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Sleeping policemen and garden sheds

Big Brother, it seems, has been asleep on the job.  Even though it is said that we in the UK are more subject to surveillance than any other society, peered at by cameras wherever we go about our innocent business, today’s headlines tell us that this intrusion is not even fulfilling its purpose of catching the people whose business is not so innocent.   The police apparently don’t like watching miles of boring video (and who can blame them?), so they don’t do it much,  and the massive investment in equipment has brought street crime in London down by only 3%.  Perhaps that is some consolation to people whose objections to surveillance are not just those of cost.  Even if the cameras are there, at least nobody is bothering to watch us.

But does this lack of success mean we should abandon the whole project,
or that we should wake the sleeping policemen?  Another headline today
was about Lord Justice Woolf’s review of BAE and its culture of
disregard for ethical standards.  In the BBC’s Today programme, he
defined ‘unethical conduct’ as the sort of thing you wouldn’t want your
friends and the local newspaper to know about.  That may not stand up
to detailed examination:  there are plenty of things we wouldn’t want
other people to know about that aren’t in the least unethical, and,
conversely, there are many contexts where you can get positive social
credit among your friends by doing what is morally regrettable or even
horrible (‘happy slapping’, blowing up buses). The good is not
necessarily the socially approved, or vice versa. 

Nevertheless, the
remark draws attention to what is sometimes forgotten in societies that
emphasize liberty:  that people do behind closed doors things that they
would not want other people to know about.  If we want to make people
behave well, it is a good idea to make sure they know they are being

This was obviously well understood by religions that brought in God as
a permanent overseer:  somebody was watching all the time.  But that
can itself have odd effects on ideas about ethics.  In parts of the
Christian tradition moral virtue became a matter of purity of the soul,
in which a willingness to do without temporal approval was the supreme
test.  But the trouble with the kind of heroism that prevents the left
hand from knowing the good the right hand is doing is that it needs God
to ensure a happy ending in the long run.  Of course it is ideal when
individuals have such deeply rooted moral standards that they will
behave well whether they are being watched or not (though of course
those standards will originally have been developed through observation
and approval), but, as John Stuart Mill pointed out in The Subjection
of Women
, you can’t plan social organization on the basis of thinking
about best instances.  Of course in an ideal society people will do
what is good just because it is good, ‘but in the meantime, laws and
institutions require to be adapted, not to good men, but to bad’.  A
society where people are not watched may provide an excellent testing
ground for fitness to heaven, but it will not be a good society.

Of course as individuals we all value the possibility of privacy – because that gives us
the freedom to get on with what we want to do unconstrained by
adjustments to other people’s agendas.   But equally, we all have a
vested interest in not giving other people their privacy, essentially
because knowing what other people are up to is a crucial aspect of our
being able to manipulate events, just as is any other knowledge of the
workings of the world.  No doubt this is why our species has evolved
with such prurient curiosity and addiction to gossip.   There is a
perpetual struggle between individuals who would like to prevent other
people from knowing what they are up to, and the rest of us who want to
find out.  Like all such struggles, this generates its own technological arms races.

The right to privacy is like any other right:  good for the person who
has it, but with real social costs.  Those costs must be considered
whenever we try to decide what rights to privacy we should have, and
when we press for civil liberties and freedom from intrusion.  Recent
history has led us to be very afraid of societies pervaded by spies and
surveillance devices, and many of us have at least mixed feelings about
tabloid speculations and revelations.  But privacy is, in terms of the
history of humanity, a recent luxury;  and however good for individuals
who benefit from it, carries corresponding costs for others.  As
Sherlock Holmes remarked to Watson in The Copper Beeches, contrasting
crowded towns with the privileged isolation of country houses, in the
towns “There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or
the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation
among the neighbours…   But look at these lonely houses, each in its
own fields…  Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden
wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none
the wiser”.

As we get richer, we can achieve more privacy even in towns, and value
the social decorum that generally keeps the neighbours at a distance
from everyone else’s private life
and leaves a man unquestioned as he
gets on with building model aeroplanes, or whatever, in his garden
shed.  But the man may be beating his wife and raping his daughters
behind his respectable front door, and building dungeons in the
garden.   It is not clear that Big Brother is worse than Josef Fritzl.

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