The Public-Private Ethical Distinction

G. Stolyarov II
Issue XVI - August 15, 2003
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"Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." Thus declared Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. In the context of this statement, the private-public distinction is employed not in politicoeconomic terms (which are, however, derivative), but in an individual, ethical sense, pertaining to the objectively correct atmosphere which one should experience in and away from the company of other men.

Any rational treatise, including this one, will undertake a definition of terms prior conducting their analysis. Public undertakings include any information shared or activities undertaken in the presence or with the assistance of others who do not necessarily possess a specific or proximate relationship to the person conducting said undertakings. The specificity or such relationship, non-existent in the case of public undertakings, is contained in its relation to the activity/information which the individual is disclosing. Contacting one's trusted doctor in regard to an intimate physical disorder is not public exposure of the matter. Speaking about it to colleagues at work with whom one exchanges only twenty casual words a week, is.

Private undertakings, in contrast, include that information or activity which the individual either keeps exclusively to himself, or shares with individuals whose closed council or assistance he seeks; that is, he does not expect the matter to be known or intruded into by any persons in whom he did not confide. When one goes about the aforementioned doctor's visit, he does not expect his colleagues at work to learn of the nature of the problem discussed between him and the physician. It subsequently becomes the moral task of all parties involved in this closed realm of privacy not to expand its bounds beyond the limit decreed by mutual and unanimous will.

The purpose of this treatise shall be to determine which sorts of tasks and information should be classified into either the public or the private realm, as a means of objectively establishing a category of ethics essential to both everyday and exceptional circumstances, namely, etiquette. Etiquette, itself a sweeping term, is the proper form of individual conduct in the company of others, which encompasses both contextually desired positive behavior and actions (including speech) that are best withheld. Whether proper etiquette is adhered to is dependent on individual decisions and a proper understanding of the public-private distinction. This adherence is not compulsory, that is, seeing as it inflicts no force upon the company of the manner-less individual, and that company is free to abandon him, it should not be forced. Nor is objective etiquette correspondent to any "social norms" accidentally (by force of tradition) or deliberately (via explicit ideological premises) present in any current or past society. Objective etiquette must necessarily follow from rational philosophical premises, including the principle of egoism and the recognition of the existence of, and every individual's right to, a private realm. Hence, an observation of a man's public conduct, both in the positive and negative sense, can be a test of his rationality and desirability as an associate.

First, it is necessary to determine the ethical root of the concept of privacy, of the fact that there are matters which a man can legitimately keep to himself or within a close circle of relevant persons. The two antecedents to privacy are "property" and "rights," property being any item which man has earned by his own effort (or miscellaneous consensual entitlement) and can peacefully use or dispose of as his self-interest requires. It was John Locke who had first discovered that the most fundamental property a man can hold, and that he acquires from the first moment of his existence, is his self, his mind, body, and all functions thereof included. This basic possession is the key to all other acquisitions, material or intellectual, which, as logically follows, become his own if earned by his own labor and not given away or traded to others (as a contractual agreement provides for in numerous cases, including a man's presentation of his labor to an employer in exchange for a salary). The concept of rights derives from man's nature as a reasoning being requiring the integration of material and intellectual realms for the attainment of his individual, selfish survival interests. Because a man needs property in order to fulfill the designs of his mind (which is also his property) toward his survival, it is right for him to gain and to keep property in a manner that does not initiate physical force against others. The compound term created via the integration of "property" and "rights" is, naturally enough, "property rights." As economist Ludwig von Mises correctly observed, at their root, "all rights are property rights."

The right to privacy is also a property right, contained in the fact that no individual is obliged to give away the functions of his body or mind, that he can maintain their exclusivity if he deems it to be in his best self-interest to do so, since these are the most pivotal tools to his continuing existence and prosperity. This also explains the non-compulsory nature of etiquette; just as an individual is permitted to give away his property without any gain in return, or, worse, to wastefully destroy it without any beneficiary whatsoever, so is he allowed to abrogate his own privacy in public, his own, but no one else's, just as he is not sanctioned to damage or defile another person's physical property. The purpose of etiquette is to categorize instances where it would be most beneficial for an individual to seek counsel or assistance from the public, and where such a pursuit would merely inhibit his capacity to attain a productive outcome.

