Let's say I've just watched my morbidly obese family member or friend die slowly and painfully in a hospital. After this experience, let's say I want to write and publish in a circulating literary journal a personal essay about this experience. The essay is to be about how horrific it is to die in an American hospital and about the hypocrisy of the American "culture of life" which keeps brain dead people on feeding tubes and makes it impossible to die painlessly and with dignity etc etc etc. Whatever, just some sort of high minded political commentary.

Let's say the essay is to contain lurid details about the state of my family members body and mind before he or she died, details that would be terribly embarrassing to him or her if he or she were living, but details which serve to paint a more vivid pictured and therefore make the essay more compelling as a piece of writing and as commentary.

What, if anything, have meta ethicists had to say about this sort of dilemma?

Edit: Let's also take out of the equation any offense this might cause to any other living people who knew the deceased.

  • IMHO this depends on when the person was alive: (1) publish my grandfathers private letters which he wrote home from a war front -- not okay, (2) put an Egyptian mummy on display in a museum -- okay for the most part
    – Drux
    Apr 18 '15 at 17:51
  • @Drux that's an interesting point. I wonder if that's because mummies are somewhat anonymized by the decay of their bodies, so that one mummy looks a lot like the next. I wonder whether we would feel differently about displaying the remains of Neolithic people who were mummified in pete bogs. Have you seen those? Their facial features and bodies are very well preserved despite their being dead for thousands of years. Apr 18 '15 at 18:17
  • But I think you're right: the right to privacy has to decay somewhat as the distance increases between the people involved Apr 18 '15 at 18:26

What, if anything, have meta ethicists had to say about this sort of dilemma?

Well, first of all, this is not a question for meta-ethicists. Meta-ethics is concerned with the epistemological, metaphysical, semantic, and logical features of moral propositions. I think what you have in mind is normative ethics.

The answer to the normative ethical question you're asking will vary depending on which normative ethical theory you adopt (or, which normative ethical theory is correct). I've answered a question along these same lines here. Note that in the link I'm discussing the question of whether it is permissible to kill non-human animals or not. But it should be clear how to map my answer there onto your present question.

Note that there are some complications with the case of the deceased that don't come up in the answer I linked to. Namely, the fact that the dead aren't around to experience the repercussions of the disrespect. For more on this see Nagel here, and the SEP here.

  • Thanks for the references, and the terminological correction. Mar 17 '15 at 22:40

Yes. (tl;dr at bottom)

Generally philosophers regard privacy as instrumentally valuable: it enables us to do whatever we desire to do without fear of others' judgments of what we do.

The dead can't do anything, and so privacy can't enable them to do anything. Moreover, feeling something is one of the things a person can do, and so the dead also can't feel anything bad about the posthumous violation of their privacy.

However, the fact is that posthumous unprivacy could detriment, and, presumably, in many cases, would detriment, living persons enjoyment of their privacy.

For example, if there were two closet homosexuals who romantically corresponded by post, and if at least one of them cared about the reputation of his family; and if he lived in, a society, or a time, when his homosexuality would detriment the reputation of his family if it were known to the public; and if his society didn't respect posthumous privacy; then the fact that his society didn't respect posthumous privacy would be a reason for him to fear keeping the letters, which, perhaps, he would have, otherwise, liked to do.

tl;dr: Privacy enables us to do what we want without having to justify it to others. If society doesn't respect posthumous privacy, then living people won't enjoy their privacy as much. Example: someone has a bunch of weird porn on her computer; perhaps she wouldn't have that porn if she worried that her family would learn of it if some unexpected tragedy were to kill her.

  • This argument can be very easily countered by saying that we don't need to care about what happens after our death.
    – user2953
    Mar 19 '15 at 13:42
  • 1
    @Keelan that doesn't affect whether popular respect for posthumous privacy detriments living persons' enjoyment of their privacy. People do care what happens after their death. The prevalence of the practice of legating (i.e. giving via a will) property evinces that fact. If your objection were true, then we might do whatever we want to do to the planet; future generations be damned. In sum, living people care what happens to others after their death. The fact that they so care affects their decisions.
    – Hal
    Mar 19 '15 at 14:24
  • @Keelan to use the example I used in the tl;dr: perhaps, a living person who enjoys collecting weird porn would not collect it if she cared about her family's feelings and if she knew that her family would feel ashamed of her if they were to learn of her collection of weird porn.
    – Hal
    Mar 19 '15 at 14:24
  • Your argument "but people do care" is a sociological one, based on statistics (that your answer, by the way, lacks). I'm saying, suppose we could formulate some theory by which people wouldn't care, then your argument doesn't hold. I'm merely pointing out that something you are taking for granted is in fact not that obvious - it is in a sociological context, not in a philosophical one.
    – user2953
    Mar 19 '15 at 15:09
  • @Keelan arguably all value is subjective. (However, many philosophers, such as Parfit, hope that's not the case). Whether value is subjective is beyond the scope of the question. It's true, that not all humans value the same things. Privacy, whether it be humous or posthumous, is something that not necessarily all humans value. Nevertheless,my argument holds so long as we accept what philosophers generally accept what philosophers accept to be the value of privacy: it frees every human who enjoys it from worrying what others would think of what she does if they were to learn what she does.
    – Hal
    Mar 19 '15 at 15:24

