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Why Does Privacy Matter for Friendship?

posted by:David Matheson // 03:09 PM // July 15, 2005 // Core Concepts: language and labels

I have for some time been convinced that privacy is important for friendship. But exactly how it is important -- why privacy matters for friendship -- is far from clear to me.

In the eighth book of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that friendship involves both intimacy and a corresponding mutual affection. Affection for Aristotle amounts to desiring the well-being of another. And intimacy in his view seems merely to be epistemic closeness -- having personal knowledge of each other, or knowing certain personal facts about each other. Thus, we might capture Aristotle's account of friendship along the following lines:

The Aristotelian Account of Friendship

A and B are friends just in case
(1) A and B have personal knowledge of each other [=Intimacy as Epistemic Closeness], and
(2) A and B desire each other's well-being at least partly in virtue of this knowledge [=Mutual Affection Based on Intimacy].

This account allows for different specific varieties of friendship, depending on the different sorts of intimacy and corresponding mutual affection involved. Thus, for example, what we might call "fun friendship" occurs when A and B desire each other's well being because each knows that the other is pleasant to be around in various ways (e.g. witty, amusing), and each naturally wants to be around pleasant people. "Practical friendship" involves A and B desiring each other's well being because each knows that the other is useful for the advancement of certain practical goals. (Think here of the sort of friendship involved in business partnerships.) "Deep friendship" occurs when A and B desire each other's well being because they each know the other to be a good (virtuous, noble, etc.) person, and prefers the society of such people.

There's a lot to be said for this account of friendship, but what I'd like to draw attention to is that fact that the possession of privacy nowhere enters into it. More particularly, even if A and B had virtually no privacy -- not just with respect to each other, but with respect to everyone else in their society -- they could still meet conditions (1) and (2), and hence still be friends on the Aristotelian account.

Yet, against this, it's common in the privacy literature to find claims to the effect that the reason why privacy is important for friendship is that it is required for -- a necessary condition on -- friendship. Without privacy, so the thought goes, there simply could be no friendship. Here's a representative passage from Charles Fried:

...friendship...involve[s] the voluntary and spontaneous relinquishment of something between friend and friend.... The title to information about oneself conferred by privacy provides the necessary something. To be friends...persons must be intimate to some degree with each other. Intimacy is the sharing of information about one's actions, beliefs or emotions, which one does not share with all.... (Fried, An Anatomy of Values, Harvard University Press, 1970, p. 142)

I take it that someone like Fried would agree that friendship involves both intimacy and a corresponding mutual affection. Where he would disagree with Aristotle, it would seem, is over what the intimacy involved in friendship amounts to. Fried, like other advocates of the friendship-requires-privacy thesis, seems to think that intimacy amounts not merely to epistemic closeness --not merely to (1) above-- but further to epistemic exclusivity. There must not merely be a sharing of personal information between friends, but the personal information shared between friends must not be shared with others, as Fried puts it. So, in place of the Aristotelian account of friendship, defenders of the friendship-requires-privacy thesis would seem to be endorsing something like the following view:

The Friendship-Requires-Privacy Account of Friendship

A and B are friends just in case
(1*) A and B have personal knowledge of each other that other people do not have [=Intimacy as Epistemic Exclusivity], and
(2) A and B desire each other's well-being at least partly in virtue of this personal knowledge [=Mutual Affection Based on Intimacy].

It's pretty easy to see how this account of friendship, where the intimacy involved in friendship requires not just epistemic closeness but further epistemic exclusivity, makes privacy a necessary condition on friendship. After all, if friendship requires the likes of (1*), then A and B cannot be friends unless they have privacy about their personal information relative to other individuals (even though they lack it relative to each other).

I'd like it if this second account of friendship were the right one, simply because it would make clear to me why privacy seems to matter for friendship. But the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that this second account is right; it seems to me that Aristotle was right to suppose that friendship merely requires intimacy in the sense of epistemic closeness, not epistemic exclusivity, and hence that friendship does not require privacy.

To illustrate, suppose that A and B are children growing up in a community that affords them very little privacy. It's a religious community, say, that believes very strongly in the importance of supervising children so as to inculcate in them exemplary moral dispositions. A and B play with each other on a regular basis, but never away from the watchful, attentive eye of supervising parents. Over time, A and B get to know a lot about each other, and come to like each other very much as a result. Doesn't it seem quite right to say that A and B are friends? I think so. But notice that although A and B meet condition (1), they fail condition (1*). Any personal knowledge they have of each other is not exclusive to themselves -- it's always shared by some supervising parent.

It seems to me, accordingly, that the Aristotelian account of friendship is preferable to the Friendship-Requires-Privacy account. So, while I still have the suspicion that privacy matters for friendship, I'm no longer inclined to think that it matters because it is a necessary condition on friendship.

Comments

dave,

interesting post.

i wonder whether privacy might, in a broader sense, still be a necessary condition of aristotle's vision of friendship -- at least for what he would call deeper friendships -- even if he never articulates it as such.

your counterexample is as follows: "A and B play with each other on a regular basis, but never away from the watchful, attentive eye of supervising parents. Over time, A and B get to know a lot about each other, and come to like each other very much as a result. Doesn't it seem quite right to say that A and B are friends? I think so."

how does that cheesy old phil spector song go? "to know, know, know him, is to love, love, love him, and i do."

but that is not sufficient for the kind of friendships that matter most to aristotle. the mere desire for another's well being based on an intimate knowledge of things about them is pretty mundane stuff. the sort of stuff that a fanatic has for a celebrity.

i am not sure that knowing lots of intimate facts about another and feeling close to that person are sufficient conditions for friendships grounded in goodness. good friends trust one another. and good friends, aristotle suggests, play an important role in the development of each other's virtuous dispositions. i am not sure that such development could occur without some exclusivity around intimacy (whether or not you call that privacy).

consider your own example taken to an extreme: instead of scrutinous parents, lets think about friendship alongside the advent of reality tv.

whether we're talkin' "survivor", "big brother", "the bachelorette", or "chains of love", we have seen countless shows by now where relationships develop under the camera's eye, conjured up for the consumption of the world at large.

the early shows actually raised interesting questions about the nature of human relationships. (of course, that didn't last long.)

i have often wondered - although such shows might certainly cultivate friendships based in pleasure or utility, can such circumstances generate friendships grounded in goodness? is it possible under such scrutiny to acheive the hallmarks of true friendship?

how does one come to know the "golden mean" in these worlds of excessive epistemic access? doesn't the camera or the general ability for the world at large to know about and share in every single experience of the characters undermine the possibility of the kind of "epistemic intimacy" required for friendship?

say that you and steve mann started to hang out, were becoming friends, but he never turned off his camera, beaming every minute of your friendship onto the internet or glogging it for the world to rent or view on dvd. would it really be possible to develop true affection and intimacy or to practice the virtues together?

now ... you might say that, with time, people desensitize to the cameras. seeing what i have by now seen on tv, how could i quarrel with that?!

but isn't the product of those shows the best *reductio as absurdum* against the view that privacy is in no sense a necessary condition of friendship?

i have no clear view on this yet but my spidey senses are tingling!

Posted by: ian kerr at July 16, 2005 10:19 AM

Hi Ian,

I think your Spidey senses are tingling with good cause. Thanks to your comments, the importance of privacy for friendship -- at least the sort of friendship that holds particular ethical significance -- is becoming clear to me.

I think you're quite right that the obsessed fan, whose knowledge of and affection for the celebrity may well know no bounds, needn't count as the celebrity's friend. For, as Aristotle would be the first to point out, friendship requires *mutual* or *reciprocal* epistemic closeness and affection (A and B must both have personal knowledge of each other, and both desire each other's well-being -- one-sided personal knowledge and one-sided affection aren't sufficient), and the celebrity typically neither knows nor desires the well being of the fan.

More importantly, I think you're right on the money to suggest that our focus here ought really to be on that third form of friendship that Aristotle points to -- "deep friendship" (as I called it). Its ethical importance for him comes out in the fact that he at times seems almost prepared to treat friendships of other sorts -- "fun friendships" and "practical friendships", e.g. -- as no real friendships at all.

