes
against the idea that the same moral rules apply to all of us, and not only to
good people.

The question whether moral requirements are universal comes up not only
when we compare the motives of different individuals, but also when we
compare the moral standards that are accepted in different societies and at
different times. [emphasis added] Many things that you probably think are
wrong have been accepted as morally correct by large groups of people in
the past; slavery, serfdom, human sacrifice, racial segregation, denial of
religious and political freedom, hereditary caste systems. And probably
some things you now think are right will be thought wrong by future
societies. Is it reasonable to believe that there is some single truth about all
this, even though we can’t be sure what it is? Or is it more reasonable to
believe that right and wrong are relative to a particular time and place and
social background?

There is one way in which right and wrong are obviously relative to
circumstances. It is usually right to return a knife you have borrowed to its
owner if he asks for it back. But if he has gone crazy in the meantime, and
wants the knife to murder someone with, then you shouldn’t return it. This
isn’t the kind of relativity I am talking about, because it doesn’t mean
morality is relative at the basic level. It means only that the same basic
moral principles will require different actions in different circumstances.

The deeper kind of relativity, which some people believe in, would mean
that the most basic standards of right and wrong — like when it is and is not
all right to kill, or what sacrifices you’re required to make for others —
depend entirely on what standards are generally accepted in the society in
which you live.

This I find very hard to believe, mainly because it always seems possible
to criticize the accepted standards of your own society and say that they are
morally mistaken. But if you do that, you must be appealing to some more
objective standard, an idea of what is really right and wrong, as opposed to
what most people think. It is hard to say what this is, but it is an idea most

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of us understand, unless we are slavish followers of what the community
says.

There are many philosophical problem about the content of morality —
how a moral concern or respect for others should express itself; whether we
should help them get what they want or mainly refrain from harming and
hindering them; how impartial we should be, and in what ways. I have left
most of these questions aside because my concern here is with the
foundation of morality in general — how universal and objective it is.

I should answer one possible objection to the whole idea of morality.
You’ve probably heard it said that the only reason anybody ever does
anything is that it makes [them] feel good, or that not doing it will make
[them] feel bad. If we are really motivated only by our own comfort, it is
hopeless for morality to try to appeal to a concern for others. On this view,
even apparently moral conduct in which one person seems to sacrifice his
own interests for the sake of others is really motivated by his concern for
himself: he wants to avoid the guilt he’ll feel if he doesn’t do the “right”
thing, or to experience the warm glow of self-congratulation he’ll get if he
does. But those who don’t have these feelings have no motive to be
“moral.”

Now it’s true that when people do what they think they ought to do, they
often feel good about it: similarly if they do what they think is wrong, they
often feel bad. But that doesn’t mean that these feelings are their motives
for acting. In many cases the feelings result from motives which also
produce the action. You wouldn’t feel good about doing the right thing
unless you thought there was some other reason to do it, besides the fact
that it would make you feel good. And you wouldn’t feel guilty about doing
the wrong thing unless you thought that there was some other reason not to
do it, besides the fact that it made you feel guilty: something which made it
right to feel guilty. At least that’s how things should be. It’s true that some
people feel irrational guilt about things they don’t have any independent
reason to think are wrong — but that’s not the way morality is supposed to
work.

In a sense, people do what they want to do. But their reasons and motives
for wanting to do things vary enormously. I may “want” to give someone
my wallet only because he has a gun pointed at my head and threatens to
kill me if I don’t. And I may want to jump into an icy river to save a

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drowning stranger not because it will make me feel good, but because I
recognize that his life is important, just as mine is, and I recognize that I
have a reason to save his life just as he would have a reason to save mine if
our positions were reversed.

Moral argument tries to appeal to a capacity for impartial motivation
which is supposed to be present in all of us. Unfortunately it may be deeply
buried, and in some cases it may not be present at all. In any case it has to
compete with powerful selfish motives, and other personal motives that
may not be so selfish, in its bid for control of our behavior. The difficulty of
justifying morality is not that there is only one human motive, but that there
are so many.

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Chapter 8 — Justice
Is it unfair that some people are born rich and some are born poor? If it’s
unfair, should anything be done about it?

The world is full of inequalities — within countries, and from one
country to another. Some children are born into comfortable, prosperous
homes, and grow up well fed and well educated. Others are born poor, don’t
get enough to eat, and never have access to much education or medical care.
Clearly, this is a matter of luck: we are not responsible for the social or
economic class or country into which we are born. The question is, how bad
are inequalities which are not the fault of the people who suffer from them?
Should governments use their power to try to reduce inequalities of this
kind, for which the victims are not responsible?

Some inequalities are deliberately imposed. Racial discrimination, for
example, deliberately excludes people of one race from jobs, housing, and
education which are available to people of another race. Or women may be
kept out of jobs or denied privileges available only to men. This is not
merely a matter of bad luck. Racial and sexual discrimination are clearly
unfair: they are forms of inequality caused by factors that should not be
allowed to influence people’s basic welfare. Fairness requires that
opportunities should be open to those who are qualified, and it is clearly a
good thing when governments try to enforce such equality of opportunity.

But it is harder to know what to say about inequalities that arise in the
ordinary course of events, without deliberate racial or sexual discrimination.
Because even if there is equality of opportunity, and any qualified person
can go to a university or get a job or buy a house or run for office —
regardless of race, religion, sex, or national origin — there will still be
plenty of inequalities left. People from wealthier backgrounds will usually
have better training and more resources, and they will tend to be better able
to compete for good jobs. Even in a system of equality of opportunity, some
people will have a head start and will end up with greater benefits than
others whose native talents are the same.

Not only that, but differences in native talent will produce big differences
in the resulting benefits, in a competitive system. Those who have abilities
that are in high demand will be able to earn much more than those without
any special skills or talents. These differences too are partly a matter of

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luck. Though people have to develop and use their abilities, no amount of
effort would enable most people to act like Meryl Streep, paint like Picasso,
or manufacture automobiles like Henry Ford. Something similar is true of
lesser accomplishments. The luck of both natural talent and family and
class background are important factors in determining one’s income and
position in a competitive society. Equal opportunity produces unequal
results.

These inequalities, unlike the results of racial and sexual discrimination,
are produced by choices and actions that don’t seem wrong in themselves.
People try to provide for their children and give them a good education, and
some have more money to use for this purpose than others. People pay for
the products, services, and performances they want, and some performers or
manufacturers get richer than others because what they have to offer is
wanted by more people. Businesses and organizations of all kinds try to hire
employees who will do the job well, and pay higher salaries for those with
unusual skills. If one restaurant is full of people and another next door is
empty because the first has a talented chef and the second doesn’t, the
customers who choose the first restaurant and avoid the second haven’t
done anything wrong, even though their choices have an unhappy effect on
the owner and employees of the second restaurant, and on their families.

Such effects are most disturbing when they leave some people in a very
bad way. In some countries large segments of the population live in poverty
from generation to generation. But even in a wealthy country like the
United States, lots of people start life with two strikes against them, from
economic and educational disadvantages. Some can overcome those
disadvantages. but it’s much harder than making good from a higher
starting point.

Most disturbing of all are the enormous inequalities in wealth, health,
education, and development between rich and poor countries. Most people
in the world have no chance of ever being as well off economically as the
poorest people in Europe, Japan, or the United States. These large
differences in good and bad luck certainly seem unfair; but what, if
anything, should be done about them?

We have to think about both the inequality itself, and the remedy that
would be needed to reduce or get rid of it. The main question about the
inequalities themselves is: What kinds of causes of inequality are wrong?

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The main question about remedies is: What methods of interfering with the
inequality are right?

In the case of deliberate racial or sexual discrimination, the answers are
easy. The cause of the inequality is wrong because the discriminator is
doing something wrong. And the remedy is simply to prevent him from
doing it. If a land- lord refuses to rent to blacks, he should be prosecuted

But the questions are more difficult in other cases. The problem is that
inequalities which seem wrong can arise from causes which don’t involve
people doing anything wrong. It seems unfair that people born much poorer
than others should suffer disadvantages through no fault of their own. But
such inequalities exist because some people have been more successful than
others at earning money and have tried to help their children as much as
possible; and because people tend to marry members of their own economic
and social class, wealth and position accumulate and are passed on from
generation to generation. The actions which combine to form these causes
— employment decisions, purchases, marriages, bequests, and efforts to
provide for and educate children, don’t seem wrong in themselves. What’s
wrong, if anything, is the result: that some people start life with undeserved
disadvantages.

