DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S047-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 16, 2018, from

1. Privacy as a social value

The origin of privacy is controversial. Some maintain that the public–private distinction originated with the Greeks and that ‘[s]uch delineations could not have been made in the theocracies of the ancient Near East because in such cultures god-as-ruler permeates everything and no notion of the private is possible’ (Wiltshire 1989: 8–9). Others argue that up to the middle of the sixteenth century ‘privacy…was neither possible nor desired’ (Stone 1977: 6), and that it first arose a few hundred years ago, as household size reduced and as houses began to be built with corridors and private spaces. Although it is unlikely that either of these assertions is fully correct, it also seems clear that different periods in history are likely to have had somewhat different concepts of privacy, just as different cultures today have different concepts.

Privacy is central to liberal thought – as a right the state guarantees to protect from interference by others or by the state itself. In Western democratic societies, privacy is generally seen as a state of being or a right enjoyed by an individual. Privacy is considered basic to a free and open society and crucial for individual development. It facilitates spontaneity and insulates the individual from social pressure to conform. It contributes to autonomy, creativity, the capacity to form human relationships and the development of personal responsibility. For this reason, liberal political philosophies – J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1859) is a prime example – nearly always seek to draw a line between that part of human behaviour which is private, and therefore not subject to legal or social control, and that part which is of public concern (see Law, limits of §4; Liberalism §§1–2).

Privacy is also extolled as essential to maintaining human relationships. Various collectivities, especially families, are sometimes said to require privacy or to be entitled to privacy. Unmarried heterosexual couples are often seen as deserving of a degree of privacy in order to be free to form a relationship. Lesbians, gay men and other sexual minorities have sought recognition of their relationships as alternative families entitled to privacy; sometimes this group-based approach has protected intimate relations more successfully than appeals to a notion of individual privacy.

Citing this article:
Olsen, Frances. Privacy as a social value. Privacy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S047-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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