Fundamentals of Privacy Theory P1: Four Westerns Philosophies on Public v. Private Life

The line between what information is considered public and what is considered private is constantly being redrawn.

By analyzing the philosophical perspectives behind the concept of private versus public, the advantages and setbacks, and the philosophers behind we begin to understand what is considered public and private domain and how these definitions to our live.

Philosophical Perspectives

By developing a comprehensive understanding of each of these views I will be able to demonstrate why I consider Mill’s concept of utilitarianism as the most applicable to society and thus the preferred theory for understanding privacy moving forward. The List ⬇️

  • a greater-good based utilitarian perspective
  • a natural rights-based philosophy
  • a deontologist-morality based philosophy
  • a communitarian perspective.


Positive Bias

| justice based on personal sense

| Adaptive over time

| marketplace of ideas

Negative Bias

| composed of individuals with heuristic desires

| underestimates the impact of a majority opinion’s impact

The Utilitarian: Under the philosophy of the utilitarian the role of government is to provide for the general welfare, and to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, good not always being defined as what makes people happy. The utilitarian view was fostered mainly by two main philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill.

“man is placed under two masters, pain and pleasure”

Jeremy Bentham

Bentham thought the only reason people serve others is to achieve happiness. Happiness or pleasure is quantitatively measured by utility. The utility principle is based on approval and disapproval of actions based off its tendency to bring about the most happiness for the greatest number of individuals, government, or private institution. According to Bentham the community grants individuals their rights; there are no natural rights, a similar concept to the communitarian philosophy. While to this point Bentham’s viewpoint closely resembles that of Aristotle’s view, of a life based off of achieving happiness and community dictated rights, Bentham begins to differ from the communitarian on the definition of society. He saw social groups as fictitious bodies composed of individuals with heuristic desires; Without social groups all sense of obligation and justice in his political theory, is based off of a personal sense utility.

My Bias: I find issue with certain aspects of his utilitarian perspective. Bentham’s perspective seems too basic to be applicable in modern society. His view of utilitarianism makes it hard to comprehend how the rights of all individuals can be upheld when all that seems to matter is the optimal utility for the greatest number, not for all. In addition Bentham struggles with a clear cut line for defining whether all pleasures are truly equal, and whether or not they should be indulged in, even if they may be morally wrong. These are all questions that can be answered and understood using Mill’s more nuanced utilitarianism.

The Utilitarian 2.0: J.S. Mill held to the traditional roots of the Bentham, but allowing there to be a sense of fluidity in the philosophical application. Mill’s conception of utility is one not simply based on the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, like Bentham, and it incorporates overall utility over time.

“The only purpose of which power can be exercised against a person is to prevent harm to others.”

J.S. Mill

The Marketplace of Ideas: Under Mill utility assesses the advantages and disadvantages of applying certain rules and can be adjusted for extreme cases. In relation to rules and their application Mill looks towards his harm principle as the ultimate guide which states, “The only purpose of which power can be exercised against a person is to prevent harm to others.” This differs from Aristotle’s who promoted the idea that government can regulate public spheres of ethical character the sphere, an individual’s actions affect on another, but not the private sphere which is self-regarding action. In addition, Mill justifies rights as being dictated by society based off of utility, not by god or by reason. For example, the right of freedom of speech; where John Locke would call it a natural god given right of all people, Mill would argue that the right of freedom of speech has a utility-based justification, and that no matter how popular or unpopular it is to have as a right, popularity is not an adequate basis for the suppression of that right. Mill believes that with utility-based rights nothing can be gained through suppression, if lies can be allowed to be expressed through freedom of speech, so can the truth. He believed that the truth will emerge in a struggle for supremacy between opposing points (marketplace of ideas).

In Mill’s opinion, individuality is needed to bring about the improvement of the human race. He sees humankinds progress in the exploration of our dynamic individuality. He associates an increase in our progressive nature with an increase in our overall utility. He argues that placing value on the individual allows for an alternative to any given view, which in turn prevents despotism of public opinion. Mill makes a strong correlation to progress and understanding of the different types of pleasures in life.

