The unobserved life is essential to human flourishing

Viewpoint on privacy, on Aeon Ideas.

Human beings benefit from privacy, from having some control over what others know about them, having a space and a place where the door is shut to the rest of world. This is most obvious in relation to state authorities and the powerful. We need protection from ‘them’, distance, a separate sphere, because they have the power to do stuff to us – spy on us, arrest and imprison us, and the like.

Where privacy is as important, but perhaps less obviously so, is in relation to the development of the human person. Privacy allows us to retreat from the world, for a while, to not be ‘on show’ all the time, to take our face off. It is space without scrutiny and immediate judgment in which we can take time out and reflect. Here, we can be vulnerable. Here, we can experiment and try things out. Here, we can make mistakes. We can be ourselves; learning and developing what that means. And that we have some say over what others know and what they do not know, is a way to develop autonomy and self-possession. All this helps us to sure up psychological and social depth. As the writer Hannah Arendt put it: “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.”

A private sphere helps to create the conditions for the development of a reflective, rounded and stronger person and that benefits the public sphere. It’s about more than just being alone, or being left alone, it means we can open the door and reenter the public sphere having thought things through.