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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology

Book Review: Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology, Ferdinand D. Schoeman, ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 426 pages

No one editing a book of essays in 1984 could know its meaning for future readers, but if Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy does one thing, it illustrates how narrow and crabbed current privacy debates are. This collection of essays looks at the whole sweep of "privacy" as a concept, as a legal construct, and as an instrument people use to define themselves. There is no bleating about telemarketers to be found.

Privacy is a big, difficult concept. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to take it seriously. Editor Ferdinand Schoeman, then at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, Department of Philosophy, takes the reader through a series of essays that he roughly categorizes as attempts to define privacy, discussions of the centrality of privacy to morality, and expressions of moral skepticism about the value of privacy.

Several of the better-known foundational writings on privacy are here: the 1890 Warren and Brandeis article in the Harvard Law Review, Dean Prosser's assessment of the privacy torts in 1960, and the best chapter from Alan Westin's Privacy and Freedom.

But there are other, equally important gems: In an essay called Social Distance and the Veil, anthropologist Robert Murphy assesses the unique facial veiling practices of the Taureg tribe in northern Africa. Relied on by Westin, Murphy's work with a culture alien to our own quickly helps distill privacy as a social practice created by various social practices. Those who treat privacy too subjectively ("I know it when I see it") would benefit most from this essay.

One of the best moral defenses is Charles Fried's essay establishing privacy's role in human development of love, trust, and friendship. Richard Posner's An Economic Theory of Privacy takes a purposefully jaundiced view of privacy claims and weakens its analysis in the process, but it still provides extremely useful perspective and ways of thinking about privacy.

This is a book of philosophy essays. Reading it is no walk in the park. But Schoeman has provided enough relevant writings to allow the reader an understanding of the conversation being carried on among these occassionally windy scholars.

Twenty years later, Philosophical Dimensions on Privacy is reassuring. Just as when the book came out, there are difficult challenges to privacy today. The fact that we survived the threats of the past gives us hope for the future.

And the book allows the thoughtful reader to realize that privacy is bigger than the realistic threats that face us. Though constantly threatened, the freedom to use social tools like privacy in constituting ourselves and the freedom to enjoy privacy for its own sake are marching forward, in historical terms, and not in retreat, as widely believed.


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[updated 01/04/05]

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