What Virtue Privacy?

[Warning: this post is LONG.]

On first glance the homo hypocritus hypothesis, that humans had huge heads to subtly evade social norms while pretending to enforce them, seems supported by our love of privacy.  The argument “Why oppose transparency unless you have something to hide?” suggests we are private to evade norm enforcement. To explore this issue, I pondered Thomas Nagel’s famous ’98 defense of privacy norms (HT Richard Chappell.)

First, consider some of Nagel’s concrete examples:

A and B meet at a cocktail party; A has recently published an unfavorable review of B’s latest book, but neither of them alludes to this fact, and they speak, perhaps a bit stiffly, about real estate. … Consider the alternative: B: You son of a bitch, I bet you didn’t even read my book. …

At the same party C and D meet. D is a candidate for a job in C’s department, and C is transfixed by D’s beautiful breasts. They exchange judicious opinions about a recent publication by someone else. Consider the alternative: … D: Take your eyes off me, you dandruff-covered creep. …

When Maggie in The Golden Bowl lets the Prince know that she knows everything, by letting him see the broken bowl, … they do not explicitly discuss the Prince’s affair. … If it were out there on the table between them, demanding some kind of joint response, the manifestation of their reactions would lead to a direct collision, filled with reproaches and counterreproaches, guilt and defiance, anger, pity, humiliation, and shame, which their intimacy would not survive. …

[Regarding] Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, … the challenge on the basis of his sexual victimization of Anita Hill was quite unjustified, even though I’m sure it was all true. … The only way to avoid damage to someone’s reputation by facts of this kind, in spite of their irrelevance to qualification for public office, is through a powerful convention of nonacknowledgment.

Nagel is perceptive in seeing our related social games:

The point of polite formulae and broad abstentions from expression is to leave a great range of potentially disruptive material unacknowledged and therefore out of play. It is material that everyone who has been around knows is there — feelings of hostility, contempt, derision, envy, vanity, boredom, fear, sexual desire or aversion, plus a great deal of simple self-absorption. …

One expresses one’s desires … only to the extent that they are compatible with the publicly acknowledged desires of others, or at least in such a way that any conflict can be easily resolved by a commonly accepted procedure of decision. One avoids calling attention to one’s own obsessions or needs in a way that forces others either to attend to them or too conspicuously to ignore them, and one avoids showing that one has noticed the failings of others, in order to allow them to carry on without having to respond to one’s reactions of amusement or alarm. … Everyone knows that there is much more going on than what enters the public domain, but the smooth functioning of that domain depends on a general nonacknowledgment of what everyone knows. …

In some cases, perhaps, good manners do their work by making it possible for us to believe that things are not as they are, and that others hold us in the regard which they formally display. … If someone else engages in flattery that is actually meant to be believed, it is offensive because it implies that they believe you require this kind of deception as a balm to your vanity. …

In our present subculture … there is considerable latitude for the airing of disagreements and controversy of a general kind. … It is impolite to draw attention to one’s achievements or to express personal insecurity, envy, or the fear of death, or strong feelings about those present, except in a context of intimacy.

But Nagel’s explanation for all this behavior seems to me rather idealistic:

Nonacknowledgment can sometimes also serve the purpose of deceiving those, like children or outsiders, who do not know the conventions. But its main purpose is … to manage the distinction between … what invites attention and a collective response and what remains individual and may be ignored. …

Conventions of restraint … avoid provoking unnecessary conflict. Some forms of reticence have a social function, protecting us from one another and from undesirable collisions and hostile reactions. Other forms of reticence have a personal function, protecting the inner life from a public exposure that would cause it to wither, or would require too much distortion. … Selective intimacy permits some interpersonal relations to be open to forms of exposure that are needed for the development of a complete life. …

The conventions of reticence result from a kind of implicit social contract … that serves to some degree (though unequally) the interests of all — as social conventions tend to do. … The essential function of the boundary between what is acknowledged and what is not is to admit or decline to admit potentially significant material into the category of what must be taken into consideration and responded to collectively. … If something is not acknowledged, then even if it is universally known, it can be left out of consideration in the collective social process, though it may play an important role separately in the private deliberations of the individual participants. …

The trouble with the alternatives is that they lead to a dead end, because they demand engagement on terrain where common ground is unavailable without great effort, and only conflict will result. … Humans … suffer … inhibition and embarrassment brought on by the thought that others are watching them. … there are aspects of life which require that we be free of it, in order that we may live and react entirely from the inside. They include sexual life in its most unconstrained form and the more extreme aspects of emotional life — fundamental anxieties about oneself, fear of death, personal rage, remorse, and grief.

