Philosophy, Privacy

Communitarianism: Is Trading Privacy for the Common Good, Good?

This week, I had the remarkable opportunity to meet Amitai Etzioni, the internationally acclaimed scholar and the founder of the “communitarian” movement. Communitarianism is, in short, a moral philosophy that eschews the ascendant radical individualist worldview in favor of one that balances personal liberties with the common good for the good of all. Communitarianism stands in contrast to libertarian teachings, which argue that guaranteeing personal autonomy and stressing the rights of the individual are the best ways to achieve a just society. In this view, we owe nothing to others so long as our actions do not interfere with their life choices. Instead, communitarianism suggests that we co-create the best possible society by working with others to negotiate social norms. What I find appealing about this approach is the assumption that we do owe something to one another and that we are responsible for each other. While personal autonomy and liberty alone are appealing facets for a life of self-reliance and a potential bulwark against tyranny, the central ideals of the libertarian/individualistic outlook lack a strong expression of compassion as a central element of the human condition.

Etzioni started the day’s talk by asking, “what makes a good society?” The process of answering this question is not straightforward. Communitarianism assumes that there are competing claims for what is “right” and each claim is potentially valid. We have to struggle together in our communities until our disagreements—even those that may have devolved into violence or marginalization—fade into a mutually satisfactory moral agreement. No single actor wins outright. Rather, we all arrive at an appealing conclusion together. Achieving this in reality sounds challenging, and it is, but Etzioni cites historical examples in the United States that reflect positive transformations in culture and law, such as the evolution in thinking about the social and legal claims of African Americans and other non-dominant peoples. He also points to the contemporary example of gay marriage as a case where a strong moral disagreement has rapidly faded and is now yielding an astonishing (though far from universal) level of agreement. The promise of solving societal problems through painstaking consensus building may be utopian, possibly unrealistic. On the other hand, in an information/opinion-rich world that seems increasingly divisive, even among people who share culture and history, a vision that suggests that all this arguing and conflict ultimately leads to satisfying agreements is very comforting.

However, I hesitate to identify as a communitarian. Attempting to balance personal liberties with social good, as instructed by communitarian thinking, is not without its problematic aspects. While I have some faith that finite communities of equals are capable of negotiating their way to moral agreement, I am less convinced that we can count on consistent or lasting results with larger institutions, including the various organs of government power and, most acutely, corporate power. Etzioni seems to have more faith in the likelihood that, over time, monolithic institutions can be motivated to act fairly and openly in negotiations involving trading cherished rights for a common good, like “security” or “commerce.” Time and again, both governmental and corporate concerns (increasingly linked) have demonstrated that they are not fair dealers when entrusted with our liberties, and the outsize power they bring to the table tilts the balance towards whatever ends suit their goals. Concerning privacy in particular, Etizioni’s view is that, while valuable, privacy must yield to public interests, such as enabling reasonable physical and property searches and weaker data encryption in order to support law enforcement activities and preserve public order. Unfortunately we know all too well that entities like the National Security Agency are firmly skewed to achieving security and other arguably public interest goals by any means necessary, including the wholesale sacrifice of privacy. Similarly, corporations that traffic in personal information aren’t driven by any common good, but by the much more limited “good” of profit. Balancing the privacy interests of their target users with financial opportunities is not an option. Money talks, liberty walks. In such a climate, a more defensive posture for rightsholders seems warranted.

Similarly, Etzioni believes that overly permissive press-freedoms are not valuable when they put people’s lives at risk, as with recent cases of news media outing undercover operatives and divulging state secrets. Etzioni feels that we grant news editors too much power over the fates of others. It is compelling to question the presumed nobility of the press, but I have less faith in governmental and corporate actors who routinely obscure and classify information about their actions, often irrationally or with the goal of hiding nefarious behavior. I tend to side with argument that sunshine is a important pillar of democracy.

Returning to the topic of privacy, Etzioni invoked the metaphor of the village. In the village, everyone knows everyone’s business. As a result, residents behave better out of fear of ostracism and censure by their neighbors. In this context, sacrificing privacy has an agreeable reward, which is social concord. However, if the village is, instead, a nation, and instead of one’s neighbors, the negotiation is with one or more faceless institutions that wield incredible power and are not trustworthy, the desire to sacrifice privacy for the assurances they provide is much less appealing. Maybe communitarianism just doesn’t quite scale. Or maybe, despite my faith in humanity and belief in the goodness of co-creating a just social order, I’m just not patient enough to await a long arc of history that will achieve a communitarian balance.

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