Both mind and body are exclusively individual properties; there is no collective brain just as there is no collective stomach. In both their workings, and their malfunctions, every individual is the sole person directly affected. In the realm of the body, the individual, if he deems himself subadequately able to correct any ailment or wound, can, in search of voluntary, consensual assistance, consult as many other persons as he deems fit. By seeing a doctor, he retains his right to privacy. The doctor may not disclose his diagnosis, recommendations, or patient's medical history, to any miscellaneous persons without the patient's explicit consent. Even when a man, say, trips on a crowded street and sprains his ankle beyond any ability to move, he may call out for aid to any passers-by, and retain his right to privacy. None of those who assist him, including professional first-aid personnel, are entitled to call random persons or their acquaintances, whose notification will not accelerate the man's treatment, and state that "so-and-so has suffered a sprained ankle." They can, however, state that "a person has sprained an ankle, and thus I shall have to work late today," since this does not identify the particular man and removes from the public knowledge any association between the phenomenon and the subject. Thereby, no unwanted information about that man has been disclosed to the public, if it has no means of discovering who precisely had suffered the injury. Similarly, it is tactful and proper for an orator to voice a concern about statistically increasing obesity in the country, but a gross moral infringement for him to publicly declare, "John Smith is an obese man who leads an improper lifestyle."

No individual bodily properties may become a public matter without that person's permission, yet there are instances in which it is advantageous for an individual to render his physical condition, within a delimited context, known to any person who wishes, i.e. the public. The only cases in which this can conceivably be so are in the cases of exceptional physical well-being, as with an athlete, or a businessman or politician who wishes to prove to his customers/electorate that he is absolutely suited for continuing to competently interact with them toward a mutual gain/protection from loss. As for the athlete, demonstrating his physical proficiency via the use of available forms of media enables him to earn vast sums of wealth that he might not have gained otherwise. However, in general, where it concerns individual physical upkeep or disorder correction, all properties of the body are, and should be kept, private.

The general public, i.e. any random person, cannot help an individual rid himself of a chronic illness, nor can it assist him in brushing his teeth. Hygiene, regular maintenance of the body, be it healthy or ill, is therefore best kept private. So is treatment or physical errata or deficiencies. One may to his best interest seek assistance from a delimited circle of specialized persons, as well as inform relatives and close friends who can provide moral or advisory support. One may also search medical publications or advertisements available to the general public, but he does not render the matter any less absolutely private by doing so. The general public, after all, is not aware of who else is examining material that it can access. However, it is a morally reprehensible act for one to venture into a large gathering of people and scream out, "I have cavities!" or to mention this fact to everyone he encounters in his daily course of affairs. A rational individual would not wish to associate with such a man, nor with one who approaches him and casually inquires, "So, how are those cavities of yours doing?" He would not mind, however, speaking to a dentist or a medical enthusiast, who is explaining, at a banquet or conference, how cavities form and what methods any individual can employ to prevent them.

The objective need to keep bodily properties private leads to another behavioral/stylistic necessity, to which all rational individuals will adhere, clothing. Aside from those parts of the body which are indispensable to perception of and interaction with the outside world, such as the mouth, nose, ears, and eyes (and, in some cases, the hands), all others, which hint at the physical state of the proprietor individual, should be kept concealed from the view of any random passer-by. Of course, the degree to which such coverture is required is contextual; on a hot day one can wear short sleeves to prevent discomfort and nevertheless not reveal volumes about his bodily state. So can one, in a swimming pool, wear a bathing suit that is most conductive to unobstructed aquatic movement. However, one should always seek maximum privacy in the coverage that his clothing can afford under the circumstances. While it is entirely within proper manners to wear a short-sleeved shirt or dress in public, to don a miniskirt or flimsy see-through quasi-garment is irrelevant both to comfort and coverture (so is, by the way, a large portion of the swimsuits, especially of the female variety, encountered during the present day; the Victorian era should have served as sufficient proof that unimpeded swimming can be accomplished in far ampler attire). It is intended to reveal unwanted information about the possessor's bodily state and is thus a breach of etiquette, to be called by an adjective that reveals precisely the wearer's motive and the perceivers' reactions, scandalous.

Likely, to shield himself from public knowledge of physical imperfections and occasional infestations with dirt or wear, the tactful man will practice proper hygiene without discussing it; he will adhere to standards of cleanliness and order both in his body and clothing; he will not deliberately brandish wounds, stains, shreds, or haphazard hairdos. This norm should apply to his solitary time as well, as it is preventive of the disease and disrepair that his organism will otherwise encounter. As concerns objective self-interest, it is hypocrisy for a man to appear in an immaculate suit on a crowded street or at a prestigious banquet, while strutting around in his undergarments at home.

