basic question has to do with what aspects of a person’s life are relevant to the question of privacy. Ruth Gavison, professor of human rights at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, defines privacy along three axes: the first has to do with access to information about the person (secrecy), the second has to do with knowledge of the person’s identity (anonymity), and the third has to do with access to the physical proximity of the person (solitude).8 University of Pennsylvania professor of law Anita Allen’s early work distinguished among informational privacy (limited access to information, confidentiality, secrecy, anonymity, and data protection), physical privacy (limited access to persons, possessions, and personal property), and decisional privacy (limited intrusion into decision making about sex, families, religion, and health care).9

Coherence in the Concept of Privacy

The wide variation in the accounts of privacy has led some commentators to question the whole endeavor of giving a descriptive account of privacy. For example, Yale professor of law Robert Post writes, “Privacy is a value so complex, so entangled in competing and contradictory dimensions, so engorged with various and distinct meanings, that I sometimes despair whether it can be usefully addressed at all.”10 Some of the commentators who question the descriptive accounts of privacy have argued for a general skepticism toward the coherence of the concept of privacy, while others have claimed that the concept is best understood not as a single concept but rather as a combination of other, more basic rights.

A radical example of this second approach is the analysis of MIT philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson, who argues that privacy is neither distinctive nor useful.11 In fact, says Thompson, privacy is not a coherent concept in itself, but rather a catchall that reduces, in various cases, to more primitive concepts that are more easily understood, such as property, contracts, and bodily rights. Treating privacy as a concept distinct from these others simply confuses the issues surrounding the more basic concepts.

A less radical approach admits that privacy is a distinct concept but argues that it is impossible to clearly analyze because of the excess baggage that the concept has accumulated over time. Indeed, this baggage is seen to make the overall concept of privacy incoherent. This approach


Ruth Gavison, “Privacy and the Limits of Law,” Yale Law Journal 89:421-471, 1980.


Anita Allen, “Constitutional Law and Privacy,” in Dennis Patterson, ed., A Companion to Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory, Oxford University Press, Blackwell, England, 1996.


Robert C. Post, “Three Concepts of Privacy,” Georgetown Law Journal 89(6):2087, 2001.


Judith Jarvis Thomson, “The Right to Privacy,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 4:295-314, 1975.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement