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Privacy and the Self: Personhood, Autonomy, and Identity Essay

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With continuing revelations of government surveillance, much has been said about the “trade-off” between privacy and security and finding the “right balance” between the two. As Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times, “this way of framing the issue makes sense if [one] understand[s] privacy solely as a political or legal concept.” In this context, the loss of privacy might seem to be a small price to pay to ensure one's safety. However, the relevance of privacy extends far beyond the political and legal sphere. Privacy – or the lack thereof – affects all aspects of one's life; it is a state of human experience. In this sense, privacy, from the symbolic interactionist position that the self is created through social interaction, is a necessary precondition for the creation and preservation of the self. The “self” entails personhood, autonomy, and identity.
Privacy can be experienced in a number of forms. Alan Westin defined four states – or experiences – of privacy: solitude, intimacy, anonymity, and reserve. Solitude is a physical separation from others (31). Intimacy is a “close, relaxed, and frank relationship between two or more individuals” resulting from the “corporate [collective] seclusion” of a small unit (31). Anonymity is the “desire of individuals for times of 'public privacy'” (32). Lastly, reserve is the “creation of a psychological barrier against unwanted intrusion [which] occurs when the individual's need to limit communication about himself is protected by the willing discretion of those surrounding around him” (32). It is this last state of privacy that is the most crucial to the preservation of the self. As Robert Murphy observe...


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...A Behavioural Understanding of Privacy and Its Implications for Privacy Law.” The Modern Law Review 75.5 (2012): 806 – 836. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
Kufer, Joseph. “Privacy, Autonomy, and Self-Concept.” American Philosophical Quarterly 24.1 (1987): 81 – 89. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
Lynch, Michael. “Privacy and the Threat to the Self.” The New York Times 22 June 2012: n. pag. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
Murphy, Robert. “Social Distance and the Veil.” American Anthropologist 66.6 (1964): 1257 – 1274. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
Reiman, Jeffrey. “Privacy, Intimacy, and Personhood.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 6.1 (1976): 26 – 44. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
Smith, Jenna (2001). “Privacy and Private States.” The Private I: Privacy in a Public World. Ed. Molly Peacock. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2001. 3 – 22. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
Westin, Alan. Privacy and Freedom. New York: Atheneum, 1967. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.


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