Rights-based Contractarian

Positive Bias

| at no time are the rights to self-ownership or property sacrificed

| limiting government power to that of a safeguard of our natural rights.

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Negative Bias

| hyper-individualism is chaotic and limits the intersectional advantages of globalized world

| no sense of contractual obligation

The Rights-based Contractarian: A perspective that associates rights as natural and god given; in the since that human nature is greater than any government or individual ruler. The forefathers of this empiricist philosophy are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes preface their philosophical perspectives with an understanding that the society they speak on is one that no longer exist, this being the “state of nature”.

The state of nature is an existence in which there is no government yet natural rights exist, with the purpose of protecting individuals for the community. Private property and ownership is seen as valuable and as an authentic part of life; the private realm is where the interest of individuals lie, the public life is designed to be that of a political community which with the intention of protecting and maintaining the private life. In the state of nature each person is expected to uphold the contracts and promises they make with other individuals. Unfortunately under Locke’s state of nature these promises and monetary agreements are only somewhat effective. While they are binding, there is no standard judgment of punishment for breaking these contracts which leads to an unequal distribution of punishment which at times can violate an individual’s nature rights.

Founding Contradiction: This is gravely different from Hobbes’s understanding of the state of nature. In his opinion the state of nature is “solitary” with no industry or culture, but worst of all no sense of contractual obligation. Under Hobbes’s state of nature promises are not binding and no one trust anyone, thus there are no societies.

While both Locke and Hobbes have different ideas on how the state of nature works, they both agree that the purpose of the social contract is to give political authority to the government through consent, while at the same time limiting government power to that of a safeguard of our natural rights. At times certain rights are consented to the authority of the government if it is done so with the intention of improving society, but at no time are the rights to self-ownership or property sacrificed.

My Bias: Social contractarianism works great in the theoretical world in which Locke and Hobbes depict, but the issue lie in the question, “why keep an agreement, whether it be with an individual or government?” The answer of course being the social value of establishing obligation to obedience, with that in mind, the authority does not seem be derived from a contract, but to a sense of obligation to one social utility. In reference to actual society it can be said that people do make contracts in which they are bound to, but they choose to obey these said contracts not because the contract exist, but because of the utility that it brings by remain obedient and trustworthy.

The Deontologist:

Positive Bias

| Intent over everything

| one has respect for the moral law they in turn have respect for the rights of man and preserving these rights.

Wanna discuss this over coffee?

Deontologist believes humans should never be used as MEANS but only as ENDS in themselves

Negative Bias

| social utility being the underlying reason for obedience

| happiness is not the drive, duty is

The Deontologist: When theorizing the realm of public & private, and authority Kant and Hume approach the solution differently from the contractalist. These two base their authority on a foundation of morality and duty above all else. Hume in particular believed that reason can tell us the consequence of acting in a certain way but not generate morality. That man does not act on reason. Hume’s opinions of the social contract and natural rights theory are that individuals confuse values to be in sync with fact, confusing natural law (normative) with fact (quantitative). Humes assumes, these two things are independent of one another, that we cannot assume that people will act on principle laws of logic. Hume sees reason as “the slave of the passions”, it does not dictate a way of action; with that understanding, values relate not to reason but to desire. Hume and Kant use morality to define natural rights theory.

How can we expect anyone to respect the authority of natural rights?

In understanding the basic for morality Kant believes that duty is the only thing that is good. According to Kant, achieving happiness is not part of man’s duty, thus it can’t be considered good. While duty is the basic for achieving that which is good, equally important is the reason of acting dutifully. If one does there “duty” based off of selfish desire or fear this is not considered moral, voiding it completely. Whereas acting on doing something for the sake of the moral law is based off a maxim principle, out of a sense of reverence and respect for moral law. If one has respect for the moral law they in turn have respect for the rights of man and preserving these rights.

Intent over Everything: Kant’s rule of defining moral principle is that of the categorical imperative, that being that every action must be done as part of the universal moral duty regardless of the condition or category, for the consequence is not what is important duty (intent) is.

