Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Moral Dimension of Privacy

A conversation with a friend the other evening left me thinking about the difference between privacy and secrecy. In particular it left me ruminating over the silent burden of guilt that some people carry around with them when keeping secrets from friends and family.

Aside from the secrets we keep from loved ones about gifts and surprises, secrecy almost always brings with it an implicit assumption of deceit, of something concealed, illicit or hidden from view in order to maintain or gain power, influence or social standing. Whilst other people’s secrets are invariably regarded with distrust, privacy is regarded as an inalienable right of all. Both are things that we’d prefer to keep to ourselves (or at most a limited entourage of close acquaintances) but only secrecy brings with it a moral dimension, in fact, secrecy can be thought of as the moral face of privacy, a sub-classification of it, tinged with moral responsibility. But what constitutes this moral dimension? And, since these are conceptual abstractions formed and informed by social mores, what might be the purpose of such a distinction?

Morality, social taboos and religions in particular perpetuate the distinction between the secret and the private. How better to police the mind and actions of others than by compelling them to preside over their own thoughts and to determine if any particular action, memory or impulse should be categorized as either private or secret? It would seem to be this very tendency to categorize our thoughts according to differing moral standards that may, on occasion, lead to feelings of guilt and responsibility. Morals, of course, are a construct of social consensus, but they are rarely, if ever, universally shared across a culture.

If you have done something that is deemed as lawful by society as a whole but which is felt by some subgroup to be immoral - a sin even - then from their perspective it would be true to say that you are keeping a secret. But in actuality it is only a secret if you subscribe to their moral stance. Otherwise it is simply a matter of privacy, and what is private is nobodies business but your own and certainly no reason for either shame or guilt.


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