Stoicfury's comments point out the following fact: we do (generally) try to respect the wishes of people even when the effects extend past the end of their lives. Wills, funeral arrangements, keeping, say a personal oath of secrecy (the usual don't tell anybody about this type of thing), are examples of exactly this kind of thing. I do not view this as providing rights to the deceased, it is merely that one's ethical obligations don't magically disappear someone else's death.

For example, if you made a promise to keep something secret, and then the other party dies, you still have an ethical obligation to keep that promise, if if there was only an implicit expectation of privacy. Even if the other party's death mitigates some features of the promise, e.g. he/she will not be directly hurt by violating that trust, there is still an ethical requirement to keep the promise, at least for ethical systems where there is an intrinsic moral value in keeping your promises.

Basically, I wouldn't do anything that I wouldn't do if the person were alive, but unable to provide consent for the proposed action, under the theory that any obligations incurred while he/she was alive persist.


Whether it's ethical is, I think, an entirely different question from what you posed in the title. To answer the question of if the deceased have rights, I would say no. Rights are a means for rational actors to resolve conflict, using reason rather than violence. You cannot come into conflict with the dead, as they are incapable of action. They have no rights; the concept does not even make sense in this context.


From Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness:

"A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)

The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.

Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation."

From Hans-Hermann Hoppe, The Problem of Social Order:

"Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe can do whatever he pleases. For him, the question concerning rules of orderly human conduct — social cooperation — simply does not arise. This question can only arise once a second person, Friday, arrives on the island. Yet even then, the question remains largely irrelevant so long as no scarcity exists. Suppose the island is the Garden of Eden. All external goods are available in superabundance. They are "free goods," just as the air that we breathe is normally a "free" good. Whatever Crusoe does with these goods, his actions have no repercussions — neither with respect to his own future supply of such goods nor regarding the present or future supply of the same goods for Friday (and vice versa). Hence, it is impossible that a conflict concerning the use of such goods could arise between Crusoe and Friday. A conflict is possible only if goods are scarce; and only then is there a need to formulate rules that make orderly, conflict-free social cooperation possible.

In the Garden of Eden only two scarce goods exist: a person's physical body and its standing room. Crusoe and Friday each have only one body and can stand only at one place at a time. Hence, even in the Garden of Eden conflicts between Crusoe and Friday can arise: Crusoe and Friday cannot occupy the same standing room simultaneously without coming into physical conflict with each other. Accordingly, even in the Garden of Eden rules of orderly social conduct must exist — rules regarding the proper location and movement of human bodies. Outside the Garden of Eden, in the realm of all-around scarcity, there must be rules that regulate the use not only of personal bodies, but of everything scarce, such that all possible conflicts can be ruled out. This is the problem of social order."

  • 2
    Stack Exchange is not a network for exchanging opinions, but rather factual information. This answer essentially isn't more than stating your opinion. Please improve this question by providing references to philosophers supporting your theory. For more information, see this meta post.
    – user2953
    Mar 14 '15 at 8:11
  • Currently we do afford rights to deceased individuals; we will honor their last will and testament, and we tend to provide them a permanent place of rest which will be undisturbed forever (in principle). Keelan is correct with what he says about this answer, although I feel like we're in a half-way phase where we have lots of members who prefer asking questions that are more subjective and opinion-based, and those who want to keep this site "pure" (academic-style). We need to address at some point whether we can do both and still align with the network's vision for these sites.
    – stoicfury
    Mar 14 '15 at 19:23
  • I say this because questions like this are common on the site, and answers like this aren't bad in and of themselves (indeed, I rather agree with this answer), but they do not align with the original aim of this site, although to be honest it was never fully clear from the onset (look at any number of the old posts to see yourself). We are seeing steady growth and are almost ready to graduate beta, but before that can happen we need to firm up what we as a community really want to see on this website.
    – stoicfury
    Mar 14 '15 at 19:31
  • References provided as requested by Keelan. "Currently we do afford rights to deceased individuals; we will honor their last will and testament..." At first glance, it look like rights are being afforded to the deceased, but what is really happening when honoring their will is we are respecting their rights as they are living. The actions specified in their last will are triggered the moment before their death. Should this not be continued after they die, it is the heirs who have a claim to being wronged, not the deceased.
    – Fersty
    Mar 17 '15 at 3:30

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