Monday, December 15, 2008

Need to Know

As a normal adult (you’ll have to take my word for it), I have a right to privacy—at least that is what many people believe. I’m not talking about a legal right (though I have that, too). Rather, I’m talking about a moral right, say, the kind of thing that makes it wrong for a guest in your home to sneak a peak in your diary / medicine cabinet / dungeon, etc.

While I have this right to privacy, I was not born with it. It seems silly to talk about a newborn’s right to privacy. So when did I get it? And why? More generally, at what age do children acquire a right to privacy? In particular, I am interested in the child’s right to privacy against his parents.

I am led to these thoughts by an incident a few months back, when #2, barely three years old, insisted on closing the door while using the toilet. The boy gets credit for good manners, but I wanted to know why. “I want privacy!” he said. This is lingo he picked up from his older brother, of course. But is he entitled to privacy? Is his five year old brother?

Yes, says the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to the U.N., “child” means any human “below the age of eighteen years.” The privacy of such children is protected by Article 16 of this Convention, which states that “No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.” And furthermore, “The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Can we look to this quasi-legal document for moral guidance on the question of a child's right to privacy against his parents? No, because this document is about “arbitrary” interference with a child’s privacy. A right to privacy is partial at best if it only protects someone against arbitrary interference. What about non-arbitrary interference? That is usually the kind of privacy at stake within the family. If I end up violating my children’s rights to privacy, it won’t be arbitrary. To the contrary, it will be because I have their best interests in mind, and I’m concerned about their capacity for looking out for those interests.

It might be helpful to say a bit more about what a right to privacy is. This is not very easy to do, but for a start we can say that if someone has a right to privacy, she has a right to be free from the coerced or involuntary disclosure of certain facts about herself (coerced = “tell me or else,” or general threatening environment; involuntary = spying, searching). Ultimately we would need to specify at least two things. First, which facts? And second, against whom is this right to privacy? Because answers to the second question may vary with answers to the first, it may make more sense to speak of a person’s rights to privacy.

Note that a person’s right to privacy can be violated even if she is not thereby harmed by the violation. Even though some violations of privacy can lead to harm, they needn’t, and it is worthwhile keeping "privacy violation" and "harm" distinct. Acts that constitute privacy violations that are also harmful can be objected to on grounds of harmfulness. Since even newborns have certain rights not to be harmed, even they are protected from such privacy violations. But this is not the same thing as saying that the newborns have a right to privacy.

As I said, I’m interested in the privacy rights children have against their parents. I’ve also said that newborns don’t have rights to privacy. Why? It is not because they can’t assert their right, or complain when it is violated. Rather, it is because they cannot take care of themselves in any way. Because they cannot take care of themselves, they have no right to keep information about themselves to themselves.

As children grow up, they come to be able to take care of themselves, in two important ways. First, they come to understand what it means to take care of themselves. In the jargon, they come to have a conception of the good. Second, they get better at managing themselves and the world, such that they think and act successfully in realizing their conception of the good.

As children are better able to take care of themselves, parents are relieved of some specific duties towards their children. (I don’t have to literally put food in #1’s mouth, for example; he is just fine at doing it himself.) As parents are relieved of these duties, they no longer need the information required to perform these duties. Since they wouldn’t be failing in their duties if they lacked this information, to obtain such information from their children coercively or involuntarily would be to violate their right to privacy.

So here is a proposal for an account of the moral right of privacy children have against their parents. It comes in the form of a necessary condition of a privacy right. To make things “easier” to read, I’ll use some abbreviations:

C = child

R = right to privacy

P = parent

F = some fact about C

Let’s call it the “Need to Know” account:

A necessary condition of C having R against P in respect to F is that the successful execution of P’s duties in respect to C do not require that P knows F.

One reason this works is that we have a good sense of what P’s duties in respect to C are. A full version of the Need to Know account would need to spell those out, along with an account of what it means for a child to sufficiently "take care of himself."

Additionally, there may be other necessary conditions of a right to privacy besides Need to Know.

Is the Need to Know account generalizable as a necessary condition of the right to privacy outside the parent-child relationship? Comments, counterexamples, etc., welcome.


Anonymous said...

Makes me think that it's the teenage years when disputes arise about what exactly "P’s duties in respect to C" are.

Philosophy Dad said...

I'm sure you are right, Rob!

"Need to Know" cashes out a child's privacy right in terms of parental duties. The idea is that we generally have a better sense of what a parent's duties are towards his or her child than we have of what constitutes a wrongful invasion of a child's privacy. So if we can explain the latter in terms of the former we'll have made some progress. So while there will be disagreement over "P's duties in respect to C," at the very least we will have come to realize how different norms regarding the parent-child relationship fit together, and have a framework for discussing a child's right to privacy.