Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Dumb or Just Happy: Is There a Concept of Liberty That Respects the Pursuit of Apathetic Nirvana?


"But if I no longer feel attached to property, no longer care whether or not I am in prison, if I have killed within myself my natural affections, then he cannot bend me to his will, for all that is left of myself is no longer subject to empirical fears or desires. It is as if I had performed a strategic retreat into an inner citadel - my reason, my soul, my 'noumenal' self - which, do what they may, neither external blind force, nor human malice, can touch. I have withdrawn into myself; there, and there alone, I am secure."

--Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty**

In the minds of political philosophers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, the notion of privacy, as a sphere of private life that—on principle—should be left free from external intrusion or influence, derives its substance from the more basic tenet that individual freedom is necessary for the advancement of society. Although reasonable minds can differ in their optimism about human nature and the resultant transformations that might occur when the sinister id/ego combination, so to speak, is given more or less private space in which to entertain itself sans social superego, a general consensus exists that at least "some portion of existence must remain independent of the sphere of social control." While there are many sociopolitical forces, or interests, that tend to encroach on individual privacy when left unchecked, only recently has attention necessarily turned to an unlikely body of culprits -- citizens themselves and those who share a peculiar kind of apathy about caring for their own privacy interests.

Despite a seemingly constant flow of media reports documenting the privacy threats posed by popular internet mediums such as Google and Facebook, a significant portion of these sites' patrons -- even those who are well aware of such threats -- manage to maintain an unconcerned and self-assured sense of apathy. Like a Where's Waldo effect manifesting itself in the context of attitudes about internet privacy, this kind of apathy is often justified by a statement resembling: "Since I'm not Waldo, there's no reason to worry. And regardless, what's the point of worrying?"

To some, statements like the above can be exceedingly frustrating because if attitudes are contagious, a growing sense of public insouciance might leave modern privacy reform efforts without political momentum. Unfortunately for the frustrated, mitigating this kind of apathetic contagion is not a simple matter of educating people about harms so that they become more rationally self-directed. While such attitudes might appear, on instinct, to be uneducated or dumb, they in many cases can reflect deep-seated foundations of emotive conviction:

After all, it's just a ride, it's just a ride -- no need to run, no need to hide. Sooner or later, it all comes crashing down, and when you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to loose -- you're invisible now; you got no secrets to conceal. And when I'm at the pearly gates, this'll be on my videotape. It all might seem dumb . . . or maybe just happy -- I think I'm just happy.

Might apathy be a kind of subjective happiness that merits a path of no resistance, or are these just dumb people who lack the positive liberty to know better? In other words, should this Nirvana-esque retreat to an inner citadel remain free of paternalistic impediments, as a kind of negative liberty, or must one be educated and protected against any tendency to "go too far, contract [one]self into too small a space, [where one] shall suffocate and die"? Regardless of the side chosen in this debate, and withstanding the Kantian axiom that paternalism is the greatest despotism imaginable, it is an inescapable reality that compulsive education is a societal imperative -- to a debatable extent of course:

"Children cannot be expected to understand why they are compelled to go to school, nor the ignorant [or dumb] - that is, for the moment, the majority of mankind - why they are made to obey the laws that will presently make them rational. 'Compulsion is also a kind of education." . . . You want to be a human being. It is the aim of the state to satisfy your wish. 'Compulsion is justified by education for future insight.'"

So then, given some necessary degree of educational compulsion in society, ultimately these disputes over rationality, dumbness, and apathetic Nirvana boil down to a divergence in basic assumptions about concepts of liberty and despotism. Does human society have "one true purpose"? And is that singular purpose underpinned by "rational self-direction" such that "all rational beings must of necessity fit into a single universal, harmonious pattern"? Can rationality truly be reduced to a single criterion in which some prevailing form of value monism envelops or eradicates the possibility of value pluralism -- effectively enshrining a "standard of judgment that derives from the vision of some future perfection"? Indeed, on some primordial level, "visions of future perfection" have a kind of irresistible emotional lure -- like a self-exalted dream of manifest destiny -- but the implementation of any such vision can only be justified by an authoritarian, one-size-fits-all concept of positive liberty, which arguably reeks of paternal pollution. So, finally, in the face these potential pollutants abound the implementation of value monism and positive liberty, we circle back to what might be said for value pluralism and "the measure of 'negative' liberty that it entails":

"To assume that all values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents . . . [Pluralism] is more humane because it does not (as the system-builders do) deprive men, in the name of some remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as unpredictably self-transforming human beings."

I have the feeling that you've done a pretty good job of proving something out of Berlin's text, but I'm not sure why it matters, if you know what I mean. You appear to have enjoined the conclusion that a respect for freedom would involve allowing those who want not to know to be left in their blissful condition of ignorance. And indeed, I think everyone will probably agree that this is desirable for the reasons you give: we do not want, let alone should we want, to nag and pester our neighbors who do not share our values or our concerns.

But what does that lead to? Citizenship means making judgments about when to call upon our fellow citizens for their attention to mutual concerns, and when to respect their desire to be let alone. We intend to live our lives so as to discharge both our public and our private responsibilities to our neighbors wisely and with humane respect for them. And what has your investigation of the matter told us? Surely only that we must use our practical wisdom to deal with each situation as it arises. And that, it seems to me, is less than the ante in the poker game.

Lol @ poker - funny because it's true, but, if it matters, I might have picked another game, like Pictionary (although, as it were, I'd like to think that I was at least in for the little blind to see who might raise pre-flop).

Abstractions aside, though, I would just like to acknowledge that this course, last semester's course, and your comments have made me more aware, thankfully, of my apparent tendency to play the role of un-invested question-asker/thought-process-invoker (a quick glance at my papers reveals an inordinate number of question marks). I suppose such a mindset has, and will continue to, come in handy, and "matter" in some sense of the word, but it's certainly a safe/escape route -- a preemptive fold -- in another sense. Cheers to new routes. And many thanks.

-- JonathanBoyer - 02 Jun 2010


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r12 - 17 Jan 2012 - 17:48:21 - IanSullivan
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