Do we have a right to know some things?

Obviously you don't have a moral right to know what I had for breakfast today -- though you might be able to find out [it was pizza]. And we have a right to not be lied to, or deliberately confused, and to education.

But do I have a moral right to know some things -- that my wife had an affair, or why she said she didn't love me?

Who [which philosophers] says yes, who says no?

  • wow ok, tiresome -- did i touch your nerve? – user38026 Dec 9 '19 at 17:17
  • i probably have a moral right to know someone has had my child. – user38026 Dec 9 '19 at 17:27
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    This is actually a good question, but should be phrased more neutrally. – user935 Dec 9 '19 at 19:44
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    "Right to know" is a very misleading label. One can pursue knowledge of anything, and there is no guarantee that the subject matter will oblige. What this refers to, typically, is an obligation of someone else (government, spouse, friend, etc.) to tell one what they know. Since this concerns conventional social and political relations this is not exactly a question of philosophical morality, and the language of "rights" isn't helpful. It is settled by law as a negotiated social arrangement, with pragmatic, prudential and other non-moral concerns involved. – Conifold Dec 9 '19 at 19:58
  • If you have a right, it is either all or none, and not in between. – Dr_Bunsen Jan 14 at 8:13

At least two approaches offer themselves to this question.

The first is to produce a list of one right to know after another. We list our intuitions or what there is a broad consensus about in our society. Your examples fit this approach. Much may be said for it. Against it is the danger that we finish up with a disconnected heap of rights to know without any unifying theoretical basis. This is perhaps all we can get, so my observations so far are not presented dismissively.

But let's try, which I think you want, to see if a more systematic list can be delivered.

1.I have a right to know that p if you have a duty to give me the corresponding information, which you possess accidentally. We stand in no particular relationship but you happen to know something you have a duty to tell me. You may by chance, for instance, have discovered that I am radically misinformed about a matter of vital concern to me, e.g. my imminent betrayal by a business partner whom I trust.

2.I have a right to know that p if someone with a special obligation to tell me the truth knows that p. If my consultant knows that I have prostate cancer, then I have a right to know that p from this special-relationship person.

3.I have a right to know that p if not knowing that p significantly reduces the lifeplan options and alternatives available me.

What unites these cases is that they all involve, if in different ways, my interests - a workable but not crystal-clear and unambiguous concept. A missing factor is 'who has the obligation to fulfill my right to know that p?' In one case there is no special relationship with the person who has the duty to tell; in another, there is precisely such a relationship; and in the last there is no obvious agent whose duty it is to fulfil my right to know unless we invoke the ultimate pseudo-agent of 'society'.

This answer is tentative and incomplete. I would do better if I could. Most likely others will supply my defects.

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  • i remain a little unconvinced. clearly no-one has a right to diagnose you with cancer then not do anything about a positive result. but couldn't this fall under some other obligation -- the right not to be a medical guinea pig, or to be withheld life saving treatment. if it was a right just to know, then wouldn't a doctor be failing to meet their duties every-time they don't go to the trouble of phoning you back with negative results – user38026 Dec 10 '19 at 6:31
  • @another_name. Thanks for thought-provoking comment. I kept to the exact question about when I do or might have a right to know. I assumed in the cancer case that the professional relationship gives me the right to know.. Quite possibly there is also a different description of the relationship that also gives me the right to know in this situation - the consultant might also be my closest friend. – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 10 '19 at 9:45
  • Remember, I only said I was trying to open the topic and to do so as systematically as I could. I couldn't enumerate and specify every type of situation in which I have a right to know. Helpful that you took time out to comment - appreciated. Best - GLT – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 10 '19 at 9:55
  • oh i see what you mean -- a right to know may be based on something other than a right to know? – user38026 Dec 10 '19 at 10:16
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    I'd accept that, yes. Best - GLT – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 10 '19 at 10:44

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