As I was getting ready to teach my Critical Inquiry class, I heard a woman outside the classroom carrying on a wicked fight over her mobile phone. I won’t go into the details, but she was “discussing” the various misdeeds of her (presumably now ex) boyfriend. On another occasion, I was walking to my truck and I had to cross by a screaming couple. Again, I’ll leave out the details but suffice it to say that he seemed rather concerned about the other men sleeping with her. Most recently, I heard about Penelope Trunk tweeting about her miscarriage. These incidents all caused me to think “hey, you have a right to privacy…think about using it.” This got me thinking about whether a person can violate her own right to privacy (assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that there is such a right).
On the face of it, it would seem that a person cannot violate her own right to privacy. A privacy violation would seem to require that someone acquire information that they do not legitimate have a right to know and they do so without the consent of the person. For example, someone stealing another person’s diary and reading about their secret hopes and fears would be a privacy violation. When a person knowingly reveals information about herself (such as by being very loud in public, posting it on a public blog or twittering it), then that person has obviously given consent to herself.
However, I think that a case can be made for the claim that a person can violate her own right to privacy. The first step in doing this is arguing that a person can (in general) violate her own rights. To do this, I will draw an analogy to suicide. One reason to think suicide is wrong is that it violates a person’s right to life. Obviously, suicide harms (kills) a person and it seems reasonable to regard this as generally being wrong. To be fair, people do argue that consent to death somehow makes the action morally acceptable but this seems to clearly be a point that can be argued. Returning to the main point, if suicide is a violation of a person’s right to life, then a person can violate her own rights.
Now, if the suicide analogy is found to be lacking, consider a second analogy involving the right to liberty. It seems quite reasonable to believe that a person who consents to slavery would be violating his own right to liberty. After all, if Locke is right, no one can rightly consent to being owned by another (although he does allow for slavery as an alternative to death). If this line of reasoning is plausible, the same would seem to hold for the right to privacy.
The second step in making my case is establishing that there are some things that should remain private, even if a person wants to make them public. This is rather challenging-after all, most people probably believe that people should be generally free to reveal their secrets even if doing so would be rather harmful to them. In fact, many reality TV shows and tell-all books rely on this view. However, it seems reasonable to believe that there is a category of things that should remain private and should not be revealed to others, even by the person whose privacy is at stake. To argue for this, I’ll appeal to the arguments for privacy and claim that these same arguments should also apply to the person in question. After all, if certain things should not be revealed by others, it seems reasonable to think that there are at least some things that should not be revealed by anyone. That is, that there are things that should be regarded as inherently private and not shared with the public.
If both of these steps work, then a person could violate her own right to privacy by making public what should be kept private.
I freely admit that my case for this is rather weak and that there are strong intuitions that folks have the right to reveal whatever they wish about themselves (naturally things change when the privacy of other people is involved as well). However, it is not unreasonable to think that people can thus violate their own right to privacy by revealing what should not be public. In any case, I look forward to comments that expose the errors in my line of reasoning.
If my previous line of reasoning is faulty, I have second approach that I believe can produce a similar result. The idea is that while people have a right to privacy, people also have a right to sort of a reverse privacy. To be clearer, I mean that people have a right not to hear about certain things from other people. So, while someone might not violate her own right to privacy by twittering or yelling about private matters in public, such actions could be seen as violating the right of others not to be exposed to such things. My reason for this is that I think it is wrong for people to inflict their private matters onto the public without the consent of the public. When I am getting ready for class or walking to my truck, I think I have the right not to hear about the sexual activities of strangers. That is, I think I have a right to not have other folks private matters forcible entering my life.
Twitter, blogs and such are a quite a different matter. In these cases, people knowingly expose themselves to mediums that are often used to reveal private matters to the public and, of course, people can easily avoid those known to deal in such content.
In the specific case of Twitter, people need to intentionally expose themselves to tweets. Since Twitter is well known for folks spilling private matters, people have no expectation that they will not be exposed to such things (this can be seen as a twist on the idea that there are situations in which people have no expectation of privacy). This is why I am not participating in Twitter. As I see it, Twitter is an unholy blend of narcissism and voyeurism that I would rather not invite into my life. But I do appreciate the fact that it does sometimes provide me with things to blog about.