PHIL 2120: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday November 22, 2010


[10.5.] Privacy.


The word “privacy” has at least two different senses:


  1. solitude: being left alone in “a personal zone of solitude” (133 / 141)
  2. informational-privacy: controlling information about oneself


Each sense is relevant to employment. Of the cases described at the beginning of ch.6 (114 / not in 4th ed.), the second, third, fourth and fifth seem to involve “solitude” privacy, while all of those plus the sixth seem to involve informational privacy. So some cases of alleged infringement of employee rights involve both types of privacy.


The next two sections of notes deal primarily with informational privacy; the final section deals with both types of privacy.



[10.5.1.] Parent’s Account of Informational Privacy.


According to William Parent[1], informational privacy is “the condition of not having undocumented personal knowledge about one possessed by others.[2]


To understand this, we need to examine what Parent means by “personal knowledge” and “undocumented.”


personal knowledge


This is knowledge of personal information, facts about a person which most individuals in a given society at a given time do not want widely known about themselves.”[3]


[Once this definition is on the table, ask them for examples.]


Examples of what counts as personal information in contemporary America include facts about

·         one’s sex life;

·         one’s drinking and drug habits;

·         one’s income;

·         whether one’s marriage is happy; and

·         whether one is physically or mentally unhealthy.


Parent also includes facts which most people don’t care about keeping private but some individuals do: e.g., some individuals are extremely sensitive about height or weight. For individuals who care about keeping this information private, that information will count as personal information.


Whether a given type of information counts as personal is relative to time and place. In other societies, or at other times, the types of information listed above might not count as personal, and other information might count as personal. In a society in which one’s income is a normal subject of everyday conversation, facts about what a person earns would not count as personal information.




·         Parent notes that some personal information may be contained in the public record, for example...

·         an arrest record may reveal someone’s drug use;

·         a sex offender registry, such as Georgia’s, can reveal that one has committed crimes of a sexual nature.[4]

·         Such information is documented personal information, and so it is not included in Parent’s definition of privacy. In other words, if someone possesses documented personal information about me, but I don’t know it, this does not count as a violation of my privacy, according to Parent’s definition.

·         Undocumented personal information is personal information that is not contained in any public record.


It is central to Parent’s view that a violation of your privacy is not necessarily a violation of your moral right to privacy:

·         The moral right to privacy is NOT the right never to have one’s privacy violated.

·         Instead, it is the right never to have one’s privacy wrongly violated, i.e., violated without a legitimate reason.[5]


So it is possible for someone to violate your privacy without violating your right to privacy. Someone’s coming to possess undocumented personal knowledge about you is a violation of your privacy, but it violates your right to privacy only if some further condition is met.


So what is that further condition? Another philosopher answers that question for us…



[10.5.2.] Brenkert on the Violation of Informational Privacy Rights.


As described by DesJardins, George Brenkert has given the following triadic account of the violation of (informational) privacy rights:[6]


…the informational sense of privacy involves a relationship between two parties, A and B, and personal information X about A. [A’s right to p]rivacy is violated only when B comes to know X and no relationship exists between A and B that would justify B knowing X. Thus, whether my [right to] privacy is violated or not by a disclosure of personal information depends on my relationship with the person or persons who come to know that information. (133 / 142)


For example, the relationship between you and a bank to which you have applied for a car loan justifies the bank in deliberately coming to possess certain personal financial information about you (your income, your credit rating, etc.) That sort of financial information is of central relevance to your relationship with the bank, and this justifies the bank’s loan officer in seeking out that information about you. (On Parent’s analysis, this would be a violation of your privacy, but not of your right to privacy.)


On the other hand, the relationship between you and your ethics professor, or you and your dentist, does not justify this. Neither your professor nor your dentist needs to know your income or your credit rating in order to fulfill the function for which you have established a relationship with him. In other words, that information is irrelevant to your relationship with your professor or dentist. So neither of them would be justified in seeking out that information. To do so would be (on Parent’s analysis) a violation, not just of your privacy, but also of your right to privacy.


