Res Publica

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 1–19 | Cite as

Why the Duty to Self-Censor Requires Social-Media Users to Maintain Their Own Privacy

  • Earl SpurginEmail author


Revelations of personal matters often have negative consequences for social-media users. These consequences trigger frequent warnings, practical rather than moral in nature, that social-media users should consider carefully what they reveal about themselves since their revelations might cause them various difficulties in the future. I set aside such practical considerations and argue that social-media users have a moral obligation to maintain their own privacy that is rooted in the duty to self-censor. Although Anita L. Allen provides a paternalist justification of the duty that supports my position that social-media users are obligated to self-censor what they reveal about themselves, I justify the obligation through considerations that are more palatable to liberals than is paternalism. I accomplish this by arguing that the failure to self-censor often creates for others undue burdens that individuals are obligated morally not to create. In particular, social-media revelations often create undue burdens for those, such as employers and university personnel, who are obligated morally to respect individuals’ privacy in their decision-making processes. I also demonstrate that this argument is not for a broad duty to self-censor, but, rather, for a narrow duty that applies to particular circumstances such as certain uses of social media.


Liberalism Paternalism Privacy Self-censor Social media Undue burdens 



I am indebted to Andrew I. Cohen, Richard Dean, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful suggestions.


  1. Allen, Anita L. 2011. Unpopular privacy: What must we hide?. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Benn, Stanley I. 1975. Privacy, freedom, and respect for persons. In Today’s moral problems, ed. Richard Wasserstrom, 1–21. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  3. Branley, Dawn. 2013. Fired via Facebook: Five social media mistakes to avoid. The Cyber Psyche.
  4. Brenkert, George G. 1981. Privacy, polygraphs and work. Business & Professional Ethics Journal 1: 19–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Charters, Darren. 2002. Electronic monitoring and privacy issues in business-marketing: The ethics of the double-click experience. Journal of Business Ethics 35: 243–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Coleman, Stephen. 2006. E-mail, terrorism, and the right to privacy. Ethics and Information Technology 8: 17–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cook, Philip, and Conrad Heilmann. 2013. Two types of self-censorship: Public and private. Political Studies 61: 178–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Corlett, J. Angelo. 2002. The nature and value of the moral right to privacy. Public Affairs Quarterly 16: 329–350.Google Scholar
  9. Festenstein, Matthew. 2015. Self-censorship for democrats. European Journal of Political Theory. Scholar
  10. Fried, Charles. 1970. An anatomy of values: Problems of personal and social choice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fulda, Joseph S. 2012. Written for the moment. Journal of Information Ethics 21: 21–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Garner, Martin L. 2012. For the sake of one child: Privacy, anonymity, and confidentiality in libraries. Journal of Information Ethics 21: 12–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gerstein, Robert S. 1978. Intimacy and privacy. Ethics 89: 76–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gorman, John. 1998. Monitoring employee Internet usage. Business Ethics: A European Review 7: 21–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gotterbarn, Donald. 1999. Privacy lost: The net, autonomous agents, and ‘virtual information’. Ethics and Information Technology 1: 147–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gray, Garry C. 2013. The ethics of pharmaceutical research funding: A social organization approach. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 41: 629–634.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gross, Hyman. 1980. Privacy and autonomy. In Philosophy of law. 2nd edn, ed. Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross, 246–251. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  18. Holley, Robert P. 2006. The ethics of scholarly research and the Internet: Issues of publication, privacy, and the right to speak. Journal of Information Ethics 15: 27–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Horton, John. 2011. Self-censorship. Res Publica 17: 91–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Johnson, Jeffery L. 1989a. Privacy and the judgment of others. The Journal of Value Inquiry 23: 157–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Johnson, Jeffery L. 1989b. Privacy, liberty and integrity. Public Affairs Quarterly 3: 15–34.Google Scholar