Once we switch our focus from friendship in general to the specific case of deep friendship, Aristotle’s account comes out along the following lines:

The Aristotelian Account of Deep Friendship

A and B are deep friends just in case
(1df) A and B each know that the other is a good (virtuous, noble, etc.) person, and
(2df) A and B each desire the well-being of the other at least partly in virtue of this personal knowledge.

Pretty clearly, in line with your suggestion, (1df) here entails trust. After all, if A and B really do know each other to be good, that implies that each knows the other to be trustworthy; and it's hard to see how each could know the other to be trustworthy without thereby *trusting* the other.

But -- equally in line with your suggestion -- (1df) also seems to imply this: A and B each know that the other is disposed to act virtuously even when not observed by authorities. Surely, if A and B only knew each other to be disposed to act virtuously when observed by authorities, they wouldn't yet know each other to be good -- they'd only know that each other fears punishment by authorities, etc.

And what is required for each knowing the other to be disposed to act virtuously even when not observed by authorities? For the life of me, I can't see how such knowledge could be acquired unless A and B have knowledge of each other acting virtuously in the absence of observation by authorities. (How else could the knowledge of each other's virtuous disposition be acquired if not via the knowledge of the behavioral effects of that disposition?) But then (1df) turns out to imply that A and B each have personal knowledge of the other *that is not shared by some others*, in particular, *that is not shared by authorities*, viz. knowledge of each other's behavior in situations where the authorities aren't observing. And that means that (1df) implies some degree of privacy relative to authorities. Quod erat demonstrandum!

So, thanks to your insights, I think we've now got the following result: even though privacy may not be a necessary condition on friendship in general, it is a necessary condition on deep friendship.

That strikes me a very important result. For if we combine it with Aristotle's reasons for holding deep friendship to be an important ingredient in the development and maintenance of civic virtue, we get the further result that privacy (in the form of some degree of freedom from surveillance by authorities) is an important ingredient in the development and maintenance civic virtue.

Posted by: David Matheson at July 16, 2005 07:50 PM

Fascinating discussion:

One has to contextualize discussions with Steve Mann from the perspective that he is working with the idea of the memory prosthetic. If anything happens to one's brain, whether it's a dyslexia, an aphasia, or an other form of memory loss and or brain function loss, one would need the use of the Web as a webramp.

In nursing homes persons require the community of people around them and increasingly use networking equipment from the telephone to television to radio and increasingly cell phones and personal computers to help them understand the world and to simply remember. The actual friendship usually is contextualized through stories and events that the two friends have experienced. There are many private emotions connected to these memories nevertheless it is experience remembered that creates the context of friendship. So as I reread that Aristotelean treaty, I begin to see the limitations that it may have in certain situations. Privacy is a necessary condition but there are other factors that are friendship dependent.

Stefanos

Posted by: Stefanos at July 18, 2005 07:57 AM

The idea that privacy is required for friendship (deep or otherwise) is counterintuitive to me, although I haven't given it any thought until now. Of course part of my skepticism comes from not really knowing what constitutes "deep" freindship.

The examples Dave and Ian have given of the constantly supervised kids and the reality TV show contestants made me wonder whether a lack of privacy might actually foster friendship in the sense that the watched would share a common experience of surveillance and develop a friendship based on an "us v. them" mentality (regardless of whether these people would like each other under normal circumstances). Now maybe this friendship isn't "deep", but it depends on what that means. I can imagine a situation where soldiers don't know anything about each other that isn't known to others and yet a profound friendship could develop by virtue of shared (traumatic) experiences and the need to trust each other with their lives. In such a situation, it might not even matter whether the friends thought each other good people. Now maybe this isn't a "deep" friendship in the sense that Dave and Ian meant, but if not, what is a deep friendship?

Perhaps one way around this is to argue that the soldiers are all friends by virtue of shared knowledge of each other (and maybe experience IS a type of knowledge) not available to their superiors or to the enemy, but I'm not convinced that privacy is that relevant to the example I've proposed. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Posted by: Hilary at July 19, 2005 09:41 AM

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