I wrote this damn fine essay on why protecting your privacy doesn’t require dishonesty back in 2002 for an email list. I recently dug it up to include in the Philosophy in Action Newsletter, and I was so impressed with it that I thought I should blog it! So… here you are!
[Person X] wondered how to overcome the presumption of guilt that naturally emerges with “none of your business” responses to privacy-invading questions. For example, imagine that Lucy’s friend and co-worker asks her whether she is sleeping with the new boss. If Lucy has been willing to answer questions about her lovers in the past, then refusing to answer the question this time is in itself revealing. Replying “none of your business,” in such cases, will not protect privacy. In other words, there is no right against self-incrimination in everyday life, for refusal to answer is generally (and often reasonably) considered positive evidence of guilt.
In isolation, these sorts of examples certainly do give the impression that dishonesty is often necessary to protect privacy. But there is no need to choose between honesty and privacy if we take a long-term, full-context approach to these apparent dilemmas. First and foremost, the majority of these examples are compelling only because the individual has done little or nothing in the past to protect privacy — in which case, privacy is not likely the real value at stake.
Looking back at Lucy’s dilemma, she was perfectly willing to reveal information about her love life to this friend and co-worker in the past, so her problem is not in revealing private information in answering honestly. Rather, her problem is that an honest answer might reveal her wrongdoing of an inappropriate relationship with the boss. So for Lucy, like in so many of these alleged dilemmas, the goal a lie would not be the preservation of privacy but rather the concealment of wrongdoing. Lies to conceal wrongdoing have rather pernicious effects upon moral character, as I discussed in my paper False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth.
Of course, people do face legitimate dilemmas about how to effectively protect privacy without lying. For example: Parents of multiples are often queried by total strangers as to how their children were conceived. Neighbors might ask how much you paid for your house or how much you make. Relatives might press an infertile couple about when they are doing to have children. Co-workers might ask what the boss said to you in your yearly evaluation meeting. A competitor in business might inquire as to the status of a client’s account. And so on. Such situations do not require dishonesty in order to protect privacy. Rather, they require a bit of forethought and some simple skills of etiquette.
First, we need to invest a bit of thought into what information we wish to keep private from whom. And then we need to consistently refuse to answer questions we consider to be invasive, whatever our answer would be. So if Lucy genuinely wanted to keep her love life private, she ought to have refused to answer any questions about the identity of her lovers, rather than trying only to weasel out the unpleasant question about the boss. In other words, we need to create and enforce our own zones of privacy. We need to take responsibility for our privacy preferences before we get stuck on the horns of a privacy-honesty dilemma.
Second, we need to cultivate the etiquette skills of deflecting inappropriate and invasive questions. After all, there are many more ways of refusing to answer a question than simply saying “None of your business.” We might just casually say “Oh, I don’t answer questions about that” or perhaps exclaim in shock “Oh dear! That’s private!” or jokingly reply “Now why would I tell you that?!?” In egregious cases of strangers asking personal questions, glaring and walking away is a good option.
In her excellent book The Right Thing to Say, Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) discusses a wide variety of methods of deflecting inappropriate questions. These are skills of etiquette that no person should be without. Interestingly enough, we can quickly develop these skills of deflection into easy habits by fully committing to honesty, but we lose that opportunity if we allow ourselves to slide into lies when the going gets rough.
So we can protect our privacy without sacrificing our honesty. Additionally, by being honest, we avoid all the usual risks of lying: the slippery slope of lies, the distractions of creating and maintaining lies, and the risk of damaging trust in our relationships and reputation within the community. Those risks are substantial.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the way in which openly refusing to answer privacy-invading questions serves an important positive function in our relationships. In our relationships, we communicate in a background way all the time through what we choose to reveal to and conceal from the other person. For example, a woman might be willing to tell co-workers that her dog died, but be unwilling to discuss the painful details or the emotional upheaval. By revealing some information and concealing other information, she is implicitly communicating that her relationships with her co-workers are moderately intimate.
So when someone asks a privacy-invading question, honestly refusing to answer implicitly communicates “Hey wait, the relationship isn’t that close!” Lying, of course, provides no such information. So speaking abstractly, honesty about private matters is an important means of indirect communication about the intimacy of a relationship. Speaking practically, if we don’t want people to ask privacy-invading questions, then we need to let them know what constitutes an invasion of privacy for us. Again, we do this by honestly refusing to answer invasive questions, not by lying. So we can dramatically reduce the frequency of these apparent privacy versus honesty dilemmas by honestly communicating and upholding our preferences for privacy.
In short, adopting a policy of lying to protect privacy can too easily turn into vicious circle, where a person doesn’t have a clear understanding of his preferences for privacy, doesn’t have the skills to effectively and benevolently deflect questions, and doesn’t communicate his preferences to privacy to others. That’s not a good situation for anyone to be in.
Speaking more personally, I wouldn’t jump down a person’s throat for lying to protect legitimate privacy. But I would recommend that the person reflect in a deep way upon the situation to see if honest alternatives were available. If so, then the next step is to train the brain to serve up those honesty alternatives before the dishonest ones, particularly when time is tight. I have yet to find a genuine, irresolvable privacy versus honesty dilemma.