If we object to this kind of bad luck as unfair, it must be because we
object to people’s suffering disadvantages through no fault of their own,
merely as a result of the ordinary operation of the socioeconomic system
into which they are born. Some of us may also believe that all bad luck that
is not a person’s fault, such as that of being born with a physical handicap,
should be compensated if possible. But let us leave those cases aside in this
discussion. I want to concentrate on the undeserved inequalities that arise
through the working of society and the economy, particularly a competitive
economy.

The two main sources of these undeserved inequalities, as I have said, are
differences in the socioeconomic classes into which people are born, and
differences in their natural abilities or talents for tasks which are in demand.
You may not think there is anything wrong with inequality caused in these
ways. But if you think there is something wrong with it, and if you think a
society should try to reduce it, then you must propose a remedy which
either interferes with the causes themselves, or interferes with the unequal
effects directly.

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Now the causes themselves, as we have seen, include relatively innocent
choices by many people about how to spend their time and money and how
to lead their lives. To interfere with people’s choices about what products to
buy, how to help their children, or how much to pay their employees, is
very different from interfering with them when they want to rob banks or
discriminate against blacks or women. A more indirect interference in the
economic life of individuals is taxation, particularly taxation of income and
inheritance, and some taxes on consumption, which can be designed to take
more from the rich than from the poor. This is one way a government can
try to reduce the development of great inequalities in wealth over
generations — by not letting people keep all of their money.

More important, however, would be to use the public resources obtained
through taxes to pro- vide some of the missing advantages of education and
support to the children of those families that can’t afford to do it
themselves. Public social welfare programs try to do this, by using tax
revenues to provide basic benefits of health care, food, housing, and
education. This attacks the inequalities directly.

When it comes to the inequalities that result from differences in ability,
there isn’t much one can do to interfere with the causes short of abolishing
the competitive economy. So long as there is competition to hire people for
jobs, competition between people to get jobs, and competition between
firms for customers, some people are going to make more money than
others. The only alternative would be a centrally directed economy in which
everyone was paid roughly the same and people were assigned to their jobs
by some kind of centralized authority. Though it has been tried, this system
has heavy costs in both freedom and efficiency — far too heavy, in my
opinion, to be acceptable, though others would disagree.

If one wants to reduce the inequalities resulting from different abilities
without getting rid of the competitive economy, it will be necessary to
attack the inequalities themselves. This can be done through higher taxation
of higher in- comes, and some free provision of public services to everyone,
of to people with lower incomes. It could include cash payments to those
whose earning power is lowest, in the form of a so-called “negative income
tax.” None of these programs would get rid of undeserved inequalities
completely, and any system of taxation will have other effects on the

15 / Nagel / What Does It All Mean? / chapters 7-8 / solely for pedagogical purposes

 

economy, including effects on employment and the poor, which may be
hard to predict; so the issue of a remedy is always complicated.

But to concentrate on the philosophical point: the measures needed to
reduce undeserved inequalities arising from differences in class background
and natural talent will involve interference with people’s economic
activities, mainly through taxation: the government takes money from some
people and uses it to help others. This is not the only use of taxation, or
even the main use: many taxes are spent on things which benefit the well-
off more than the poor. But redistributive taxation, as it is called, is the type
relevant to our problem. It does involve the use of government power to
interfere with what people do, not because what they do is wrong in itself,
like theft or discrimination, but because it contributes to an effect which
seems unfair.

There are those who don’t think redistributive taxation is right, because
the government shouldn’t interfere with people unless they are doing
something wrong, and the economic transactions that produce all these
inequalities aren’t wrong, but perfectly innocent. They may also hold that
there’s nothing wrong with the resulting inequalities themselves: that even
though they’re undeserved, and not the fault of the victims, society is not
obliged to fix them. That’s just life, they will say: some people are more
fortunate than others. The only time we have to do anything about it is
when the misfortune is the result of someone’s doing a wrong to someone
else.

This is a controversial political issue, and there are many different
opinions about it. Some people object more to the inequalities that come
from the socioeconomic class a person is born into, than to the inequalities
resulting from differences in talent or ability. They don’t like the effects of
one person being born rich and another in a slum, but feel that a person
deserves what he can earn with his own efforts — so that there’s nothing
unfair about one person earning a lot and another very little because the first
has a marketable talent or capacity for learning sophisticated skills while
the second can only do unskilled labor.

I myself think that inequalities resulting from either of these causes are
unfair, and that it is clearly unjust when a socioeconomic system results in
some people living under significant material and social disadvantages
through no fault of their own, if this could be prevented through a system of

16 / Nagel / What Does It All Mean? / chapters 7-8 / solely for pedagogical purposes

 

redistributive taxation and social welfare programs. But to make up your
own mind about the issue, you have to consider both what causes of
inequality you find unfair, and what remedies you find legitimate.

We’ve been talking mainly about the problem of social justice within one
society. The problem is much more difficult on a world scale, both because
the inequalities are so great and because it’s not clear what remedies are
possible in the absence of a world government that could levy world taxes
and see that they are used effectively. There is no prospect of a world
government, which is just as well, since it would probably be a horrible
government in many ways. However there is still a problem of global
justice, though it’s hard to know what to do about it in the system of
separate sovereign states we have now.

 

 

Selected Materials: Privacy
Produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for
personal and pedagogical purposes, and not for
distribution; † indicates on-line resource

1. 1975, Thomson, “The Right to Privacy”
2. 1975, Scanlon, “Thomson on Privacy”

The Right to Privacy
Judith Jarvis Thomson
Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1975, Vol. 4, No. 4*

1. Perhaps the most striking thing about the right to
privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea
what it is. Consider, for example, the familiar proposal
that the right to privacy is the right “to be let alone.” On
the one hand, this doesn’t seem to take in enough. The
police might say, “We grant we used a special X-ray
device on Smith, so as to be able to watch him through
the walls of his house; we grant we trained an amplifying
device on him so as to be able to hear everything he said;
but we let him strictly alone: we didn’t touch him, we
didn’t even go near him — our devices operate at a
distance.” Anyone who believes there is a right to privacy
would presumably believe that it has been violated in
Smith’s case; yet he would be hard put to explain
precisely how, if the right to privacy is the right to be let
alone. And on the other hand, this account of the right to
privacy lets in far too much. If I hit Jones on the head
with a brick I have not let him alone. Yet, while hitting
Jones on the head with a brick is surely violating some
right of Jones’, doing it should surely not turn out to
violate his right to privacy. Else, where is this to end? Is
every violation of a right a violation of the right to
privacy?

It seems best to be less ambitious, to begin with at least.
I suggest, then, that we look at some specific, imaginary
cases in which people would say, “There, in that case, the
right to privacy has been violated,” and ask ourselves
precisely why this would be said, and what, if anything,
would justify saying it.

2. But there is a difficulty to be taken note of first. What I
have in mind is that there may not be so much agreement
on the cases as I implied. Suppose that my husband and I
are having a fight, shouting at each other as loud as we
can; and suppose that we have not thought to close the
windows, so that we can easily be heard from the street
outside. It seems to me that anyone who stops to listen
violates no right of ours; stopping to listen is at worst bad,
Not Nice, not done by the best people. But now suppose,
by contrast, that we are having a quiet fight, behind closed
windows, and cannot be heard by the normal person who
passes by; and suppose that someone across the street
trains an amplifier on our house, by means of which he

can hear what we say; and suppose that he does this in
order to hear what we say. It seems to me that anyone
who does this does violate a right of ours, the right to
privacy, I should have thought.

But there is room for disagreement. It might be said that
in neither case is there a violation of a right, that both are
cases of mere bad behavior — though no doubt worse
behavior in the second case than in the first, it being very
much naughtier to train amplifiers on people’s houses
than merely to stop in the street to listen.

