Is the "right to privacy" even a thing?

I’ve been thinking recently about the fact that privacy seems to be going away entirely in our society these days, and I came across the following article last week:

As I think about it, though, I’m realizing that I am very ignorant about Christian thinking regarding the “right to privacy”. It seems that privacy is a part of human dignity, but I’m not sure. How old is the concept of the “right to privacy,” anyway?

Thoughts? Can anyone here suggest someone good to read on the topic of privacy from a Christian perspective?


Everyone should read this article. Thanks for giving us the heads-up, Lucas. Sorry, but I know of nothing written on the subject, but my first thoughts are that giving up private communications is as significant as giving up search warrants—and may amount to the same thing, really.


Being a network engineer in the ISP business, I love this topic, but I think it would be painful to try to discuss it at length in writing.

Suffice it for now, I am thankful that what’s left of the “liberty ethos” in our country has thus far been a generally successful deterrent against the worst sorts of governmental invasion into our web activity.

But one mustn’t be naive. :slight_smile:

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I would say at least as old as Noah, who cursed his son for violating his privacy.


This is what came immediately to mind when I wondered about the antiquity of a right to privacy. Embedded in that notion, however, is the fundamental notion of a “right.” Whatever a right is, from a Biblical/Christian point of view, will affect how you understand whatever right it is you’re considering.

I’m utterly unread on the topic, and I wonder if finding an ancient discussion of this right is a snipe hunt. Is there even a concept such as a “right” before the Enlightenment? If not, then debates on this notion will proceed with different language, different notions, etc.

Back to Noah - the curse on his son is severe, showing us just how deep Canaan’s offense was.


Agreed, but I also don’t know what you would call it besides a “right.”

This doesn’t look too long: The Right to Privacy, by Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis. From The Harvard Law Review, Vol 4, No 5, 1890.

I’m afraid it is hopelessly out of touch with reality today. It depends on common law, which is not recognized many places today. And it claims that the courts recognize a right not to have your things published if you don’t want them to be. Not because of copyright, but something more fundamental. I don’t think this is true, since private emails are regularly published without consequence for the publisher. Perhaps a lawyer will correct me, though.

Anyway, this seems to be the most helpful bit for our conversation:

These considerations lead to the conclusion that the protection afforded to thoughts, sentiments, and emotions, expressed through the medium of writing or of the arts, so far as it consists in preventing publication, is merely an instance of the enforcement of the more general right of the individual to be let alone. It is like the right not to be assaulted or beaten, the right not to be imprisoned, the right not to be maliciously prosecuted, the right not to be defamed. In each of these rights, as indeed in all other rights recognized by the law, there inheres the quality of being owned or possessed—and (as that is the distinguishing attribute of property) there may be some propriety in speaking of those rights as property. But, obviously, they bear little resemblance to what is ordinarily comprehended under that term. The principle which protects personal writings and all other personal productions, not against theft and physical appropriation, but against publication in any form, is in reality not the principle of private property, but that of an inviolate personality.

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As an outsider: Wasn’t the “right to privacy” “found” in the US constitution for the Roe vs. Wade case?


Abortion is the first thing that comes to mind when I hear right to privacy. And when I think of internet privacy, I only think of covering evil deeds.

Yet clearly there is something good here in being left alone.

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Birthrights were a serious thing, highlighted by those who gave theirs away. And there was the right of a childless woman to have a child by the brothers of her deceased husband, another thing taken seriously a few times; and, of course, the right of a woman to have a child by her living husband. Conjugal rights are older than the Enlightenment. And Paul exercised his rights as a Roman citizen a couple times.

There’s a lot more that can be drawn from scripture, but those are the ones that come to mind with the term right.


Thinking about it: It is good to separate two concerns in this area:

  1. Government intrusion. The western countries had strong protections for the cititzen be left alone, especially not to enter his home without a warrant. As an extension, the government should not be allowed to know more about its citizens than it needs.
  2. Data protection. This is where the strict laws in Europe come from. It is the right “to be in control how I want to appear to others”. In Germany this came up in the 80s, mixed with the first concern. It basically enables people to live double lives.

I posted it because, in my brief research, that essay is considered by many to be the “beginning” of the discussion about the right to privacy in this country.

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There were a number of books that I came across in my research last night that looked promising. My criteria was to find books that deal with the concept of “the right to privacy” in general, and not books that dealt with privacy as it relates to modern technology.

I was interested to start with Solove’s book, but I couldn’t find it on Scribd or on Audible. But I did find a Harvard Law Review Journal on Scribd that he contributed to. It contains a “symposium on privacy.”

What I did find on Scribd was a book titled None of Your Damn Business, by Lawrence Cappello. It’s a popular-level discussion of the history of the concept of the right to privacy in the USA. I’m going to start there.

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Seems to me there can sometimes be some equivocation of the phrase “right to privacy.” Just reading the 1st, 3rd, 4th, & 14th amendments to the US Constitution, you can see a “right to privacy” in the sense that private citizens have a right to keep to themselves and only have the state interfere if there is some compelling reason and with due process of law. But other times, people seem to use the “right to privacy” as a shield against public scrutiny from other private citizens or an argument against any form of social shame or stigma.

I’d tentatively say that the former sense is certainly a right while the latter is not.

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I happened to be reading David Hume’s 1700’s essay last night, and he notes the common-sense morality of privacy. This is surely pre-Enlightenment, though calling privacy a “right” is modern.

“To repeat, to a man’s prejudice, any thing that escaped him in private conversation, or to make any such use of his private letters, is highly blamed.”

“To pry into secrets, to open or even read the letters of others, to play the spy upon their words, and looks, and actions, what habits more inconvenient in society?”


He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets,
Therefore do not associate with a gossip. -Proverbs 20:19

Argue your case with your neighbor,
And do not reveal the secret of another,
Or he who hears it will reproach you,
And the evil report about you will not pass away. -Proverbs 25:9-10

Also, do not take seriously all words which are spoken, so that you will not hear your servant cursing you. For you also have realized that you likewise have many times cursed others. -Ecclesiastes 7:21-22


Thanks for sharing Scripture, @tbbayly.

Inspired by your post, I searched for “privacy in the Bible”, and this popped up:

Remember that one, @jtbayly? :wink:

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Nope. Didn’t remember it. In it I make the case that it’s even earlier than Noah:

It was established way back in the garden when God made clothes for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness. It was confirmed when Noah cursed his son Ham for looking on his nakedness and talking about it with his brothers. In other words, we not only have a right to privacy but an obligation to protect privacy as well.

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I think I agree with the general gist of your post, but I think the word privacy does not generally make me think of modesty or covering nakedness, or leading a quiet and peaceable life in godliness and reverence. More the opposite. My soul needs that reminder of the last day