Philosophy 318: Professional Ethics
Theodore Gracyk

Outline of Lippke Essay

Professionals are expected to respect the "privacy" of their clients. But what about the privacy rights of professionals themselves?

Basic principle: Privacy is important because of its relationship to autonomy, where "autonomy [is] the capacity to make rationally reflective choices about [human] ends and activities."

Basic thesis: In the USA, employers do not sufficiently respect the autonomy of employees.


To have privacy, we need (1) personal control over information about ourselves and (2) some level of control over who else has access to this information. An individual has privacy when that individual maintains can limit both the CONTENT and the RECIPIENTS of such information.

Lippke borrows Kupfer's view: Autonomy is a basic good (we don't have to say what else it's good for). To have autonomy, one must recognize one's own autonomy, and this requires both physical and psychological control over oneself (i.e., some degree of privacy). So privacy is good because we need it to possess autonomy.

WHY? Because autonomy requires self-reflection (for instance, you can't act freely if you don't understand your own goals, desires, etc.), and self-reflection requires privacy, because a lack of privacy leaves us too "distracted" to engage in proper self-reflection. Furthermore, people who face constant scrutiny by others are psychologically disadvantaged, because they won't regard themselves as "worthy of autonomy."  Basically, we need self-confidence in order to act with autonomy (to pursue our own goals and interests), but a lack of privacy destroys self-confidence (because the person feels unworthy).

Application of these concepts

Something like the following is often used to limit employee privacy: In order for employment to be a genuine contract, both parties need informed consent. So the employer has a right to know about a candidate's qualifications for the job, including facts about the applicant's moral character and personality. However, many facts are normally irrelevant to job performance (e.g., age, sexual orientation, race). After employment, the employer has the right to seek information about employees (e.g., with drug testing, surveillance) in order to be sure that employees are both doing their job and not creating problems that will reduce their proper functioning as employees.

Lippke thinks that the above argument is no good. It assumes that employment is a contract. However, Employment is NOT a free contract. There's an "imbalance of power," so it's not really a contract. The two parties are seldom equals, because employers usually have more freedom than do the applicants (e.g., the employer usually has many applicants to choose from, but the applicant has few employers to choose from). 

Therefore applicants have limited power to reject demands for private information, and no basis for deciding which information is NOT "job relevant."

Lippke thinks that employers must start with the principle that employees deserve maximum autonomy. He constructs the following reasoning:

The more information that employers seek, the fewer options the employees will see for themselves, so the less "rich" is the employee's sense of personal autonomy. So, the more information sought, the less "prone to exercise their autonomy." 

For example, random drug testing of employees tells them that others regard them as untrustworthy. This message is "internalized" by many employees, who feels unworthy of trust and respect, which reduces their autonomy.


Furthermore, many capitalistic work situations have problem employees because the organization is already "morally sick." So eroding the privacy of employees to protect the organization is really a case of punishing the true victims!

Instead of eroding privacy, the organization of work must prioritize a more HUMANE, respectful working environment. 


Return to Course
Home Page
Return to Theodore Gracyk's Home Page 

            Last updated April 2, 2008