Or, alternatively, it might be said that in both cases
there is a violation of a right, the right to privacy in fact,
but that the violation is less serious in the first case than in
the second.

I think that these would both be wrong. I think that we
have in these two cases, not merely a difference in degree,
but a difference in quality: that the passerby who stops to
listen in the first case may act badly, but violates no one’s
rights, whereas the neighbor who uses an amplifier in the
second case does not merely act badly but violates a right,
the right to privacy. But I have no argument for this. I
take it rather as a datum in this sense: it seems to me there
would be a mark against an account of the right to privacy
if it did not yield the conclusion that these two cases do
differ in the way I say they do, and moreover explain why
they do.

But there is one thing perhaps worth drawing attention
to here: doing so may perhaps diminish the inclination to
think that a right is violated in both cases. What I mean is
this. There is a familiar account of rights — I speak now
of rights generally, and not just of the right to privacy —
according to which a man’s having a right that something
shall not be done to him just itself consists in its being the
case that anyone who does it to him acts badly or wrongly
or does what he ought not do. Thus, for example, it is said
that to have a right that you shall not be killed or
imprisoned just itself consists in its being the case that if
anyone does kill or imprison you, he acts badly, wrongly,
does what he ought not do. If this account of rights were
correct, then my husband and I would have a right that
nobody shall stop in the street and listen to our loud fight,
since anyone who does stop in the street and listen acts
badly, wrongly, does what he ought not do. Just as we
have a right that people shall not train amplifiers on the
house to listen to our quiet fights.

But this account of rights is just plain wrong. There are
many, many things we ought not do to people, things such
that if we do them to a person, we act badly, but which
are not such that to do them is to violate a right of his. It is
bad behavior, for example to be ungenerous and unkind.
Suppose that you dearly love chocolate ice cream but that,
for my part, I find that a little of it goes a long way. I have
been given some and have eaten a little, enough really,
since I don’t care for it very much. You then, looking on,
ask, “May I have the rest of your ice cream?” It would be
bad indeed if I were to reply, “No, I’ve decided to bury

2 / Selected materials regarding privacy / Produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for pedagogical purposes

 

the rest of it in the garden.” I ought not do that; I ought to
give it to you. But you have no right that I give it to you,
and I violate no right of yours if I do bury the stuff.

Indeed, it is possible that an act which is not a violation
of a right should be a far worse act than an act which is. If
you did not merely want that ice cream but needed it, for
your health perhaps, then my burying it would be
monstrous, indecent, though still, of course, no violation
of a right. By contrast, if you snatch it away, steal it,
before I can bury it, then while you violate a right (the ice
cream is mine, after all), your act is neither monstrous nor
indecent — if it’s bad at all, it’s anyway not very bad.

From the point of view of conduct, of course, this
doesn’t really matter: bad behavior is bad behavior,
whether it is a violation of a right or not. But if we want
to be clear about why this or that bit of bad behavior is
bad, then these distinctions do have to get made and
looked into.

3. To return, then, to the two cases I drew attention to, and
which I suggest we take to differ in this way: in one of
them a right is violated, in the other not. It isn’t, I think,
the fact that an amplifying device is used in the one case,
and not in the other, that is responsible for this difference.
On the one hand, consider someone who is deaf: if he
passes by while my husband and I are having a loud fight
at an open window and turns up his hearing-aid so as to
be able to hear us, it seems to me he no more violates our
right to privacy than does one who stops to listen and can
hear well enough without a hearing-aid. And on the other
hand, suppose that you and I have to talk over some
personal matters. It is most convenient to meet in the
park, and we do so, taking a bench far from the path since
we don’t want to be overheard. It strikes a man to want to
know what we are saying to each other in that heated
fashion, so he creeps around in the bushes behind us and
crouches back of the bench to listen. He thereby violates
the right to privacy — fully as much as if he had stayed a
hundred yards away and used an amplifying device to
listen to us.

4. The cases I drew attention to are actually rather
difficult to deal with, and I suggest we back away from
them for a while and look at something simpler.

Consider a man who owns a pornographic picture. He
wants that nobody but him shall ever see that picture —
perhaps because he wants that nobody shall know that he
owns it, perhaps because he feels that someone else’s
seeing it would drain it of power to please. So he keeps it
locked in his wall-safe, and takes it out to look at only at
night or after pulling down the shades and closing the
curtains. We have heard about his picture, and we want to
see it, so we train our X-ray device on the wall-safe and
look in. To do this is, I think, to violate a right of his —
the right to privacy, I should think.

No doubt people who worry about violations of the
right to privacy are not worried about the possibility that

others will look at their possessions. At any rate, this
doesn’t worry them very much. That it is not nothing,
however, comes out when one thinks on the special
source of discomfort there is if a burglar doesn’t go
straight for the TV set and the silver, and then leave, but if
he stops for a while just to look at things — e.g. at your
love letters or at the mound of torn socks on the floor of
your closet. The trespass and the theft might swamp
everything else; but they might not: the burglar’s merely
looking around in that way might make the episode feel
worse than it otherwise would have done.

So I shall suppose that we do violate this man’s right to
privacy if we use an X-ray device to look at the picture in
his wall-safe. And now let us ask how and why.

To own a picture is to have a cluster of rights in respect
of it. The cluster includes, for example, the right to sell it
to whomever you like, the right to give it away, the right
to tear it, the right to look at it. These rights are all
“positive rights”: rights to do certain things to or in
respect of the picture. To own a picture is also to have
certain “negative rights” in respect of it, that is, rights that
others shall not do certain things to it — thus, for
example, the right that others shall not sell it or give it
away or tear it.

Does owning a picture also include having the negative
right that others shall not look at it? I think it does. If our
man’s picture is good pornography, it would be pretty
mingy of him to keep it permanently hidden so that
nobody but him shall ever see it — a nicer person would
let his friends have a look at it too. But he is within his
rights to hide it. If someone is about to tear his picture, he
can snatch it away: it’s his, so he has a right that nobody
but him shall tear it. If someone is about to look at his
picture, he can snatch it away or cover it up: it’s his, so he
has a right that nobody but him shall look at it.

It is important to stress that he has not merely the right
to snatch the picture away in order that nobody shall tear
it, he has not merely the right to do everything he can
(within limits) to prevent people from tearing it, he has
also the right that nobody shall tear it. What I have in
mind is this. Suppose we desperately want to tear his
picture. He locks it in his wall-safe to prevent us from
doing so. And suppose we are so eager that we buy a
penetrating long-distance picture-tearer: we sit quietly in
our apartment across the street, train the device on the
picture in the wall-safe, press the button — and lo! we
have tom the picture. The fact that he couldn’t protect his
picture against the action of the device doesn’t make it all
right that we use it.

Again, suppose that there was a way in which he could
have protected his picture against the action of the device:
the rays won’t pass through platinum, and he could have
encased the picture in platinum. But he would have had to
sell everything else he owns in order to pay for the
platinum. The fact he didn’t do this does not make it all
right for us to have used the device.

3 / Selected materials regarding privacy / Produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for pedagogical purposes

 

We all have a right to do what we can (within limits) to
secure our belongings against theft. I gather, however,
that it’s practically impossible to secure them against a
determined burglar. Perhaps only hiring armed guards or
sealing the house in solid steel will guarantee that our
possessions cannot be stolen; and perhaps even these
things won’t work. The fact (if it’s a fact) that we can’t
guarantee our belongings against theft; the fact (if it’s a
fact) that though we can, the cost of doing so is wildly out
of proportion to the value of the things, and therefore we
don’t; neither of these makes it all right for the
determined burglar to walk off with them.

Now I said that if a man owns a picture he can snatch it
away or he can cover it up to prevent anyone else from
looking at it. He can also hide it in his wall-safe. But I
think he has a right, not merely to do what he can (within
limits) to prevent it from being looked at: he has a right
that it shall not be looked at — just as he has a right that it
shall not be torn or taken away from him. That he has a
right that it shall not be looked at comes out, I think, in
this way: if he hides it in his wall-safe, and we train our
X-ray device on the wall-safe and look in, we have
violated a right of his in respect of it, and the right is
surely the right that it shall not be looked at. The fact that
he couldn’t protect his picture against the action of an X-
ray device which enables us to look at it doesn’t make it
all right that we use the X-ray device to look at it — just
as the fact that he can’t protect his picture against the
action of a long-distance picture-tearing device which
enables us to tear his picture doesn’t make it all right that
we use the device to tear it.

