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  • Privacy, Private Property, and Collective Property
  • Annabelle Lever (bio)

In A Theory of Justice John Rawls argued that people in a just society would have rights to some forms of personal property, whatever the best way to organise the economy.1 Without being explicit about it, he also seems to have believed that protection for at least some forms of privacy are included in the Basic Liberties, to which all are entitled.2 Thus, Rawls assumes that people are entitled to form families, as well as personal associations which reflect their tastes as well as their beliefs and interests. He seems also to have assumed that people are entitled to seclude themselves, as well as to associate with others, and to keep some of their beliefs, knowledge, feelings and ideas to themselves, rather than having to share them with others. So, thinking of privacy as an amalgam of claims to seclusion, solitude, anonymity, and intimate association,3 we can say that Rawls appears to include at least some forms of privacy in his account of the liberties protected by the first principle of justice.

However, Rawls did not say very much about how he understands people's claims to privacy, or how those claims relate to his ideas about property ownership. This is unfortunate, because two familiar objections to privacy seem particularly pertinent to his conception of the basic liberties. The first was articulated with customary panache by Judith Thomson, in a famous article on the moral right to privacy, in which she argued that talk of a moral right to privacy is confused and confusing, because privacy rights are really just property rights in disguise.4 The second objection has long been a staple of leftist politics, and is that the association of privacy with [End Page 47] private property means that privacy rights are just a mask for coercive and exploitative relationships, and therefore at odds with democratic freedom, equality, and solidarity. If the first objection implies that Rawls is wrong to think that protection for privacy can be distinguished from protection of personal property, the second objection implies that Rawls cannot hope to protect privacy without thereby committing himself to the grossest forms of capitalist inequality.

In this paper I will not discuss Rawls's arguments for property-owning democracy. However, by clarifying the relationship between claims to privacy and claims to property-ownership, I hope to illuminate some of the conceptual, moral and political issues raised by Rawls's ideas, and by work on the concept of a property-owning democracy, which he inspired. As we will see, privacy-based justifications of private ownership are not always unappealing, and privacy is sometimes promoted, rather than threatened, by collective ownership. The conclusion draws out the significance of these claims for the idea of a property-owning democracy.

Thomson's Critique of Privacy

Judith Thomson objects to the idea that privacy is valuable not because she believes that solitude, confidentiality and anonymity are over-rated, as some do, or fears that family life is inseparable from sexual inequality, or a threat to proper patriotism.5 Rather, she worries that talk of a moral right to privacy lumps together too many things, which, however valuable or important, are best described and justified separately. In particular, she thinks, once we realise how heterogeneous people's claims to privacy are, and reflect on the best way to describe and justify them, we will find that they are really best understood as examples of more basic rights, such as rights to own property, and property-like rights over our bodies, which make it wrong for others to look at, listen to and touch us without our permission.

Thus, Thomson argues, if she's done something wrong by sneaking into your house and painting your elbows green, what's wrong is that she's invading your property and invading your property-like rights over your body, which include the right not to have your body looked at, touched, [End Page 48] or painted without permission.6 Similarly, she thinks, deliberate efforts to listen in on arguments with her husband behind closed doors violate her right not to be listened to, although it is...


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pp. 47-60
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