The distinction between violation of privacy and violation of the right to privacy is very important, since a violation of one’s privacy is immoral only when it constitutes a violation of one’s right to privacy.

·         Parent’s definition of privacy gives us an explanation of when A’s privacy is violated, viz. when someone else knows undocumented personal information about A.

·         Brenkert is explaining what further condition has to be met in order for A’s right to privacy to be violated: B deliberately comes to know personal information about A when the relationship between A and B does not justify B doing this.



[10.5.3.] DesJardins on Privacy and Employment.


Suppose your employer requires that you not behave in a certain way when you are not at work, e.g., he requires that you stop smoking, or that you not have an abortion. [See the second and third cases on p.114] These examples involve solitude, being left alone in a personal space of decision-making.


Or suppose that a prospective employer requires you to divulge personal information on a pre-employment psychological test, e.g., information about your religious beliefs or your sexual orientation. [See the sixth case on p.114.] These examples involve informational privacy.


According to DesJardins, whether these requirements count as violations of your right to privacy depends on the nature of the relationship between you and the employer (or, in the case of someone who has applied for a job, the prospective employer).


He considers and immediately dismisses two different “models” of the employer/employee relationship:


  1. the employment-at-will (EAW) model: if this model were accurate, then an employer could require as a condition of employment that an employee divulge any personal information about himself whatsoever, and it would not count as a violation of that employee’s privacy rights.


  1. the family model: if employees and employer functioned like a family, “closely bound in a joint project of mutual support and loyalty ... then privacy might also be less important.” (134 / 143)


But DesJardins rejects the EAW and family models and instead assumes the following “model” of the employer/employee relationship:


  1. the contractual model: i.e., a relationship in which “the conditions and terms of employment are subject to the mutual and informed consent of both parties…” (134 / 143)


On this view, an employee’s right to solitude is violated when “employers infringe upon personal decisions that are irrelevant to the employment contract (implied or explicit)...” (134 / 143, emphasis added)

·         He suggests that the non-smoking requirement may be relevant to one’s employment contract: “Assuming that insurance rates are markedly higher for smokers, one could argue that the costs of providing health insurance for employees makes the decision to smoke, even outside of the workplace, a job-relevant factor. It may well cost business more to employ a smoker than it would to employ an equally qualified nonsmoker.” (135 / not in 4th ed)

·         But firing an employee for having had an abortion is a violation of her right to solitude: “ is difficult to see how the choice to have an abortion would prove to be job-relevant (the woman worked in a [Holiday Inn]). Thus privacy would seem to protect an employee against dismissal for having an abortion.” (135 / not in 4th ed.)



And an employee’s right to informational privacy is violated whenever “personal information that is irrelevant to that contract is collected, stored, or used without the informed consent of the employee.” (135 / 143, emphases added) Information that is relevant to the job contract includes that which is required …

Information that seems irrelevant to the job contract includes information about future plans, sex life and sexual orientation, and religion.



Stopping point for Monday November 22. For next time (one week from today), read DesJardins ch.11 (pp.233-53).





[1] Parent is an associate professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University: , accessed November 21, 2010.


[2] William Parent, “Privacy, Morality, and the Law,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 12:4 (1983), 269-88. Reprinted in Callahan, Ethical Issues in Professional Life, pp.215-225. The quotation is from p.216 of the reprint.


[3] Parent, p.216.

[4] The Georgia Bureau of Investigation database of sex offenders can be searched using this form: , accessed November 21, 2010.


[5] Judith Jarvis Thomson (“A Defense of Abortion,” 1971) has argued for an analogous claim about the right to life. On her account, the right to life is not the right never to be killed; rather, it is the right never to be killed unjustly.


[6] Brenkert is a professor of business ethics at Georgetown University: , accessed November 21, 2010.

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