Compare, by contrast, a subway map. You have no
right to take it off the wall or cover it up: you haven’t a
right to do whatever you can to prevent it from being
looked at. And if you do cover it up, and if anyone looks
through the covering with an X-ray device, he violates no
right of yours: you do not have a right that nobody but
you shall look at it — it’s not yours, after all.

Looking at a picture doesn’t harm it, of course, whereas
tearing a picture does. But this doesn’t matter. If I use
your toothbrush I don’t harm it; but you, all the same,
have a right that I shall not use it.

However, to have a right isn’t always to claim it. Thus,
on any view to own a picture is to have (among other
rights) the right that others shall not tear it. Yet you might
want someone else to do this and therefore (1) invite him
to, or (2) get him to whether he wants to or not — e.g. by
carefully placing it where he’ll put his foot through it
when he gets out of bed in the morning. Or again, while
not positively wanting anyone else to tear the picture, you
might not care whether or not it is torn, and therefore you
might simply (3) let someone tear it — e.g. when, out of
laziness, you leave it where it fell amongst the things the
children are in process of wrecking. Or again still, you
might positively want that nobody shall tear the picture
and yet in a fit of absent-mindedness (4) leave it in some

place such that another person would have to go to some
trouble if he is to avoid tearing it, or (5) leave it in some
place such that another person could not reasonably be
expected to know that it still belonged to anybody.

Similarly, you might want someone else to look at your
picture and therefore (1) invite him to, or (2) get him to
whether he wants to or not. Or again, while not positively
wanting anyone else to look at the picture, you might not
care whether or not it is looked at, and therefore you
might simply (3) let it be looked at. Or again still, you
might positively want that nobody shall look at the
picture, and yet in a fit of absent-mindedness (4) leave it
in some place such that another person would have to go
to some trouble if he is to avoid looking at it (at least,
avert his eyes) or (5) leave it in some place such that
another person could not reasonably be expected to know
that it still belonged to anybody.

In all of these cases, it is permissible for another person
on the one hand to tear the picture, on the other to look at
it: no right of the owner’s is violated. I think it fair to
describe them as cases in which, though the owner had a
right that the things not be done, he waived the right: in
cases (1), (2), and (3) intentionally, in cases (4) and (5)
unintentionally. It is not at all easy to say under what
conditions a man has waived a right — by what acts of
commission or omission and in what circumstances. The
conditions vary, according as the right is more or less
important; and while custom and convention, on the one
hand, and the cost of securing the right, on the other hand,
play very important roles, it is not clear precisely what
roles. Nevertheless there plainly is such a thing as
waiving a right; and given a man has waived his right to a
thing, we violate no right of his if we do not accord it to
him.

There are other things which may bring about that
although a man had a right to a thing, we violate no right
of his if we do not accord it to him: he may have
transferred the right to another or he may have forfeited
the right or he may still have the right, though it is
overridden by some other, more stringent right. (This is
not meant to be an exhaustive list.) And there are also
some circumstances in which it is not clear what should
be said. Suppose someone steals your picture and invites
some third party (who doesn’t know it’s yours) to tear it
or look at it; or suppose someone takes your picture by
mistake, thinking it’s his, and invites some third party
(who doesn’t know it’s yours) to tear it or look at it; does
the third party violate a right of yours if he accepts the
invitation? A general theory of rights should provide an
account of all of these things.

It suffices here, however, to stress one thing about
rights: a man may have had a right that we shall not do a
thing, he may even still have a right that we shall not do
it, consistently with its being the case that we violate no
right of his if we go ahead.

4 / Selected materials regarding privacy / Produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for pedagogical purposes

 

If this is correct, we are on the way to what we want. I
said earlier that when we trained our X-ray device on that
man’s wall-safe in order to have a look at his
pornographic picture, we violated a right of his, the right
to privacy, in fact. It now turns out (if I am right) that we
violated a property right of his, specifically the negative
right that others shall not look at the picture, this being
one of the (many) rights which his owning the picture
consists of. I shall come back a little later to the way in
which these rights interconnect.

5. We do not, of course, care nearly as much about our
possessions as we care about ourselves. We do not want
people looking at our torn socks; but it would be much
worse to have people watch us make faces at ourselves in
the mirror when we thought no one was looking or listen
to us while we fight with our families. So you might think
I have spent far too much time on that pornographic
picture.

But in fact, if what I said about pornographic pictures
was correct, then the point about ourselves comes through
easily enough. For if we have fairly stringent rights over
our property, we have very much more stringent rights
over our own persons. None of you came to possess your
knee in exactly the way in which you came to possess
your shoes or your pornographic pictures: I take it you
neither bought nor inherited your left knee. And I suppose
you could not very well sell your left knee. But that isn’t
because it isn’t yours to sell — some women used to sell
their hair, and some people nowadays sell their blood —
but only because who’d buy a used left knee? For if
anyone wanted to, you are the only one with a right to sell
yours. Again, it’s a nasty business to damage a knee; but
you’ve a right to damage yours, and certainly nobody else
has — its being your left knee includes your having the
right that nobody else but you shall damage it. And, as I
think, it also includes your having the right that nobody
else shall touch it or look at it. Of course you might invite
somebody to touch or look at your left knee; or you might
let someone touch or look at it; or again still, you might in
a fit of absent-mindedness leave it in some place such that
another person would have to go to some trouble if he is
to avoid touching or looking at it. In short, you might
waive your right that your left knee not be touched or
looked at. But that is what doing these things would be:
waiving a right.

I suppose there are people who would be deeply
distressed to learn that they had absent-mindedly left a
knee uncovered, and that somebody was looking at it.
Fewer people would be deeply distressed to learn that
they had absent-mindedly left their faces uncovered. Most
of us wouldn’t, but Moslem women would; and so might
a man whose face had been badly disfigured, in a fire,
say. Suppose you woke up one morning and found that
you had grown fangs or that you no longer had a nose;
you might well want to claim a right which most of us so
contentedly waive: the right that your face not be looked

at. That we have such a right comes out when we notice
that if a man comes for some reason or another to want
his face not to be looked at, and if he therefore keeps it
covered, and if we then use an X-ray device in order to be
able to look at it through the covering, we violate a right
of his in respect of it, and the right we violate is surely the
right that his face shall not be looked at. Compare again,
by contrast, a subway map. No matter how much you may
want a subway map to not be looked at, if we use an X-
ray device in order to be able to look at it through the
covering you place over it, we violate no right of yours:
you do not have a right that nobody but you shall look at
it — it is not yours, after all.

Listening, I think, works in the same way as looking.
Suppose you are an opera singer, a great one, so that lots
of people want to listen to you. You might sell them the
right to listen. Or you might invite them to listen or let
them listen or absent-mindedly sing where they cannot
help but listen. But if you have decided you are no longer
willing to be listened to; if you now sing only quietly,
behind closed windows and carefully sound-proofed
walls; and if somebody trains an amplifier on your house
so as to be able to listen, he violates a right, the right to
not be listened to.

These rights — the right to not be looked at and the
right to not be listened to1 — are analogous to rights we
have over our property. It sounds funny to say we have
such rights. They are not mentioned when we give lists of
rights. When we talk of rights, those that come to mind
are the grand ones: the right to life, the right to liberty, the
right to not be hurt or harmed, and property rights.
Looking at and listening to a man do not harm him, but
neither does stroking his left knee harm him, and yet he
has a right that it shall not be stroked without permission.
Cutting off all a man’s hair while he’s asleep will not
harm him, nor will painting his elbows green; yet he
plainly has a right that these things too shall not be done
to him. These un-grand rights seem to be closely enough
akin to be worth grouping together under one heading.
For lack of a better term, I shall simply speak of “the right
over the person,” a right which I shall take to consist of
the un-grand rights I mentioned, and others as well.