  22. Johnson, Jeffery L. 1992. A theory of the nature and value of privacy. Public Affairs Quarterly 6: 271–288.Google Scholar
  23. Klang, Mathias. 2004. Spyware—The ethics of covert software. Ethics and Information Technology 6: 193–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kupfer, Joseph. 1987. Privacy, autonomy, and self-concept. American Philosophical Quarterly 24: 81–89.Google Scholar
  25. Lægaard, Sune. 2007. The cartoon controversy: Offence, identity, oppression? Political Studies 55: 481–498.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lau, Terence J. 2011. Towards zero net presence. Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 25: 237–277.Google Scholar
  27. Lehavot, Keren. 2009. ‘MySpace’ or yours? The ethical dilemma of graduate students’ personal lives on the Internet. Ethics and Behavior 19: 129–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Loury, Glenn C. 1994. Self-censorship in public discourse: A theory of ‘political correctness’ and related phenomena. Rationality and Society 6: 428–461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Marlin, Randal. 1999. The muted bugle: Self-censorship and the press. In Interpreting censorship in Canada, ed. Klaus Petersen and Allan C. Hutchinson, 290–317. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  30. McArthur, Robert L. 2001. Reasonable expectations of privacy. Ethics and Information Technology 3: 123–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mill, John Stuart. 1978 [1859]. On liberty. Ed. Elizabeth Rapaport. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  32. Miller, Seumas, and John Weckert. 2000. Privacy, the workplace and the Internet. Journal of Business Ethics 28: 255–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mohr, Richard D. 1987. Why sex is private: Gays and the police. Public Affairs Quarterly 1: 57–81.Google Scholar
  34. Moore, Adam D. 2003. Privacy: Its meaning and value. American Philosophical Quarterly 40: 215–227.Google Scholar
  35. Nagel, Thomas. 1998. Concealment and exposure. Philosophy & Public Affairs 27: 3–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Øhrstrøm, Peter, and Johan Dyhrberg. 2007. Ethical problems inherent in psychological research based on Internet communication as stored information. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics: Philosophy of Medical Research and Practice 28: 221–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Parent, W. A. 1983. Privacy, morality, and the law. Philosophy & Public Affairs 12: 269–288.Google Scholar
  38. Pittenger, David J. 2003. Internet research: An opportunity to revisit classic ethical problems in behavioral research. Ethics and Behavior 13: 45–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pollach, Irene. 2005. A typology of communicative strategies in online privacy policies: Ethics, power and informed consent. Journal of Business Ethics 62: 221–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rachels, James. 1975. Why privacy is important. Philosophy & Public Affairs 4: 323–333.Google Scholar
  41. Reiman, Jeffrey H. 1976. Privacy, intimacy, and personhood. Philosophy & Public Affairs 6: 26–44.Google Scholar
  42. Royakkers, Lambèr. 2004. Ethical issues in web data mining. Ethics and Information Technology 6: 129–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sedler, Robert A. 2012. Self-censorship and the first amendment. Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 25: 13–45.Google Scholar
  44. Spurgin, Earl W. 2006. The end of romance and the value of privacy. Public Affairs Quarterly 20: 247–265.Google Scholar
  45. Tavani, Herman T. 1999. Informational privacy, data mining, and the Internet. Ethics and Information Technology 1: 137–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tavani, Herman T. 2007. Philosophical theories of privacy: Implications for an adequate online privacy policy. Metaphilosophy 38: 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. White, R. George. 2012. Self-censorship and the constriction of thought and discussion under modern communication technologies. Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, 25: 123–142.Google Scholar
  48. Wyatt, Anna May. 2006. Do librarians have an ethical duty to monitor patrons’ Internet usage in the public library? Journal of Information Ethics 15: 70–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Zimmer, Michael. 2010. ‘But the data is already public’: On the ethics of research in Facebook. Ethics and Information Technology 12: 313–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyJohn Carroll UniversityUniversity HeightsUSA

Personalised recommendations