The functions of the mind are analogous to those of the body in that it is the individual's prerogative to disclose them or keep them to himself, but it should be noted that there are far more instances in the intellectual realm that it is advantageous for an individual to introduce into the public domain. Any philosophy, mathematical theorem, scientific principle, method of production, or work of art will bring its creator far ampler opportunities and profits if it is discussed, analyzed, applied, materialized, or appreciated by anyone willing to put forth necessary payment (in tangible goods or intellectual effort) that rewards the author for his exertions. This is true, of course, only in a society that recognizes a free market and its corollary, individual rights, at least partially. Under a dictatorship, oligarchy, or proletarian mob rule, it is not only imprudent, but deadly, for an individual to disclose, and benefit from, his original discoveries. Totalitarianism not only curtails the individual's right to keep matters private (via surveillance, regulation, and indoctrination) but also his right to selectively render his private matters public. A totalitarian regime imposes its own dictates upon every one of its subjects and expects uniform, undeviating obedience to each norm and precept. The savage tribe, mentioned in Howard Roark's quote, is the ultimate exponent of totalitarianism, the society most hopelessly bound in a quagmire of unsubstantiated tradition, ritual, taboos, destitution, and hopelessness, stifling innovation since "time immemorial," and forcing its denizen drones to spend their entire lives in ramshackle huts open to the air, without doors, panels, or any other individual breathing space.

Yet the realm of the mind and products thereof also possesses matters best kept private in free-market (or relatively free-market) circumstances. Just as with the best of bodily properties and functions, so should the best of mental properties and functions be revealed for optimum benefit to their possessor. Yet the erroneous or substandard mental characteristics will not benefit their holder in a public atmosphere. These include, among those who exhibit them, anxieties, superstitions, roaming ruminations, dreams, manias, phobias, hallucinations, and miscellaneous unformed or deformed aspects. Each of the aforementioned is either not a fully identified trait (such as a dream, which is a random rehashing of the brain's impressions during the day, or an anxiety, which is an emotion whose premise-based root has not yet been pinpointed) which must be analyzed, filtered, and reformatted into logical speech prior to presentation, or a methodical/structural flaw within the brain's functions (as in the case of the other five listed phenomena), which must be amended by willful corrective introspection. Note that false ideas are not included in the list of items best kept private; if an individual errs in knowledge or judgment, the reasoning of his associates, or of any willing rational person, can assist him, if he is intellectually honest, in identifying and purging the flaws in his thinking. But those aspects which he already knows to be irrational, incomplete, or problematic are his to resolve, using any closed-context help from professionals that he may desire.

Political correctness is not proper etiquette; the modern leftists wish to transform every blundering hypothesis into a sacred cow by exempting it from criticism when it is presented, in the name of "respecting the ideas of others." Yet by the very fact of an idea being opened to the public, or even a limited circle of people, it is placed into competition and interaction with the products of other minds; the very purpose of public discourse is to trade value for value, to gain from others insight and feedback conductive to one's physical and/or mental functions (this includes practice in heated argumentation). If one fears being "offended" by others' disagreement, then he is best advised not to present his claims in the first place.

A crucial note must be made in regard to the privacy of the mind: while it is quite advantageous to reveal to the public the complete products of one's mind after their formation, during it the individual must be left exclusively to himself. Says Howard Roark, "We inherit the products of the thought of other men. We inherit the wheel. We make a cart. The cart becomes an automobile. The automobile becomes an airplane. But all through the process what we receive from others is only the end product of their thinking. The moving force is the creative faculty which takes this product as material, uses it and originates the nest step. This creative faculty cannot be given or received, shared or borrowed. It belongs to single individual men. That which it creates is the property of the creator. Men learn from one another. But all learning is only the exchange of material. No man can give another the capacity to think. Yet that capacity is our only means of survival." The process of creativity and creation is an exclusively personal affair which, when it is undertaken, requires solitude and external tranquility. One cannot invent or discover while attending to others' needs or even communications, though one can discuss with others the results of his ponderings and render the latter open to external suggestion. Hence, there is a crucial necessity much underemphasized in the present cultural milieu of "social interdependence," the need for every individual to be let alone as he seeks to raise his thoughts to a presentable and profitable state.

Now we shift to a realm that is necessarily more complex, as it involves phenomena the primary means of which cannot be classified as either physical or mental, but rather as an integration of both in fairly equal roles. (The two are, in fact, integrated in every task, as even the most detached rumination inevitably involves the movement of electrical impulses within the physical brain, but in some there is a clear dominant element, whereas in others it is not evident.) One such practice is that of romantic love. It is tempting to proceed with its classification along the lines of the public-private distinction by presuming that everyone knows precisely what is being discussed. The fact, however, is that almost nobody does. The widespread confusion on the subject, embedded in the culture by ancient altruism and modern Frommian psedo-psychological quackery, can only be vanquished via a precise definition. I have devised it in February of 2003 and present it here as a first application: Romantic love is the volitionally engendered, exclusive, and intense attraction between two individuals based on mutually beneficial material and intellectual/spiritual considerations. Hence, we bid farewell to the horrid notions of unconditionality, inexplicability, and mysticism and prepare to explore this concept's relation to the realm of etiquette.