When I began, I said that if my husband and I are
having a quiet fight behind closed windows and cannot be
heard by the normal person who passes by, then if anyone
trains an amplifier on us in order to listen he violates a
right, the right to privacy, in fact. It now turns out (if I am
right) that he violates our right to not be listened to, which
is one of the rights included in the right over the person.

I had said earlier that if we use an X-ray device to look
at the pornographic picture in a man’s wall-safe, we
violate his right to privacy. And it then turned out (if I
was right) that we violated the right that others shall not
look at the picture, which is one of the rights which his
owning the picture consists in.

5 / Selected materials regarding privacy / Produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for pedagogical purposes

 

It begins to suggest itself, then, as a simplifying
hypothesis, that the right to privacy is itself a cluster of
rights, and that it is not a distinct cluster of rights but
itself intersects with the cluster of rights which the right
over the person consists in and also with the cluster of
rights which owning property consists in. That is, to use
an X-ray device to look at the picture is to violate a right
(the right that others shall not look at the picture) which is
both one of the rights which the right to privacy consists
in and also one of the rights which property-ownership
consists in. Again, that to use an amplifying device to
listen to us is to violate a right (the right to not be listened
to) which is both one of the rights which the right to
privacy consists in and also one of the rights which the
right over the person consists in.

Some small confirmation for this hypothesis comes
from the other listening case. I had said that if my
husband and I are having a loud fight, behind open
windows, so that we can easily be heard by the normal
person who passes by, then if a passerby stops to listen,
he violates no right of ours, and so in particular does not
violate our right to privacy. Why doesn’t he? I think it is
because, though he listens to us, we have let him listen
(whether intentionally or not), we have waived our right
to not be listened to — for we took none of the
conventional and easily available steps (such as closing
the windows and lowering our voices) to prevent
listening. But this would only be an explanation if
waiving the right to not be listened to were waiving the
right to privacy, or if it were at least waiving the only one
among the rights which the right to privacy consists in
which might plausibly be taken to have been violated by
the passerby.

But for further confirmation, we shall have to examine
some further violations of the right to privacy.

6. The following cases are similar to the ones we have just
been looking at. (a) A deaf spy trains on your house a
bugging device which produces, not sounds on tape, but a
typed transcript, which he then reads. (Cf. footnote i.) (b)
A blind spy trains on your house an X-ray device which
produces, not views of you, but a series of bas-relief
panels, which he then feels. The deaf spy doesn’t listen to
you, the blind spy doesn’t look at you, but both violate
your right to privacy just as if they did.

It seems to me that in both these cases there is a
violation of that same right over the person which is
violated by looking at or listening to a person. You have a
right, not merely that you not be looked at or listened to
but also that you not have your words transcribed, and
that you not be modeled in bas-relief. These are rights that
the spies violate, and it is these rights in virtue of the
violation of which they violate your right to privacy. Of
course, one may waive these rights: a teacher presumably
waives the former when he enters the classroom, and a
model waives the latter when he enters the studio. So
these cases seem to present no new problem.

7. A great many cases turn up in connection with
information. I should say straightaway that it seems to me
none of us has a right over any fact to the effect that that
fact shall not be known by others. You may violate a
man’s right to privacy by looking at him or listening to
him; there is no such thing as violating a man’s right to
privacy by simply knowing something about him. Where
our rights in this area do lie is, I think, here: we have a
right that certain steps shall not be taken to find out facts,
and we have a right that certain uses shall not be made of
facts. I shall briefly say a word about each of these.

If we use an X-ray device to look at a man in order to
get personal information about him, then we violate his
right to privacy. Indeed, we violate his right to privacy
whether the information we want is personal or
impersonal. We might be spying on him in order to find
out what he does all alone in his kitchen at midnight; or
we might be spying on him in order to find out how to
make puff pastry, which we already know he does in the
kitchen all alone at midnight; either way his right to
privacy is violated. But in both cases, the simplifying
hypothesis seems to hold: in both cases we violate a right
(the right to not be looked at) which is both one of the
rights which the right to privacy consists in and one of the
rights which the right over the person consists in.

What about torturing a man in order to get information?
I suppose that if we torture a man in order to find out how
to make puff pastry, then though we violate his right to
not be hurt or harmed, we do not violate his right to
privacy. But what if we torture him to find out what he
does in the kitchen all alone at midnight? Presumably in
that case we violate both his right to not be hurt or harmed
and his right to privacy — the latter, presumably, because
it was personal information we tortured him to get. But
here too we can maintain the simplifying hypothesis: we
can take it that to torture a man in order to find out
personal information is to violate a right (the right to not
be tortured to get personal information) which is both one
of the rights which the right to privacy consists in and one
of the rights which the right to not be hurt or harmed
consists in.

And so also for extorting information by threat: if the
information is not personal, we violate only the victim’s
right to not be coerced by threat; if it is personal, we
presumably also violate his right to privacy — in that we
violate his right to not be coerced by threat to give
personal information, which is both one of the rights
which the right to privacy consists in and one of the rights
which the right to not be coerced by threat consists in.

I think it a plausible idea, in fact, that doing something
to a man to get personal information from him is violating
his right to privacy only if doing that to him is violating
some right of his not identical with or included in the
right to privacy. Thus writing a man a letter asking him
where he was born is no violation of his right to privacy:
writing a man a letter is no violation of any right of his.

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By contrast, spying on a man to get personal information
is a violation of the right to privacy, and spying on a man
for any reason is a violation of the right over the person,
which is not identical with or included in (though it
overlaps) the right to privacy. Again, torturing a man to
get personal information is presumably a violation of the
right to privacy, and torturing a man for any reason is a
violation of the right to not be hurt or harmed, which is
not identical with or included in (though it overlaps) the
right to privacy. If the idea is right, the simplifying
hypothesis is trivially true for this range of cases. If a man
has a right that we shall not do such and such to him, then
he has a right that we shall not do it to him in order to get
personal information from him. And his right that we
shall not do it to him in order to get personal information
from him is included in both his right that we shall not do
it to him, and (if doing it to him for this reason is violating
his right to privacy) his right to privacy.

I suspect the situation is the same in respect of uses of
information. If a man gives us information on the
condition we shall not spread it, and we then spread it, we
violate his right to confidentiality, whether the
information is personal or impersonal. If the information
is personal, I suppose we also violate his right to privacy
— by virtue of violating a right (the right to
confidentiality in respect of personal information) which
is both one of the rights which the right to privacy
consists in and one of the rights which the right to
confidentiality consists in. The point holds whether our
motive for spreading the information is malice or profit or
anything else.

Again, suppose I find out by entirely legitimate means
(e.g. from a third party who breaks no confidence in
telling me) that you keep a pornographic picture in your
wall-safe; and suppose that, though I know it will cause
you distress, I print the information in a box on the front
page of my newspaper, thinking it newsworthy: Professor
Jones of State U. Keeps Pornographic Picture in Wall-
Safe! Do I violate your right to privacy? I am, myself,
inclined to think not. But if anyone thinks I do, he can still
have the simplifying hypothesis: he need only take a stand
on our having a right that others shall not cause us
distress, and then add that what is violated here is the
right to not be caused distress by the publication of
personal information, which is one of the rights which the
right to privacy consists in, and one of the rights which
the right to not be caused distress consists in. Distress,
after all, is the heart of the wrong (if there is a wrong in
such a case): a man who positively wants personal
information about himself printed in newspapers, and
therefore makes plain he wants it printed, is plainly not
wronged when newspapers cater to his want.

(My reluctance to go along with this is not due to a
feeling that we have no such right as the right to not be
caused distress: that we have such a right seems to me a
plausible idea. So far as I can see, there is nothing special

about physical hurts and harms; mental hurts and harms
are hurts and harms too. Indeed, they may be more grave
and long-lasting than the physical ones, and it is hard to
see why we should be thought to have rights against the
one and not against the other. My objection is, rather, that
even if there is a right to not be caused distress by the
publication of personal information, it is mostly, if not
always, overridden by what seems to me a more stringent
right, namely the public’s right to a press which prints any
and all information, personal or impersonal, which it
deems newsworthy; and thus that in the case I mentioned
no right is violated, and hence, a fortiori, the right to
privacy is not violated.2

8. The question arises, then, whether or not there are any
rights in the right to privacy cluster which aren’t also in
some other right cluster. I suspect there aren’t any, and
that the right to privacy is everywhere overlapped by
other rights. But it’s a difficult question. Part of the
difficulty is due to its being (to put the best face on it)
unclear just what is in this right to privacy cluster. I
mentioned at the outset that there is disagreement on
cases; and the disagreement becomes even more stark as
we move away from the kinds of cases I’ve so far been
drawing attention to which seem to me to be the central,
core cases.

