Competing Goods

This is the second of two posts on ethical thinking.

The nature of tragedy is not good versus bad. It is good versus good.

Georg Hegel

The Internet is a wonderful place (except when it isn’t). And among its many wonders is the archive collected and maintained by the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, a forty-year research group at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They’ve collected over 2,500 different statements of ethical practice from remarkably diverse professional and social groups. There’s the Asset Manager Code of Professional Conduct from the Chartered Financial Analysts Institute. There’s the Code of Ethics of the American Organists Guild. There’s the Supplemental Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Department of Health and Human Services (1996) Chapter XLV, 5 C.F.R. Part 5501.

I got interested in this material when I was a grad student, and my dissertation plans were going through our university’s Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research. Every research institution—universities, hospitals, museums—has an IRB that reviews prospective projects before conduct. My IRB review was tough, because I was doing ethnographic research, notoriously messy and fluid, and I was working with teenagers, a protected category requiring even greater oversight. We figured it out after a few sessions, but it wasn’t as easy as giving some anonymous group a multiple-choice test, or doing a blood draw.

One of the most common keywords in the ethics archive is confidentiality. Historically, the professions that could legally claim confidentiality are medicine, law, and clergy. But lots of other professions have made the internal claim among their practitioners that confidentiality is an important protection for those they serve. The Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists, and Geophysicists of Alberta asserts the confidentiality of their clients, and of the landscapes upon which they work. The Association of Computing Machinery protects confidentiality when their members come across data that’s not an essential part of their work. The American Library Association claims confidentiality for its users’ library records.

Questions of privacy—of the right of an individual to control his or her own information—have been fought about forever. Architects think about it when they place windows and doors, and forget about it when they design open-plan offices. Newspapers think about it when they protect whistleblowers, and forget about it when they publish paparazzi photos.

Different eras and their technologies have extended the questions of privacy into new realms. In 1890, with the growing influence of print media, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren wrote a law review on privacy that focused on “the right to be left alone.” In 1948, after unspeakable regimes of dehumanization, the United Nations named privacy one of the basic human rights. in the 1990s, in recognition of search engines that archive everything about us, the European Union institutionalized “the right to be forgotten.”

But breaches of privacy are perpetual. Santa’s got his list, as does St. Peter. Our streetscapes bristle with cameras. Your phone tells the world where you are every few minutes; your doctor’s office won’t reveal when you visited, but your phone’s location tag will. And we post selfies on Instagram of every restaurant meal and random encounter. The wonderful social analyst Jane Jacobs warned in her final book of a “dark age ahead,” an age in which everything that had come to us would be lost to mere commerce, a mass amnesia in which “even the memory of what was lost is lost.” We will someday (soon? already?) wonder what privacy was, and why people ever thought it was a good idea.

We want to be seen, to be noticed, to be celebrated. We want to be left alone, to have our sins forgiven. It turns out to be almost impossible to stand on both shores at once.