The nature of romantic love as a strictly private undertaking can be derived from its exclusivity; this relationship is both the most proximate possible between two individuals, and a function possessing entirely its own psychological "plane," which is not shared by any other emotions, attractions, or interests. To grant such a consideration to two or more people (as in the case of adultery or polygamy) would be to dilute its effect on each and thus turn a profound appreciation into flimsy, superficial promiscuity. Any such love that is "shared" is thereby corrupted, not amplified (in absolute refutation to the collectivists' seemingly contradictory, but in fact perfectly consistent proclamations of "free love" and "socially planned breeding"). But to taint such an intense and at the same time delicate bond does not require attaining two targets for one's love. A mere public revelation of the details of one's relationship, of the physical and intellectual exchanges intended to exclusively benefit the participant parties, conveys the impression that the love is a mere adventure featuring in discussions with acquaintances who are by definition less proximate than one's partner. It is thereby lowered to the status of the mundane, and the message is conveyed that "John Smith values his wife just as, but not more than, he would value a friend or a colleague at work; there is no matter of confidence between the two of them that he would not reveal to the others." Hence, discussion of the particulars of one's romantic relationship in public, or even among persons of certain proximity to oneself, is not proper etiquette. Though, it must be mentioned that it is proper to state or allude to the fact that the relationship exists (say, by inviting one's friends to a wedding, or by attending large events open to the general public with one's spouse). This revelation discloses nothing about the matters confidential within the couple while merely notifying those whom it may concern that "John Smith values his wife above any other person in the world."

Of course, intimate gossip is not the main culprit in the violation of this principle of proper etiquette. That role, in the past forty years, has been played by the mass media, in its wanton expositions of bedroom scenes and scantiness of clothing obviously not meant for the public consumption. As a result, note that not a hint of romance is present in these portrayals, not a suggestion that two individuals are demonstrating the highest possible valuation toward one another, not a speck of the intellectual and far more delicate facet of love. Instead, what is seen is crude lust, as for a chunk of meat, with all the corresponding (and ever-escalating in magnitude) rapist-butcher attitudes pervading modern popular culture. Along with the imagery, which is steadily becoming pornographic even on "mainstream" television (which I proudly do not watch; previews and commercials have been sufficient to avert me), there has seeped from the ghettos a whole army of profane expressions, note, almost all of them jargon referring to intimate details which should have been consigned to the realm of private romantic love. (The other "swear words" are expressions either of bodily or cognitive malfunctions, or of routine hygienic functions that are no one's business.) This is the brazen, crusadingly nihilistic consequence of a society incapable of respecting the private realm.

The other field which synthesizes the physical and the mental to roughly equal degrees (here, the specific quantities vary depending on the individual's particular undertaking) is work. This term is applicable to any career or hobby wherein a man employs a scheme present within his mind toward the production of some physical object, be it writing on a piece of paper (as in a directive to one's subordinates) or a supercomputer. Whether or not his work, that is, the knowledge and product thereof, are best kept to himself or provided to others in exchange for values of equal market worth, is very much contextual. A key factor to consider is a man's productive capacity, i.e. the means available to him for the creation of further such goods; if he is a barefoot pauper living on the outskirts of a forest, it would not benefit him extensively to seek the aid of others while gathering malleable twigs with which he can craft primitive footwear, nor will others anytime soon be offered a pair of shoes of his manufacture. However, if a magnate possesses an efficient, automatized assembly line which can pump out far many more shoes than he can ever personally employ, he should advertise extensively for willing customers to purchase that surplus. Where etiquette is concerned, the discussion of one's work in public should be preceded by an introspective question: Does it occur on such a scale that I would, in the search of a material or intellectual value, desire the attention and patronization of others and that exceeds the mere fulfillment of my exclusively personal physical maintenance needs? If the individual answers affirmatively, then he is within the bounds of propriety. As for hobbies, undertakings not intended to generate substantial wealth, discussing them in public can harmlessly be a part of one's practice at any time. Teaching an interested associate how to play golf, or to collect stamps, can only lead to an interesting pastime, conversation topic, and perhaps physical and mental development.

"I shall choose friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire. For in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone. Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled. Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, but only beyond his holy threshold." This declaration by Prometheus in Rand's Anthem perfectly characterizes the rational man's attitude toward privacy in a free society, an attitude that forces no interaction upon an individual and demands no revelation, but merely suggests, in the form of proper etiquette, which matters it is in his interests to share, and which to keep within his temple, the temple whose bounds can be objectively defined.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.