What should be said, for example, of the following? (a)
The neighbors make a terrible racket every night. Or they
cook foul-smelling stews. Do they violate my right to
privacy? Some think yes, I think not. But even if they do
violate my right to privacy, perhaps all would be well for
the simplifying hypothesis since their doing this is
presumably a violation of another right of mine, roughly,
the right to be free of annoyance in my house. (b) The
city, after a city-wide referendum favoring it, installs
loudspeakers to play music in all the buses and subways.
Do they violate my right to privacy? Some think yes, I
think not. But again perhaps all is well: it is if those of us
in the minority have a right to be free of what we (though
not the majority) regard as an annoyance in public places.

(c) You are famous, and photographers follow you
around, everywhere you go, taking pictures of you.
Crowds collect and stare at you. Do they violate your
right to privacy? Some think yes, I think not: it seems to
me that if you do go out in public, you waive your right to
not be photographed and looked at. But of course you,
like the rest of us, have a right to be free of (what anyone
would grant was) annoyance in public places; so in
particular, you have a right that the photographers and
crowds not press in too closely.

(d) A stranger stops you on the street and asks, “How
much do you weigh?” Or an acquaintance, who has heard
of the tragedy, says, “How terrible you must have felt
when your child was run over by that delivery truck!”3 Or
a cab driver turns around and announces, “My wife is
having an affair with my psychoanalyst.” Some think that
your right to privacy is violated here; I think not. There is

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an element of coercion in such cases: the speaker is trying
to force you into a relationship you do not want, the threat
being your own embarrassment at having been impolite if
you refuse. But I find it hard to see how we can be
thought to have a right against such attempts. Of course
the attempt may be an annoyance. Or a sustained series of
such attempts may become an annoyance. (Consider, for
example, an acquaintance who takes to stopping at your
office every morning to ask if you slept well.) If so, I
suppose a right is violated, namely, the right against
annoyances.

(e) Some acquaintances of yours indulge in some very
personal gossip about you.4 Let us imagine that all of the
information they share was arrived at without violation of
any right of yours, and that none of the participants
violates a confidence in telling what he tells. Do they
violate a right of yours in sharing the information? If they
do, there is trouble for the simplifying hypothesis, for it
seems to me there is no right not identical with, or
included in, the right to privacy cluster which they could
be thought to violate. On the other hand, it seems to me
they don’t violate any right of yours. It seems to me we
simply do not have rights against others that they shall not
gossip about us.

(f) A state legislature makes it illegal to use
contraceptives. Do they violate the right to privacy of the
citizens of that state? No doubt certain techniques for
enforcing the statute (e.g., peering into bedroom
windows) would be obvious violations of the right to
privacy; but is there a violation of the right to privacy in
the mere enacting of the statute — in addition to the
violations which may be involved in enforcing it? I think
not. But it doesn’t matter for the simplifying hypothesis if
it is: making a kind of conduct illegal is infringing on a
liberty, and we all of us have a right that our liberties not
be infringed in the absence of compelling need to do so.

9. The fact, supposing it a fact, that every right in the right
to privacy cluster is also in some other right cluster does
not by itself show that the right to privacy is in any
plausible sense a “derivative” right. A more important
point seems to me to be this: the fact that we have a right
to privacy does not explain our having any of the rights in
the right to privacy cluster. What I have in mind is this.
We have a right to not be tortured. Why? Because we
have a right to not be hurt or harmed. I have a right that
my pornographic picture shall not be torn. Why? Because
it’s mine, because I own it. I have a right to do a
somersault now. Why? Because I have a right to liberty. I
have a right to try to preserve my life. Why? Because I
have a right to life. In these cases we explain the having
of one right by appeal to the having of another which
includes it. But I don’t have a right to not be looked at
because I have a right to privacy; I don’t have a right that
no one shall torture me in order to get personal
information about me because I have a right to privacy;
one is inclined, rather, to say that it is because

I have these rights that I have a right to privacy. This
point, supposing it correct, connects with what I
mentioned at the outset: that nobody seems to have any
very clear idea what the right to privacy is. We are
confronted with a cluster of rights — a cluster with
disputed boundaries — such that most people think that to
violate at least any of the rights in the core of the cluster
is to violate the right to privacy; but what have they in
common other than their being rights such that to violate
them is to violate the right to privacy? To violate these
rights is to not let someone alone? To violate these rights
is to visit indignity on someone? There are too many acts
in the course of which we do not let someone alone, in the
course of which we give affront to dignity, but in the
performing of which we do not violate anyone’s right to
privacy. That we feel the need to find something in
common to all of the rights in the cluster and, moreover,
feel we haven’t yet got it in the very fact that they are all
in the cluster, is a consequence of our feeling that one
cannot explain our having any of the rights in the cluster
in the words: “Because we have a right to privacy.”

But then if, as I take it, every right in the right to
privacy cluster is also in some other right cluster, there is
no need to find the that-which-is-in-common to all rights
in the right to privacy cluster and no need to settle
disputes about its boundaries. For if I am right, the right
to privacy is “derivative” in this sense: it is possible to
explain in the case of each right in the cluster how come
we have it without ever once mentioning the right to
privacy. Indeed, the wrongness of every violation of the
right to privacy can be explained without ever once
mentioning it. Someone tortures you to get personal
information from you? He violates your right to not be
tortured to get personal information from you, and you
have that right because you have the right to not be hurt or
harmed — and it is because you have this right that what
he does is wrong. Someone looks at your pornographic
picture in your wall-safe? He violates your right that your
belongings not be looked at, and you have that right
because you have ownership rights — and it is because
you have them that what he does is wrong. Someone uses
an X-ray device to look at you through the walls of your
house? He violates your right to not be looked at, and you
have that right because you have rights over your person
analogous to the rights you have over your property —
and it is because you have these rights that what he does
is wrong.

In any case, I suggest it is a useful heuristic device in
the case of any purported violation of the right to privacy
to ask whether or not the act is a violation of any other
right, and if not whether the act really violates a right at
all. We are still in such deep dark in respect of rights that
any simplification at all would be well worth having.5

8 / Selected materials regarding privacy / Produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for pedagogical purposes

 

Thomson on Privacy
Thomas Scanlon
Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1975

Judith Thomson’s paper presents a strong challenge to
what I take to be the common-sense view of privacy. I
have been moved by her trenchant arguments on a
number of points, but basic differences between us
remain.

I want to set out here my reasons for finding her
account of privacy unsatisfactory, and to indicate the form
that I think a more adequate theory would take. Thomson
denies that there is such a thing as the right to privacy. In
her view there is a cluster of diverse rights which may be
called rights of privacy, but these rights lack a common
foundation. Each of them is in fact a right of some other
kind, e.g. a right of ownership, and its basis as a right is
therefore to be found elsewhere than in a unified account
of the notion of privacy.

I agree with Thomson that the rights whose violation
strikes us as invasion of privacy are many and diverse,
and that these rights do not derive from any single
overarching right to privacy. I hold, however, that these
rights have a common foundation in the special interests
that we have in being able to be free from certain kinds of
intrusions. The most obvious examples of such offensive
intrusions involve observation of our bodies, our behavior
or our interactions with other people (or overhearings of
the last two), but while these are central they do not
exhaust the field. The first element in an adequate account
of privacy would be a general account of these interests.
The second element would be an account of the structure
and foundation of those conventional norms that are
erected to secure and protect these interests, norms
specifying when, where, and in what ways we may and
may not be observed, listened to, questioned, and in other
ways kept track of.

