forget about it
On why you should care about privacy: Plenty to Hide
- Some people do have something to hide, but not something that the government ought to gain the power to reveal. People hide many things from even their closest friends and family: the fact that they are gay, the fact that they are sick, the fact that they are pregnant, the fact that they are in love with someone else. Though your private life may be especially straightforward, that should not lead you to support policies that would intrude on the more complicated lives of others. There’s a reason we call it private life.
- You may not have anything to hide, but the government may think you do. One word: errors. If we allow the government to start looking over our shoulders just in case we might be involved in wrongdoing—mistakes will be made. You may not think you have anything to hide, but still might end up in the crosshairs of a government investigation, or entered into some government database, or worse. The experience with terrorist watch lists over the past 10 years has shown that the government is highly prone to errors, and tends to be sloppily overinclusive in those it decides to flag as possibly dangerous.
- Are you sure you have nothing to hide? As I said in this 2006 piece, there are a lot of laws on the books—a lot of very complicated laws on the books—and prosecutors and the police have a lot of discretion to interpret those laws. And if they decide to declare you public enemy #1, and they have the ability to go through your life with a fine-tooth comb because your privacy has been destroyed, they will find something you’ll wish you could hide. Why might the government go after you? The answers can involve muddy combinations of things such as abuse of power, mindless bureaucratic prosecutorial careerism, and political retaliation. On this point a quotation attributed to Cardinal Richelieu is often invoked: “Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, and I’ll find something in them to hang him by.”
- Everybody hides many things even though they’re not wrong. The ultimate example is the fact that most people don’t want to be seen naked in public. Nudity also makes a good metaphor for a whole category of privacy concerns: just because we want to keep things private doesn’t mean we’ve done anything wrong. And, it can be hard to give rational reasons why we feel that way—even those of us who feel most comfortable with our bodies. True, some people may be perfectly happy posting nude pictures of themselves online, but other people do not like to show even a bare ankle—and they should have that right. In the same way, there may not be anything particularly embarrassing about other details of our lives—but they are our details. The list of all the groceries you have purchased in the past year may contain nothing damaging, but you might not want a stranger looking over that either, because of that same difficult-to-articulate feeling that it would just be, somehow, invasive, and none of their damned business. As Bruce Schneier aptly sums it up, “we do nothing wrong when we sing in the shower.”
- You may not care about hiding it, but you may still be discriminated against because of it. As I discussed recently in this post about data mining, people are often denied benefits or given worse deals because some company decides that some behavior—entirely innocent and legal—might suggest you are a poor risk. For example, credit card companies sometimes lower a customer’s credit limit based on the repayment history of the other customers of stores where a person shops.
- Privacy is about much broader values than just “hiding things.” Although many people will want more specific answers to the question such as the above, ultimately the fullest retort to the “nothing to hide” impulse is a richer philosophical defense of privacy that articulates its importance to human life—the human need for a refuge from the eye of the community, and from the self-monitoring that living with others entails; the need for space in which to play and to try out new ideas, identities, and behaviors, without lasting consequences; and the importance of maintaining the balance of power between individuals and the state.
On health: Diet Quality and Quantity Matter
Conventional wisdom says that since a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source, the best advice for weight control is simply to eat less and exercise more. Yet emerging research suggests that some foods and eating patterns may make it easier to keep calories in check, while others may make people more likely to overeat.
In another experiment, Stephens presented firefighters and MBA students with the following hypothetical situation: “You just bought a new car, and then you find that your friend has purchased the exact same car. How do you feel?” The firefighters were overwhelmingly pleased and said things like, “Fantastic. He gets a great car.” The MBA students were negative or ambivalent. “I would feel slightly irritated,” one said. “It spoils my differentiation,” said another. (Madison Avenue discovered and manipulated this bifurcation in the American self-image long ago: When it sells trucks, the ads might show a parking lot full, pulled up at a multigenerational picnic, with slogans like “Take Family Time Further.” When it sells sports cars, the commercials show a car zooming down the highway alone. The slogan for the BMW M3 even nods in the direction of Piff’s discovery about the drivers of high-end cars and traffic rules: “Street Legal. Pretty Much.”)
The result of this concerted campaign of disinformation is a viewership that knows almost nothing about what’s going on in the world. According to recent polls, Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers. They are 12 percentage points more likely to believe the stimulus package caused job losses, 17 points more likely to believe Muslims want to establish Shariah law in America, 30 points more likely to say that scientists dispute global warming, and 31 points more likely to doubt President Obama’s citizenship. In fact, a study by the University of Maryland reveals, ignorance of Fox viewers actually increases the longer they watch the network. That’s because Ailes isn’t interested in providing people with information, or even a balanced range of perspectives. Like his political mentor, Richard Nixon, Ailes traffics in the emotions of victimization.