Nagel says privacy norms function to avoid “conflict”, but it seems to me that the conflicts that privacy avoids come mainly from other social norms! For example, if norms require a cheating victim to end their marriage, a cheating victim who does not want to end her marriage, but who does want to inform her spouse she knows about the cheating, must be careful to send this message in a way observers can’t see. Hence the clever trick with the broken bowl.

In Nagel’s other examples, people also conspire to avoid various acts in order to avoid the strong reactions that common norms would require to such acts. Social norms require people to react strongly to publicly visible acts of strong accusation, sexual leering, exposed adultery, or sexual harrassment. Social norms are also the source of our strong reactions to exposed sex, a problem Nagel says the privacy of intimacy helps to solve.

This all raises the question: If social norms serve the interests of all, then why do we have social norms pushing people to induce the conflicts that privacy norms may then help avoid?

Here’s my tenative answer.

Before humans, primates had complex social strategies that required huge brains to manage. But other primates had little in the way of social norms they were expected to enforce.  In contrast, humans language helped enable social norms, which could promote social efficiency and reduce inefficient conflict. People were expected to punish norm violators, as well as all who didn’t punish violators.

If such norms had been consistently and fairly enforced, humans wouldn’t have needed huge primate brains. But humans quickly learned how to coordinate behind the scenes to selectively evade social norms, and such subtle strategies required the biggest brains of all.

One way to avoid having a social norm to apply to oneself is to prevent wide knowledge that the norm applies to your situation. It is all right if some folks know, as long as outsider observers don’t know. People don’t want to anyone to be able to prove they knowingly failed to enforce a norm.

So one might try to subtly encourage associates to not reveal damning information, and perhaps also punish those who do so. This would lead to a general habit of people being reluctant to “tell on” friends, which would then lead to a reluctance to “tell on” anyone with many strong allies. Which is basically a roughly pro-privacy equilibrium.

This sort of equilibrium allows selective enforcement, via selectively “telling on” folks. Folks might try to quietly “tell on” a rival to get the word out without that rival’s allies learning who exactly did the telling. Once enough people knew, the norm would have to be enforced, no matter how it was that folks came to know. Which would then lead to a general watching out for, and disapproval of, “gossip”, i.e., secretive telling on other people.

When folks expect to be able to evade a norm, they don’t mind making that norm stronger. This lets them sound more pro-social, while actually giving themselves an advantage over folks who can’t evade as easily. And once norms get overly strong, there is more intuitive support for allowing evasion, via attitudes supporting letting people keep their “privacy.”

So both sides can be right. The core function of privacy may be hypocrisy – avoiding the application of norms one endorses to oneself, and yet privacy norms may tend to be helpful in preventing enforcement of excessively strong norms. And the ambiguity of most privacy norms may enable the selective enforcement on which homo hypocritus thrives.

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  • Zach Kurtz

    Long post to read or long to write?

    • another reader

      @Zach Kurtz: what are you playing? 😉 Dare you suggest that Robin’s care about the reader expressed in the first line is actually some kind of a sigh of relief? ;>

  • Thomas Theta

    When folks expect to be able to evade a norm, they don’t mind making that norm stronger. This lets them sound more pro-social, while actually giving themselves an advantage over folks who can’t evade as easily.

    I tend to agree, but I’m not too sure about the word “stronger”. I think “complex” would actually fit better in many cases.
    Think about a traditional, religious society. The norms and rules are mostly very strong, but they are also simple enough for everybody to understand and follow. Our own societies norms are not so much strong and explicit as they are complex and implicit. The result is the one you describe: People with the mental capacity to navigate these complex environments have a huge advantage over people who don’t.
    This also explains why smart people tend to be more liberal and why they dislike hierarchy, strong social norms etc. They just have a comparative advantage without them.