These norms vary considerably in explicitness and
force. At one extreme are vague and informal
understandings, such as those governing the scrutiny of
others in public places and the degree to which it is
permissible to listen to, watch, and follow them. Such
understandings are rarely formulated as explicit rules. In
making the judgment that a person who follows us and
stares at us as we sit on a park bench “behaves badly” we
appeal not to set formulae but to direct reasoning about
what the most reasonable way would be to accommodate
the interests of people involved in situations of this type.
Other norms of privacy, however, take the form of quite
explicit social rules, e.g. rules against walking uninvited
into other people’s rooms, going through other people’s
drawers or suitcases, etc. Some of these rules come to be
expressed as laws (or perhaps have their origin in law),
such as the laws against tampering with people’s mail or
tapping their telephones.

In what follows I shall refer to these laws and
conventions as defining a “zone” or “territory.” Obviously
these terms cannot be understood merely in a spatial
sense. For one thing, as Thomson’s example of the
quarreling couple shows, whether a given observation or
attempt to observe intrudes into my zone may depend not
only on the locations of observer and observed but also on
the means used. Furthermore, in other cases there may be
no physical boundary involved at all. Consider, for
example, the conventional limitations on the questions it
is polite to ask in a social situation in which it would be
awkward for a person to refuse to answer, or the
restrictions, usually more explicit, on the questions which
an official may use his special authority to coerce people
into answering. In the latter case a right is involved, in the
former probably not, but in both cases we have a
conventional or legal boundary whose crossing invades
privacy.

The clearest cases of acts which are wrong because they
are invasions of privacy involve both a violation of some
norm of privacy and interference with one of the central
interests in not being seen, overheard, etc., which underlie
these norms. Both these elements are present, for
example, in the case described at the beginning of
Thomson’s article. When the police train their looking
and listening devices on Smith’s house they breach a
convention (probably a law) forbidding such observations
(I assume they lack special authority to do what they are
doing). They also interfere with Smith’s interest in being
able to assume that while he is in his house with the
shades drawn he is unobserved. Given that this is so, it is
false to say, as Thomson’s police do, that he has been let
alone. But in order to explain why a right of Smith’s has
been violated we needn’t invoke some general “right to be
let alone”; we have the fact that his conventionally
defined zone of privacy has been invaded. We are most
likely to say that such invasions violate rights when, as in
this case, the norm in question is a law, or at least an
explicit and serious social rule. (Perhaps we would also
say this when we think that the interest infringed is so
important that it ought to be protected by such a law or
rule even though it is not.) But where the norm breached
is only a relatively vague customary understanding, and
the interest in question is relatively trivial, we are more
likely to say with Thomson that the agent “behaved
badly” but that no right was infringed.

An act which transgresses a clear rule or law can be an
invasion of privacy (and sometimes a violation of a right)
even if no observation or overhearing actually results. If
you press personal questions on me in a situation in which
this is conventionally forbidden, I can always refuse to
answer. But the fact that no information is revealed does
not remove the violation, which remains just as does the
analogous violation when you peek through my bathroom
window but fail to see me because I have taken some
mildly inconvenient evasive action. The purpose of the
relevant conventions in both cases is to enable us to have

9 / Selected materials regarding privacy / Produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for pedagogical purposes

 

our privacy without these inconveniences. The interests to
which an account of privacy must refer thus include, in
addition to specific interests in not being seen, overheard,
etc., broader interests in having a zone of privacy in
which we can carry out our activities without the
necessity of being continually alert for possible observers,
listeners, etc. Social rules defining such a zone by
specifying when and where certain forms of observation
are ruled out are thus an obvious efficiency; they decrease
the need for watchfulness and restraint both on the part of
those who wish not to be observed and on the part of
those who want to respect these wishes. These rules are
conventional in one important sense: our zone of privacy
could be defined in many different ways; what matters
most is that some system of limits to observation should
be generally understood and observed.

I believe that this outline of a theory of privacy
provides a basis for handling many of Thomson’s
examples, e.g. that of the quarreling couple. It also
enables us to explain why ownership, while sometimes
relevant to questions of privacy, does not have the
importance Thomson claims for it. Suppose someone used
Thomson’s X-ray device to examine an object in my safe.
It seems to me clear that the right which is violated in
such a case does not depend on my owning the object
examined. Suppose it is your object which you have left
in my care; suppose that it is someone else’s which I have
picked up by mistake thinking it mine; suppose there is no
object in the safe at all, and the person looking just
wanted to see whether I had anything there or not. None
of these possibilities removes the wrongfulness of the
intrusion; there is a right which is violated in all these
cases, and it is my right whether or not the object is mine.
Now it may be said that ownership is still relevant here
because it matters that the safe is my safe. This is partly
right; our system of conventions is such that the fact that I
own the safe normally means that it is part of my zone of
privacy. (But not always. If I loan the safe to you and
while it is in your house someone uses a Thomson device
to look into it, it is likely that no right of mine will have
been violated.) What is crucial here is the conventional
boundary and not the fact of ownership itself. We could
have conventions in which ownership was even less
relevant than it is now. Suppose, for example, that each
person was assigned a plot in the common field to use as a
place to bury valuables. Then anyone who used a
Thomson device on my plot without my consent and
without special authority would violate a right of mine,
and would do so even if all he discovered was that I didn’t
have anything buried there. But I don’t own the plot. I
can’t sell it; I can’t build on it; perhaps I can’t even use it
for any other purpose. All that is crucial to the example is
that it is part of my conventional zone of privacy. Our
present conventions are not like this limiting case. For us,
ownership is relevant in determining the boundaries of
our zone of privacy, but its relevance is determined by

norms whose basis lies in our interest in privacy, not in
the notion of ownership.

A similar analysis applies to Thomson’s somewhat odd
subway-map case. Clearly, if I obscure the map on the
wall of the subway by holding my coat in front of it, then
no right of mine is violated if you use an X-ray device to
look through my coat to see how to get where you want to
go. The reason here is that I do not turn the wall of the
subway into “my territory” by putting my coat in front of
it. If, however, I steal the map and put it in my pocket or
in my briefcase, or if I wrap my coat around it and clutch
it on my lap, then it becomes much more plausible to say
that in using your device to look into my pocket or
briefcase or bundle you invade my privacy and perhaps
violate a right of mine. This is not to say that I have a
right to have the map or a right not to have you see it. Nor
is it to deny that you have a right to see the map, a right
which I am wrongfully interfering with. But this does not
entitle you (without special authority) to look into my
pocket, my briefcase, or my bundle. Nor, to carry things
one step further, would it entitle you, if I took the map
home with me, to use your device to look through the
walls of my house in order to discover the way to your
destination. The ownership of or the right to see and use
the object in question is not determinative here anymore
than in cases of simple theft. If I take your purse, that
does not entitle you to enter my house in order to recover
it or even, I would say, to use your device on my house in
order to see whether it is there. (But this last case is
harder, and I will return to it below.)

The claims made in the preceding paragraph represent
my judgments about what our current conventions are, or
perhaps in some cases what I think they should be. My
thesis is that these conventions take the form of a system
of prohibitions defining a zone of privacy immune from
specified interventions, and that rights of ownership over
objects do not play the primary role that Thomson assigns
to them. Nonetheless, some of the considerations that
Thomson discusses under the heading of “waiver” will
still be applicable under my view. Thus, if I invite
someone to cross a conventional boundary or “get him to
do so whether he wants to or not” then the result is not an
invasion of privacy. “Waiver” seems an appropriate
description for what happens in these cases, but not all of
the examples Thomson cites can be brought under this
heading. She is right in saying that if I do not take care to
close my windows or draw my shades, I then cannot
complain if I am heard or seen by passers-by. Nor can I
complain if an object of mine, which I do not want to be
seen, is viewed because I have inadvertently left it in a
public place. But in these cases it seems wrong to say, as
Thomson does, that I have waived a right — the right not
to be looked at or the right not to have my object looked
at. As far as I can see I have no such general rights to
begin with. I have an interest in not being looked at when
I wish not to be, and I may have a similar interest with
respect to certain objects. But rights directly

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corresponding to these interests would be too broad to
form part of a workable system. The rights we do have are
more limited, and what has happened in the examples just
considered is that I have failed to take advantage of these
rights: I have the right to close the windows of my house
and not be eavesdropped on, and if an object is mine then
I may have the right to put it into my safe or move it
behind some other conventional boundary.