One common criticism of any proposed atheistic morality is that atheism is inherently incapable of giving rise to a moral system, and that atheists can only have one by borrowing – some less charitable apologists say “stealing” – it from theism. The logical conclusion of such an argument is that atheists are hypocrites (one apologist used the term “moral parasites”), rejecting the teachings of religion even while living by its ethical code.
I deny these claims categorically. It may well be the case that some theists have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they cannot even imagine how a moral code could be arrived at without the confines of their belief system, but atheists have no such difficulty. Atheists, like all human beings, can empathize with the happiness of others and wish to increase it; and they can empathize with the sadness of others and wish to end it.
And this turns out to be the crux of the matter. Universal utilitarianism is not in any way derived from theistic morality, because it is based on the fundamentally human trait of empathy. It proposes that we should help others not because a higher authority commands it, not because we will be rewarded if we do and punished if we do not, but because we all know what it is like to be happy and to suffer, and we should want to increase the happiness and decrease the suffering of others just as we want that for ourselves. If one happens to believe in a religion whose teachings align with this, well and good, but as far as universal utilitarianism is concerned, morality can be arrived at and defended for purely humanistic reasons without recourse to the will of the gods.
There is another argument against this accusation of theft. Many major religious traditions, including Christianity and Islam, consider this life no more than a momentary trial prior to an afterlife of infinitely greater importance. By contrast, universal utilitarianism, in conjunction with the moral-Popperian principle that no afterlife has been verified and this life is the only one we know of, holds that this life is therefore of primary importance. This point of divergence is a fundamental difference in the way this moral system and most theistic ones view human life and refutes any naive claims that one was straightforwardly borrowed from the other. Universal utilitarianism, for example, cannot justify human suffering, or withhold action to correct wrongs, on the grounds that all will be set right in the world to come. Nor can it countenance force or coercion to ensure uniformity of belief on the grounds that doing so will ultimately save the souls of those so coerced. Even more so, without certainty of an afterlife, it makes this life more precious and enshrines human happiness in this life as the highest goal.
There is one final argument against the claim of atheists using morality borrowed from theism: lack of reliance on a deity’s will is precisely the thing that allows universal utilitarianists to unambiguously condemn wrongs committed in the name of God. For example, the Muslim terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center believed that their brand of radical Islam justified their actions; by striking a blow against the corrupt and immoral West, they were serving Allah’s will and helping more Muslims reach Heaven.
This, then, is my rejoinder to those theists who claim atheism can only have an absolute moral grounding by “stealing” it from theism: it is precisely my lack of all religious belief that allows me to say with certainty that such actions are morally wrong. Theists, on the other hand, face a difficulty in condemning actions such as this – how do they know that God didn’t really command the terrorists to hijack those planes? In fact, some theists do believe that, and not just Muslims. Witness, for example, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s remarks to the effect that the actions of certain groups had caused God to lift his “veil of protection” from the United States and allow the September 11 attacks to occur.
Granted, theists who say such things are in the minority, and granted, their views are evil, hateful and wrong. I have absolutely no argument with that, and I have no desire to trivialize the people who lost their lives on that terrible day. I mourn their loss and honor the heroism of those who gave their lives trying to save others. But that is exactly the point. I, as an atheist, know why I reject the views of people like Robertson and Falwell. Why do theists reject them?
Is it not commonly said that no human being can know the will of God or fully understand the reasons why he allows evil to occur? Is it not the case, in the Bible and other holy books, that God frequently allows evil to happen to human beings to punish them for their sins? (Amos 3:6 claims that no evil occurs to a city that God is not responsible for.) Is it not true, according to many theists, that anything God wills is justified by definition? Given these facts, how then can a theist confidently say that any action is right or wrong? It hardly needs repeating that the events of September 11 are by no means the first evil act committed by humans against humans in the name of God.
What grounds does a religious believer have for pronouncing these things immoral? Mere inward certainty that God would not will such a thing is a completely subjective basis, able to justify any action as well as to condemn it. The internal contradictions within the Bible and other holy books make it impossible to use them as a reliable guide to morality, although even if they were completely consistent that would not prove them to be the word of God. Unless God clearly reveals himself and explains what his will is (as this article from the Onion imagines), no theist can say for certain that God does or does not approve of a given action, and thus no theist can say for certain that an action is or is not morally right. Religious belief is, in summary, a “moral blank check” that can justify any action if it is committed in the name of an inscrutably willed divine being; but universal utilitarianism does not allow such easy justifications.