The recent media frenzy over the Tiger Woods‘ affair(s) raises numerous issues of philosophical concern. The one that I will focus on is the matter of the extent of our right to know about what goes on in the lives of others.
One way to approach the question of the extent of this right is to borrow from the approach taken by John Stuart Mill in regards to liberty. Simplifying things, Mill took the view others have the right to interfere with the liberty of others in order to prevent harm. Beyond this, people lack the right to interfere with the liberty of others.
It can be argued by analogy that the same sort of principle can be applied to what people have a right to know about others. To be specific, a person has the right to know something about another person if not knowing this would be harmful to the person. For example, a person has a right to know if the babysitter she is considering hiring is a pedophile or not. Of course, working out an adequate account of harm would require considerable work and goes far beyond the scope of this blog.
In the Tiger Woods case it is obvious that this sort of principle would not provide the public with a right to know what is going on in his life. This is because what he did or did not do does not harm the public, although people obviously find it of great interest. It would, of course, provide his wife and the other people involved with such a right.
This principle does, however, give people a right to know quite a bit about what occurs in the lives of elected officials. This is because their deeds and misdeeds do have the potential to cause harm to the public. Of course, even politicians do still have some areas of privacy in which the public has no right to know-namely those aspects which cannot harm the public. Obviously, mapping out these zones would be a matter of considerable work and would no doubt vary from person to person.
While the principle of harm does seem to be a reasonable basis for such a right, it might seem to be rather limited. After all, intuitively it would seem that people have a right to know things even when these things are not a matter of harm.
Another possible foundation for such a right is that people can give such a right to others. For example, when someone intentionally and knowingly provides another person with access to information then they have provided that person with the right to know. For example, if someone posts pictures of her drunken adventures on Facebook and has allowed her friends to view her photos, then she has granted them the right to know about said drunken adventures. As another example, a person can provide others with such a right because of their profession or the relationship they establish with that person.For example, if someone hires a lawyer, then that person gains a right to know about facts relevant to this professional relationship. As another example, when people enter into a relationship, then specific sorts of relationships provide a right to know. As a specific example, when two people are dating then they would seem to have a right to know certain things about each other that go beyond those that might be a cause of harm.
In the case of Tiger Woods his being a golf professional clearly does not grant people the right to know about his private life. However, Tiger Woods went beyond being a gold professional and became a professional endorser of products ranging from razor blades to cars. In one commercial, the public was even invited in to see him reading a bedtime story to his child. As such, he was clearly establishing a relationship with the public that went beyond being a just a guy who swings a club.
In such a role he crafted a reputation and image in the course of establishing a relationship with the public. The idea was, of course, that the public should trust his endorsements because he presented himself as the sort of person who could be trusted. After all, such endorsements presume the establishment of trust. While getting such endorsements depended on him being a great golfer, they also depended on him having a good reputation and a certain sort of image. As such, the image presented is a critical part of the relationship as well.
By entering into such a relationship based on trust Woods thus gave the public a right to know about what lies behind that carefully crafted image. After all, he was using his image and reputation to sell products and the public would thus have a right to know whether the image and reputation were legitimate or not.
As such, when he allegedly engaged in behavior that seems to directly contradict that crafted image, then the public had a right to know whether the claims against him are true or not.
This does not just apply to Tiger Woods but also to celebrities who build comparable relationships with the public. If they expect to be able to present a crafted image to the public in order to sell products (or ideas) then they have to expect that the public gains a right to peer behind the mask so as to see what is really back there.