I have mentioned above that our conventions of privacy
are motivated by our interests in being free from specific
offensive observations and, more generally, in having a
well-defined zone within which we need not be on the
alert against possible observations. Suppose I have
brought within my zone, e.g. into my house, some object
of yours which I had no right to have taken. If it were the
case that in looking into my house you would see only
this object and be blind to everything else, then the
judgment that it would be wrong for you to take such a
look into my house would be thrown into some doubt.
This is what happened in the last of the cases mentioned
two paragraphs back. It is important here that the second
supposition — that in looking into my house you would
see only your object, and nothing of my life, my
possessions, my guests, etc. — is wildly contrary to fact.
If things really were like that then your glancing into my
house would not disturb any of the (legitimate) interests
which motivate our conventions of privacy. Since
allowing you such a glance would advance another
interest — yours, in finding your lost property — it would
seem irrational not to allow this kind of investigative
peeking. If our conventions were so modified then
Thomson’s view would be more nearly correct in that a
lot would depend on ownership of the observed objects. It
seems to me that where Thomson’s view is most
persuasive a good deal of its persuasiveness derives from
the fact that in her examples we are invited to think of the
owned object (the subway map or the pornographic
picture) as the only thing that is observed, or at least as
the only thing whose observation is of concern to the
parties. But things are not generally like this. Since vision
is not selective in the way just supposed, looking into my
house does infringe my central interests in privacy.
Consequently, we have had to find a more complicated
way of reconciling these interests with our interest in the
recovery of stolen property, namely the system of search
warrants and so on. Of course there may be cases in
which a very superficial entry into my zone, e.g. picking
up my coat off the subway seat to look under it, can
reliably be foreseen to lead to your seeing, if anything at
all other than the seat, only something of yours which I
have wrongfully appropriated. In such a case something
like the contrary-to-fact situation described above may
seem to obtain, and Thomson’s view may begin to seem
plausible. But it would surely be wrong to infer from such
cases that in general ownership is central to privacy as we
now understand it.

I do not draw a sharp distinction, as Thomson does,
between those invasions of privacy that strike us as
violations of rights and those that strike us merely as “bad
behavior.” On the contrary, my account stresses the
continuity between these two kinds of invasions, and
treats rights violations merely as a limiting case. In this
way I am able to preserve a kind of unity in the theory of
privacy. An alternative approach might be motivated by
the idea that rights and interests are fundamentally
different things, and that rights claims must be either self-
evident or grounded in some further right. Perhaps it is
something like this which makes Thomson feel she is
faced with the alternatives of either appealing to some
fundamental “right to privacy” or else showing how what
appear to be rights of privacy actually derive from rights
of other kinds. At any rate, faced with this choice she opts
for the latter alternative and winds up with an account of
privacy that is made up of bits and pieces borrowed from
other domains.

This question of the unity of the theory of privacy is not
a purely theoretical issue. The foundations of privacy
become a matter of practical concern when we are faced
with open questions that are not resolved by our existing
conventions. Such questions may be posed, for example,
by the development of new technology, or by changes in
social habits or relative values which present new
conflicts or make our present conventions no longer seem
reasonable. We then need to decide how to extend our old
conventions to cover these new cases or whether to
change our conventions in the face of the new situation.
To make these decisions we need to know what we are
changing, what its justification is, and what the relevant
grounds are for judging alternatives. In such situations,
Thomson’s simplifying hypothesis that every privacy
right is really some other kind of right suggests, first, that
to settle questions about privacy we should consult these
other rights, e.g. to resolve unclarities about what our
rights to privacy are we should consider what the rights of
owners are. Beyond this, if we want to challenge existing
rights and consider possible changes, the suggestion
seems to be that questions about the basis and justification
of rights of privacy are to be answered by inquiry into the
foundations of these other rights.

It seems to me that the first of these suggestions is
unlikely to be very helpful. I doubt that much insight into
the problems raised by electronic surveillance or by
conflicts between considerations of privacy and the
requirements of a free press is to be gained by consulting
rights of ownership or even rights of the person in the
form in which Thomson presents them. How helpful the
second suggestion is will depend upon our account of
these other rights. If these rights were to turn out to be
truly other, i.e. if an account of the bases of rights in the
“ownership cluster” and the “rights-of-the-person cluster”
turned out not to involve the central interests with which
privacy is concerned, then one would not expect an
investigation of these bases to shed much light on

11 / Selected materials regarding privacy / Produced in this format, by Trip McCrossin, solely for pedagogical purposes

 

questions of privacy. It seems more likely, of course, that
rights of ownership and rights of the person as Thomson
understands them will turn out to be based in part on
those same interests which, I have contended, underlie
norms of privacy. In this case an inquiry following
Thomson’s path might end up at the same place I do, only
via a more circuitous route. But if this is so then her
“simplifying hypothesis” seems more to obscure than to
simplify the arguments with which we should be
concerned.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
* I am grateful to the members of the Society for Ethical and
Legal Philosophy for criticisms of the first draft of the following
paper. Alan Sparer made helpful criticisms of a later draft,
1 In “A Definition of Privacy,” Rutgers Law Review, I974, p.
281, Richard B. Parker writes:
The definition of privacy defended in this article is that privacy
is control over when and by whom the various parts of us can be
sensed by others. By “sensed,” is meant simply seen, heard,
touched, smelled, or tasted. By “parts of us,” is meant the parts
of our bodies, our voices, and the products of our bodies. “Parts
of us” also includes objects very closely associated with us. By
“closely associated” is meant primarily what is spatially
associated. The objects which are “parts of us” are objects we
usually keep with us or locked up in a place accessible only to
us.
The right to privacy, then, is presumably the right to this control.
But I find this puzzling, on a number of counts. First, why
control? If my neighbor invents an X-ray device which enables
him to look through walls, then I should imagine I thereby lose
control over who can look at me: going home and closing the
doors no longer suffices to prevent others from doing so. But my
right to privacy is not violated until my neighbor actually does
train the device on the wall of my house. It is the actual looking
that violates it, not the acquisition of power to look. Second,
there are other cases. Suppose a more efficient bugging device is
invented: instead of tapes, it produces neatly typed transcripts
(thereby eliminating the middlemen). One who reads those
transcripts does not hear you, but your right to privacy is
violated just as if he does.

On the other hand, this article is the first I have seen which may
be taken to imply (correctly, as I think) that there are such rights
as the right to not be looked at and the right to not be listened to.
And in any case, Professor Parker’s interest is legal rather than
moral: he is concerned to find a definition which will be useful
in legal contexts. (I am incompetent to estimate how successful
he is in doing this.)

I am grateful to Charles Fried for drawing my attention to this
article.
2 It was Warren and Brandeis, in their now classic article, “The
Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review, 1890, who first argued
that the law ought to recognize wrongs that are (they thought)
committed in cases such as these. For a superb discussion of this
article, see Harry Kalven, Jr., “Privacy in Tort Law — Were
Warren and Brandeis Wrong?” Law and Contemporary
Problems, Spring I966.
3 Example from Thomas Nagel.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
4 Example from Gilbert Harman.
5 Frederick Davis’ article, “What Do We Mean by ‘Right to
Privacy’?” South Dakota Law Review, Spring 1959, concludes,
in respect of tort law, that

If truly fundamental interests are accorded the protection
they deserve, no need to champion a right to privacy arises.
Invasion of privacy is, in reality, a complex of more
fundamental wrongs. Similarly, the individual’s interest in
privacy itself, however real, is derivative and a state better
vouchsafed by protecting more immediate rights [p. 20] ….
Indeed, one can logically argue that the concept of a right
to privacy was never required in the first place, and that its
whole history is an illustration of how well-meaning but
impatient academicians can upset the normal development
of the law by pushing it too hard [p. 230].

I am incompetent to assess this article’s claims about the law,
but I take the liberty of warmly recommending it to philosophers
who have an interest in looking further into the status and nature
of the right to privacy.

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