In discussions of all kinds of topics, the notion of invasion of privacy can often come up, and it is usually invoked as something which is matter-of-factly wrong, with no further arguments presented as to why.

My question is, is this stance the correct stance? That is, is (uninvited) invasion of privacy necessarily and fundamentally a bad thing, and if so, why?

Imagine, for example, two people, A and B. They have nothing to do with each other, will never interact in their lives, or have any sort of relationship whatsoever, nor do they wish to do the other any sort of harm. The relationship is entirely neutral. However, A has access to all the information available to B (including private information), and vice versa.

Why is that a bad thing?

Note that above scenario is obviously unrealistic, since in real-life, people aren't neutral, and often do wish to exploit others' private info, and yes, I am for that reason totally against privacy invasion such as government surveillance and the like. But in this question, I am talking about privacy invasion in and of itself, with a complete disregard of ulterior motives of humans.

  • 2
    I think it is uncontroversial that the right to privacy is not absolute, and it is not wrong to set it aside in certain situations. This is reflected in the law, it is not protected in criminal investigations, for public figures, etc. But it is usually expected that there be a compelling reason for invasion of privacy, which is missing in your example. In other words, privacy is a defeasible right, it is presumed but can be overridden by other concerns, see also SEP article on Privacy
    – Conifold
    Sep 13 '17 at 23:15

We can take a simple border case to show why invasion of privacy is bad: There are some behaviors that a moral law abiding citizen engages in which are completely acceptable from a moral and legal point of view, yet the citizen still wants those behaviors to remain private.

It is 100% legal and morally acceptable to be naked in your shower or to have sex with your spouse. Yet most people do not want total strangers to see them naked in their shower or having sex with their spouses. So here is a case of behavior where somebody has "nothing to hide" from a moral and legal point of view, yet it would still constitute an immoral act to try to monitor such behavior, and doing so would constitute bad and unjustified invasion of privacy.

See the SEP article on privacy.

  • Possible paraphrase: There is certain information about me that is valuable and that I choose to share with specific people. If someone else obtains that information without my consent, they have stolen from me. Counterargument 1: what if I have their private information as well? Counter 2: what if I am unaware of their violation of my privacy and it has no impact on me whatsoever?
    – user935
    Sep 13 '17 at 19:27
  • @barrycarter Counter to the counterarguments - 1. is tantamount to saying it's OK to steal as long as the victim can steal back, laws and rights are about the harm to society, not just the individual. 2. requires an accurate prediction of the future as once the privacy has been infringed it cannot be repealed, so one must have an assurance not only that one is unaware of the invasion, but that one never will become aware of such, and this is, in most cases, technically impossible.
    – Isaacson
    Sep 19 '17 at 10:49

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