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DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-S047-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S047-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/privacy/v-1

4. Critiques of the public–private distinction

What some critics see as an abuse of the public–private system distinction, others see as a problem inherent in the distinction itself. Since everything is socially conditioned, there is no sphere that is wholly private – there is a public dimension to private affairs and vice versa. Moreover, the line that is drawn between public and private does not reflect a natural distinction but an ideological purpose. It mystifies inequalities in society by treating them as irrelevant to political equality. Marx, for example, saw the division between the private individual and the public citizen as part of the alienation of mankind under capitalism. The state was not the public bulwark against private oppression that liberal theorists supposed, but an agent of the ruling class.

Similar criticisms of laissez-faire capitalism were raised in the 1920s and 1930s by radical legal realists and others. The sphere of apparently free or private economic activity was dependent on legal rules created by the state, which thus structured and controlled power relations in society. Businessmen who called for an end to state regulation of the economy were inconsistent, because their own economic activity depended upon pro-business regulation.

The feminist critiques of the public–private distinction go further. Feminists point out that the public–private distinction is more than a distinction between the state and civil society, between the general interest and the particular interest, or between a person’s public life as a citizen and private life as a self-regarding individual. It is also a distinction between men and women, between the public world of business and industry and the private, domestic world of the family. This gender association of private with women and public with men has important consequences for the role and status of women as well as for the particular meanings given to privacy (see Feminist political philosophy §§1, 7).

The legal realist critique of laissez-faire applies with equal force to arguments against state intervention in the family. The state structures domestic life through its family law provisions, as well as less noticeably through its policies regarding rape, employment discrimination, taxes, welfare benefits and childcare policies. Moreover, the public world of affairs – commerce, industry and so forth – is not separate from and opposed to the domestic world of the family; rather the two are inextricably interrelated (Olsen 1983). Carole Pateman has argued forcefully that the ‘apparently impersonal, universal dichotomy between private and public’ obscures the ‘fact that patriarchalism is an essential, indeed constitutive, part of the theory and practice of liberalism’ (Pateman 1983: 286)

Although many or most feminists might be said to accept privacy as such in that they, like others, appreciate solitude and would not want every aspect of their lives exposed to general public view, feminist criticism of the public–private distinction is more than just an objection to where the distinction is traditionally drawn and how it is used. Feminists challenge the way the line is drawn, the manner in which each term – public and private – is defined, and the basic dichotomous nature of the public–private distinction.

One way of understanding the gendered nature of privacy in Western thought is to consider that women are more closely associated with privacy but men are more assertive to claim a private realm for themselves. Women are privacy; they do not have privacy. Men as a group consider their interactions with women private, but as a group they also freely intrude upon the solitude of women, whether through street harassment or more gentle forms of imposition. This is a specific case of the general relationship between privacy and hierarchy. The hierarchically superior has privacy; the inferior does not. In order to have privacy, the inferior would have to exclude the superior in a way that is unnecessary for the superior.

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Citing this article:
Olsen, Frances. Critiques of the public–private distinction. Privacy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S047-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/privacy/v-1/sections/critiques-of-the-public-private-distinction.
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