Front Page Titles (by Subject) Is Privacy an Absolute Right? - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Is Privacy an Absolute Right? - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Is Privacy an Absolute Right?
“Privacy and the Right to Privacy.” Philosophy 55(January 1980):17–38.
Is the cherished right of privacy justly prized and, if so, why and when? Prof. McCloskey is concerned with the nature of privacy and with its legitimate domain. He also asks whether there is actually a “right” to the state of privacy, and, if there is, whether it ranks as an absolute right or a conditional one.
McCloskey believes that a clear concept of privacy requires a stipulative definition. Yet even without this, we can achieve greater clarity by distinguishing privacy from notions which have often been confused with it. He thus scrutinizes ten attempts at defining the term: “Privacy means being left alone;” “Privacy relates to the inviolate individuality of each person,” etc. In each of these positions, McCloskey identifies substantial elements, as well as imprecisions and illogicalities. None of them succeeds in explaining privacy as an entity unto itself, and the author himself declines the task of providing a comprehensive definition of the term. He does assert, however, that any such definition must be essentially negative, since “privacy” denotes “the absence of something.”
Turning his attention to the grounds for the right to privacy, the author examines the gamut of justifications which have been offered on its behalf: on the basis of utility, as a basic psychological need, as essential for freedom, as required by respect for persons, etc. He concludes that privacy is morally obligatory only when it helps secure other more basic rights (life, liberty, justice, etc.).
Privacy is thus a derivative right, originating in a concern for other values and rights. As a conditional right, it must be overridden when it conflicts those more essential goods. Privacy, for example, must not interfere with the free access to information, which is a fundamental right in a free society. McCloskey feels that legal support for the right to privacy must be pursued with the greatest caution, so as not to harm primary social values.