One example used by Kant is the act of a false promise, because individuals only use false promises towards another as a means to achieve another goal. By lying they turn a person in a tool to be used for selfish ends. This is immoral. Kant, along with Hume, are closely associated with Locke in the sense that they are social contractianalist; yet with Kant the contract is more of a hypothetical idea for judging the adequacy of law. Kant’s principle for judging law is that law works in the framework that it is agreeable by all people, universally considered a moral law. It does not have to advance ones material happiness but it must preserve their rights.

My Bias: Kant’s framework has the same underlying issue of keeping a promise so not to undermine the usefulness of a social institution. Once again it seems that it relates back this idea of social utility being the underlying reason for obedience, in that, to uphold the societal structure we must be obedient because upholding the structure brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. Even though under Kant happiness is not the drive, duty is, duty and utility seem to be understood as the synonyms for one another in this case.

The Communitarian

Positive Bias

| see the public realm as more important than the private

| goal of life is to achieve happiness by satisfying humankind’s natural capacities for reason

| believes in collective decision making of society

Negative Bias

| citizens live in echo chambers and media bubbles

| authority not based on a concept of adaptability

| a house of cards

The Communitarian: Aristotle and his communitarian contemporaries work under the idea that happiness is the drive of life. The communitarians see the public realm as more important than the private, viewing the social nature of humankind and acting upon it as essential, even at the expense of others personal rights.

According to Aristotle the good of people is achieved through world experience, where the goal of life is to achieve happiness by satisfying humankind’s natural capacities for reason. Virtue is viewed as a matter of the soul and its disposition to perform certain actions relative to others. People are “political animals” (Aristotle) and can only satisfy their natural capacities in a city-state. His view, that social interaction is essential the best form of government is a democratic self-government that allows for citizens to be free and equal (to be virtuous and wealthy), and in their freedom they are able to aim for an ethical life guided by government (develop reason and justice). Unlike previously mentioned philosophical perspectives it is the “state’s” duty to make society virtuous. This is done with idea that people collectively have a greater capacity to make better decisions that the individual (the idea of collective wisdom). Aristotle defines freedom as a life independent of necessity: a life of pleasure, politics, and contemplation; political freedom being the ability to participate in the collective decision making of society.

The Communitarians 2.0: Aristotle’s contemporaries like Arendt view political action similarly to Aristotle, defining it as discussion and persuasion in political debate. Arendt, being a communitarian, holds the public realm above all else. Arendt views the ancient private realm of the household as a life deprived of the highest capacities of man, that being political speech and debate; the private realm in Arendt’s opinion, is primarily for biological preservation and survival. This contrasts her modern interpretation of privacy. This being that modern privacy is a sphere of intimacy and is comprised of intangible things like feelings, thoughts, and passions; intimacy is created by sharing these things in private.

Jurgen Habermas places even more emphasize on the public sphere than Arendt, defining the public domain as an arena of non-governmental opinion regarding public action. In this realm citizens confer in public fashion about matters of general interest, using media (traditional, social, snd hybrid) as the mediums in which they communicate through.

The communitarian in summary uses the public sphere to form public opinion on all law and regulation between society and the state. Since the “state” is made up of the people, democratic control is driven by the “the people” and they agree on the desired laws and rights. Through debate and discussion and the use of reason decisions made by private citizens.

My Bias: The concern with communitarianism is the fear of conformism, citizens living in echo chambers and media bubbles. If all that is important exist in the public realm people do as the public does and do not develop a strong sense of self. A “group thought” mentality can take over society, which leads to the “tyranny of society” (Mill). With the voice of the group and group “happiness” being the goal, truth can be lost if it is not acceptable to the public. Once the masses dictate what is just, rights are lost. Once this occurs authority is no longer based off of reason, natural right, or social utility. Authority not based on a concept of adaptable social utility eventually leads to a collapse of not only the system that define public and private, but the collapse the functional societal structure.

My Pick: Each philosophical concept offers an interesting solution to the issue of defining the private and public domain. Yet only the nuanced utilitarian perspective of J.S. Mill offers a philosophy that is not only accessible but flexible to a modern society influx.

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