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Brettschneider Reading Group: Chapter Two: Publicly Justifiable Privacy and Reflective Revision by Citizens

The Determination of Privacy:

This is a provocative, original book, and Chapter Two is typical in arguing rationally for radical revisions in our ways of thinking.

In order to convince us of that the state is allowed—indeed, is obliged—to persuade us to have appropriate democratic views, Brettschneider needs to convince us that this won’t intrude on a private realm that should be free from intrusion by the state. He realizes that the very people who support democracy tend to want a space in which individuals are immune to government intervention, a space in which to develop their own values and live according to those. Democracy, after all, is supposed to empower the citizens within the democratic state, not the government, and so we resist even efforts aimed at our improvement when those seem too intrusive. There is a reason that George Orwell’s specter of Big Brother has been a vivid image for millions of people who have never read 1984. Even if Brettschneider is right that support for democracy requires an attitude of respect for fellow citizens, for believing in their rights to equal participation in civic life, he needs to convince us that there is there is an obligation for us to have this attitude when that is contrary to other beliefs that we have.

First, Brettschneider argues that privacy is a normative notion. That is, we do not discover a realm in which public interference is impermissible, so much as we decide what that realm should be. What is private is not a function of space (as in, the home) or personal attachment (the family, or other close relationships.) Rather, what is private depends on how one’s actions affect other people. If something you do has a sufficiently negative effect on other people, it is no longer private, no matter where it takes place, or the relationship you hold to those you are affecting:

On my view, the boundaries between public and private should not be determined in a manner that automatically considers all practices and beliefs in the family or civil society to be beyond criticism. Instead, the boundaries should be drawn by reference to what practices and beliefs are relevant to the ideal of free and equal citizenship.” (52)

Thought Itself as Public:

In itself, the idea that the state can legitimately intrude into the domestic (or whatever) sphere is not, for most of us, shocking. That actions in the home or family can be “potentially matters of public concern– regardless of what ‘spaces’ they occupy” (52) seems straightforward in a time when governmental intervention into spousal or child abuse in the home is seen as not only permissible but obligatory. And, the sorts of changes that Brettschneider supports in support of democratic values are not, as he stresses, to be brought about through coercion, as interventions to prevent child or spousal abuse are: no one is forced to take up appropriate democratic values. Indeed, Brettschneider stresses in this chapter that ideally, no government action whatsoever would be taken to instill proper democratic values: rather, it should be the individual citizen who voluntarily engages in reflective revision to order his beliefs in a way that is compatible with democratic values. Given all this, his suggestions about the necessary acceptance of democratic values may initially seem less than radical.

The reverse, though, is true. While laws today allow government intervention in the physical sphere of the home and the interpersonal sphere of the family, Brettschneider wants access to our minds. The objects of change here are not the citizen’s actions but his very thoughts. The citizen has an obligation, for Brettschneider, to change his way of thinking, to accord with the political philosophy espoused by the democratic state. This, certainly, is radical. One might think that the last bastion of privacy would be one’s own mind: that at least in his mental life a person would be free from obligations to others, not to mention the possibility of government intrusion. On the contrary, writes Brettschneider:

I defend the view that citizens in liberal democracy should engage in “reflective revision.” Citizens engage in reflective revision when they endorse the ideal of free and equal citizenship and appeal to it to evaluate more general beliefs. In some instances, if there is conflict between democratic values and a set of beliefs held by citizens, they should find a way to reflectively revise their beliefs in order to incorporate the ideal of free and equal citizenship. To the extent that public values might conflict with the existing worldview held by citizens, a political conception of free and equal citizenship requires reforming and changing existing beliefs. (52)

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