  • Evan

    your homo hypocritus makes sense on a lot of levels. evolutionarily, the ability to evade social norms would seem to select for larger and larger brains. do you think that there are other forces that are strong enough to encourage this sort of evolutionary hurdle (big brains have a huge energy cost and must therefore give a big enough payoff to be selected for)? all other animals’ intelligence seems to plateau well below our own.

    would this imply that an intelligent alien society would have similar social evasive characteristics?

  • The phenomenon of “leaking” and anonymous sourcing in the media is the most obvious way in which we “tell on” someone without facing the consequences. Robert Novak put it in rather blunt terms “You’re either a source or a target”.

  • Your ‘homo hypocritus’ theory is interesting, plausible, and thought-provoking. But I do wonder: Is is falsifiable? Does there exist any information that would cause you to reject this theory? If so, what would that be? What fact about or experiment done on humans could disprove it?

    • Constant

      You just read the theory, did you not? You are aware of its content. At this point, presumably you should be able to judge for yourself whether it is falsifiable.

      As to whether there exists any information that would cause RHanson to reject this theory – what does that matter? He’s delivered the content to you. You have it now. RHanson’s psychological quirks, whatever they might be, such as what he would or would not accept as contrary evidence, are not of any special relevance to the theory he has communicated. Why not ask yourself if there exists any information that would cause you to reject the theory?

  • Thomas, yes, more complex norms also advantage some folks over others.

    Evan, yes initially smart social animals would likely first invent norms then evade them. But the game is far from over, and aliens would likely be much further along the path.

    Alleged, falsification just isn’t how most of academia works, nor should it be.

    • “Alleged, falsification just isn’t how most of academia works, nor should it be.”

      The misguidedness of Popperian falsificationism doesn’t excuse avoiding considering any evidence that might, in fact, refute one’s theory.

  • Daublin

    Falsification doesn’t matter? Are you trying to write a fantasy novel, or to describe the real world?

    • Evan

      if your theory on homo hyprocritus is scientific then there should be a set of possibilities that, if true, would disprove the theory. otherwise it’s closer to a faith-based religion. example: a precambrian rabbit would destroy the theory of evolution

    • I think Robin meant Bayesian.

  • Ilya Shpitser

    “Alleged, falsification just isn’t how most of academia works, nor should it be.”

    Yes, this kind of caught me off guard. I am sure some (many?) scientists value status over truthseeking, but you seem to be making a normative claim here. I think science at its best is better than an empty status contest.

  • JS Allen

    I’m pretty sure you’re right about this one, Robin. It seems pretty similar to the theory of altruistic punishment in “Comeuppance”, which I also found plausible.

  • “Among the professional philosophers of science, the Popperian view has never been seriously preferred to probabilistic induction, which is the mainstream account of scientific reasoning” (more)

    • Jess Riedel

      I’ll rephrase for Alleged: what possible, new, feasible experiments are there which would find evidence for or against your theory? If there are none, can your really assign much confidence at all that you are correct based on the already-collected data and given the very large space of theories which are of roughly the same complexity as yours?

      • Robert Koslover

        I may be off-base, but it seems to me that Robin’s point in citing the above Wikipedia link may be that even if the homo-hypocritus hypothesis may not be strictly falsifiable, it can still be a useful template for understanding and/or discussing our evolution.

      • Jess Riedel

        Robert: From what I can tell, he’s making pretty straightforward cause-and-effect claims. It’s not a template for understanding, it’s “the primary reason humans developed large brains is because of X”. As in, if X were nullified, they would not have developed such brains.

        I’m not a philosophy of science expert, but my understanding is that falsifiability, while an imperfect description of science, still get’s at the heart of the matter; you need to be able to distinguish worlds where your hypothesis is true, and worlds where it is false. A great friend of mine put it this way: If you could control the truth of your hypothesis with a light switch, would you see anything change by flicking the light switch on and off?

        (Sorry that this got way out on a tangent.)

    • Since you’re explaining how academia does things, you should also share, if only for consistency, academics’ universal revulsion for Wikipedia I’ve been unpersuaded by the argument that Wikipedia will inevitably get treated as authoritative, and in the end do more damage than good, but perhaps I should reconsider. Wikipedia is decidedly not an authority capable of resolving a disagreement about how scientists and philosophers of science explain induction!

      If you follow the footnote, moreover, you’ll see that the “paraphrased” language divides philosophers of science into three groups: at one extreme the Bayesians, in the middle philosophers who say we really don’t understand induction, and finally, those who say induction can’t deliver what it promises. The final position describes Popperian falsificationists. I have no idea where the Wikipedia author gets “probabilistic induction,” which in fact everyone rejects since Goodman shattered it with his grue paradox. It’s true almost everyone rejects Popper, but decidedly not because of any belief that potential falsification is necessary for a scientific theory. Only the Bayesian minority thinks that, and their position has been definitively shown incapable of accounting for induction. The reason everyone rejects Popper, I repeat, is not that he regards potential falsification as a necessary condition; everyone does if you broaden the concept to accommodate the Bayesians (as one poster immediately proposed). The reason everyone rejects Popper is he denies the possibility of verification. Essentially, everyone thinks falsifiability (or at least impugnability to accommodate Bayesians) is a necessary condition for a scientific theory. Where they differ is whether surviving falsification attempts verifies the theory.

  • Dave

    So it is the survival of the sneakiest? I read about the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalists( right wing) lied repeatedly to obtain surrender of opponents,then murdered them all. The Republicans eventually were controlled by Stalin’s agents who were big time liars and manipulators. These low trust regimes are now no longer here. Pure dirty dealing does not always pay.

    • Jordan

      That’s because it fosters too much instability. But if you have an implicit hypocrisy (usually not entirely a conscious one) where everyone is on roughly the same page, then it can be quite stable – just like flattering someone without any intention that they should beleive you mean it.

  • Consider why odious regimes have always encouraged, even compelled, citizens to report others, including their parents and siblings, not to speak of neighbors. One reason we acknowledge privacy rights is most of us don’t want a society where people are constantly reporting each other to the authorities. I live in a county where people are constantly calling the cops on their neighbor; it’s not a pretty picture.

  • Curt Adams

    Privacy is different from the usual Homo hypocritus model. Usually you’re using the hypocritus model for situations where there is active deception (either of self or other). Privacy is a social convention where everybody pretty much knows what is going on but chooses to ignore it or at least not to investigate. Often the issues are “open secrets” where lots of people know but nobody wants to do anything. It’s more a matter of what actions to take on information than access to the information itself.

    I think the desire for privacy is motivated as a means of dealing with inadequate or inappropriate social norms, especially with complicated situations. Take sexual monogamy as an example. Most people accept there are some situations where formal infidelity is tolerable or at least not deserving of extreme sanctions. At the same time, most people value fidelity and want to enforce it.

    Trying to come up with rules to separate out the situations where infidelity is OK and when it is not is very complicated. Open relationships often have very elaborate rules for outside sex. Worse, they tend to be very idiosyncratic, so revising social rules would be exponentially more complex.

    Privacy allows everybody to deal with situations where rules are needed but creating near-perfect rules is impractical. When the rules seem inappropriate, involved parties just keep things private and nobody has to figure out how to modify or apply rules. Someone who thinks the rules should be applied can always publicize, but the public may punish the tattler as well if dealing with the transgression is too complex or costly.

    • Jordan

      I agree with this; I value my privacy extremely highly not because I would punish/ostracize them if I caught someone else doing them, but because other people may be, from my perspective, completely unreasonable, and I don’t want to risk them punishing-ostracizing me for the crime of being perfectly decent. It’s the same reason one approaches religion and politics delicately in polite conversation.

  • Robin should have done Jess Riedel’s rephrasing and applied it to his theory rather than just making a point about the extreme Popperian view of falsifiability. Alleged is probably not a philosopher wedded to some view of epistemology but picked up on Popper because it sounded like common sense or the school-taught version of the scientific method.

    Robin stated his allegiance to Quine on justifying one’s beliefs here.

    Jess Riedel, the best version of the world-where-hypothesis-is-true argument I’ve heard is Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Make Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences).

  • Buck Farmer

    First, Robin, thanks for the link on falsification vs. other criteria.

    Second, your stage discussion made me think of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind conjecture. As I read it your stages were:

    1. Social strategies, but no social norms
    2. Innovation! Social norms effective.
    3. Brains evolve to undercut some social norm effectivness.

    Seems like (2) would be a very alien looking society. Do you know of any animals or human cultures that are in the (2) stage?

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