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I hope, this stackexchange site, is the right one for this topic, because I have more of a morality/ethics question than plain philosophy.

I've been researching my family history for quite some time now, and recently I have been given many old letters from the front of World War 2. So I was asking myself, if it is ethically O.K. to read these letters knowing that they were initally not meant for me to read, because I am not the addressee. And am I invading the privacy of the original sender of the letters, who of course is dead for quite a while now, but still.

I mean one could argue that it doesn't matter because the sender of these letters is already dead, but I don't know. I mean the content of these letters could easily change how you're seeing that person.

I just thought this could be something interesting to discuss and to hear other opinions on it.

Greetings Simon

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    How can historical knowledge increase if we are not allowed to read papers of dead person? Jan 11 at 12:26
  • That's a good point, I haven't looked at it like that.
    – s137
    Jan 11 at 12:33
  • From a utilitarist perspective the cut is clear: the damage caused to that person is zero (he's dead), while everybody will benefit from an the historical knowledge, as Mauro Allegranza points. Maybe on history stack exchange you can get answers about the deontology of actual historians.
    – armand
    Jan 11 at 12:43
  • I suppose one place to look is directly to the law of your country itself and that might give a legal answer. If no specific laws exist you could look to the principles your society is based on regarding privacy and derive from those an informed decision. All told it is a tough sell to argue for the righteousness of reading letters we were never given the right to read, nevertheless some authors might appreciate aspects of their life being read by others who have interest...but which aspects?
    – Ootagu
    Jan 12 at 5:10
  • From a legal perspective, you can libel the dead -- law.stackexchange.com/questions/28842/can-you-libel-the-dead Then again, there's a big difference between the law and ethics. Jan 12 at 23:52
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This is an intriguing question. Context is importance; scruples often ought not to prevent us from reading the private letters of public figures. But I will keep to the kind of domestic situation you evidently have in mind.

Someone might say that there cannot be a rights-based objection since the dead, qua non-existent, have no rights. Is this so, however? Is it really the case that the dead cannot be rights-holders, morally? All else equal, don't the dead have the right to dignified interment, the right against unjustified disturbance after interment, the right to bodily integrity, and (given that a will comes into effect only when the testator is dead) the right to transfer property?

It's true that reading the letters might alter your moral view of the person - might lead you to think better or worse of them - but then isn't that (or might it not be) a justifiable alteration of perspective? I don't think the dead have a moral right to have their 'memory' protected come what may.

Suppose the letters are of a particularly intimate kind (sexual or erotic, it may be) such that they were intended for one other person's eyes only. In reading them, are you showing disrespect for the dead? Do the dead have a right to privacy? I'm not sure on what basis such a posthumous right would rest. I violate your privacy if I gain unwanted access - access unwanted by you - to personal data such as a letter you have written. But the dead are not capable of wanting to control access to such data and so in reading the letters you are not interfering by gaining unwanted access to data the dead wish to protect.

Others may think differently. Here I have simply offered a response derived from considerations that seem to me relevant about rights, rights-holders, and privacy.

References

B. Rössler, The Value of Privacy, Cambridge: Polity, 2005: 8.

Fred O. Smith Jr, 'The Constitution after Death', Columbia Law Review , OCTOBER 2020, Vol. 120, No. 6 (OCTOBER 2020), pp. 1471-1548: 1475.

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  • thanks for sharing this answer, it's really interesting to see other perspectives on the subject. I am afraid this is such a question that doesn't really have an "accepted answer" but I guess, I will mark it as that, if there won't be anything futher.
    – s137
    Jan 12 at 21:13

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