Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Mortimer Sellers, Stephan Kirste

Allen, Anita

  • Beate RoesslerEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6730-0_239-1

Anita L. Allen (1953) is the Vice Provost for Faculty and the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She is also a senior fellow in the bioethics department of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, a collaborating faculty member in African studies, and an affiliated faculty member in the women’s studies program. In 2010, President Barack Obama named Allen to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2016.

She has published a large number of monographs, more than a hundred scholarly articles, book chapters and essays, and she has also contributed to newspapers and blogs, and has frequently appeared on nationally broadcast television and radio programs. Allen is active as a member of editorial, advisory, and charity boards, and in professional organizations relating to her expertise.

Allen was educated at New College of Florida (BA), received her M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan and her J.D. from Harvard Law School. She is the first African-American woman to hold both a J.D. and a Ph.D. in philosophy. Her career includes positions in philosophy at Carnegie-Mellon University, at the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, at Georgetown University Law Center, and visiting professorships at Waseda (Tokyo), Yale, Harvard, Villanova, Princeton, Arizona, Hofstra, Johns Hopkins, and Tel-Aviv.

Allen is one of the most prolific, stimulating, and productive scholars in the philosophy and legal study of privacy, but she has also published widely in bioethics, women’s rights, race relations, and legal philosophy, as well as in the more general field of contemporary ethics and values.

Her contributions to privacy are particularly influential. She was among the first scholars to put the topic on the agenda, both in law and in philosophy. Her 1988 book entitled Uneasy Access is a bold attempt to develop a normative liberal theory of privacy that took feminist theories as well as the relevant legal approaches into account. Allen remains one of the few privacy scholars to develop a normative theory of privacy with an impressive knowledge of the relevant liberal and feminist philosophical positions as well as an equally impressive breadth of knowledge of legal decisions (see also her textbook collection 2016). She defends a theory of privacy which is conceptually linked to the protection of individual freedom and autonomy and to the possibility of developing successful identities (1988, see also 2014). Her most recent work (2008, 2011c) adds a new twist to her position: not only is privacy a fundamental liberal right that ensures individual autonomy, liberty, and dignity, but it must also be seen as a duty. It is precisely because privacy is of such fundamental value that people may sometimes have to be pushed towards appreciating the value of privacy for and in their own lives. Allen indeed defends a form of legal and ethical paternalism, while at the same time insisting on the value of liberal individual choice. These two sides of her approach, freedom and the good life, also are foregrounded in one of her most fascinating articles (2008).

More generally, the common underlying themes in Allen’s work are the normative ideas of (deontological) freedom and autonomy, and the (Aristotelian) idea of a good and flourishing life; if we add to these a third fundamental idea, that of liberal equality, we have the whole normative breadth of Allen’s thinking. It is with these normative principles that she approaches many different ethical problems and suggests solutions. We have already seen what this means for the value of privacy, referring to freedom and autonomy, and to more substantial ideas of a good life, including an Aristotelian virtue. And if we look at Allen’s feminist and anti-racism contributions (2010a, 2012), both in the context of privacy violations, we see the same commitment to the principle of freedom and, in these cases especially, to that of equality.

All three principles play a fundamental role in her far-reaching contributions to contemporary ethics and ethical life (2004, 2011a), tackling concrete societal and theoretical problems from various perspectives. In her work on biomedical ethics, we find strong arguments for a right to healthcare and equal access to health (2011b, 2013, 2015). Allen’s arguments for the right to wear a niqab in public, even in court, demonstrate her deep commitment to the principles of individual freedom and autonomy as well as liberal equality for everyone in the American democracy (2010b, 2014).

Allen has been and still is one of the most influential privacy scholars, nationally as well as internationally; first and foremost, because of her specific conception of privacy, the “control-access definition,” and her feminist approach. Here, she has not only been important for many other scholars working on privacy (see Solove 2008, DeCew 2015, van der Sloot 2017) but also more generally in political philosophy and concerning the broader question of the separation of the public from the private (see Kymlicka 2001). This approach has not been without criticism, though; Nissenbaum, for instance, although sympathizing with Allen’s” ground-breaking work on privacy,” is critical of her “definition that hybridizes control and access” (Nissenbaum 2010, 71), and another well-known sympathetic critic is Cohen in her 2012 (for instance 6).

A second issue which has been discussed broadly and (partly) critically is the so-called “forced privacy” or “coerced privacy” issue: the idea that the state should intervene in order to protect privacy, since “the phenomenon of public and new media exhibitionism demonstrates a shift in norms, an eroding of our taste for privacy” (Nissenbaum 2010, 107; see also 251). The suggestion that liberal governments consider taking steps to protect the value of privacy with more force, i.e., to “coerce privacy” is contested among liberal scholars who are generally critical of legislating specific ideas of the good life (Allen is joining forces with communitarians here, see, for instance, Amitai Etzioni 1999).

Let me mention just one more point: Allen’s enormous influence on the conceptualization of bodily and decisional privacy, and what most recently Citron, acknowledging her extensive debts to Allen, calls “sexual privacy” (Citron 2018, see also on the dimension of decisional privacy, witnessing Allen’s international influence, Sax 2018, van der Sloot 2017).

Allen’s breadth of knowledge, and the normative rigour combined with a deep sense of civic commitment, make her one of the theoretically most interesting and societally most influential American scholars.


Literature on Anita Allen

  1. Citron DK (2018) Sexual privacy. Yale Law J. Forthcoming; University of Maryland. Legal studies research paper no. 2018-25. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3233805
  2. Cohen JE (2012) Configuring the networked self: law, code, and the play of everyday practice. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  3. DeCew JW (2015) The feminist critique of privacy. In: Roessler B, Mokrosinska DM (eds) Social dimensions of privacy. interdisciplinary perspectives. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  4. Etzioni A (1999) The limits of privacy. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. Kymlicka W (2001) Contemporary political philosophy. An introduction. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  6. Nissenbaum H (2010) Privacy in context. Technology, policy and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  7. Sax M (2018) Privacy from an ethical perspective. In: van der Sloot B, de Groot A (eds) The handbook of privacy studies. An interdisciplinary introduction. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, pp 143–173Google Scholar
  8. Solove D (2008) Understanding privacy. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  9. Strahilevitz LJ (2005) A social networks theory of privacy. Univ Chic Law Rev 72(3):919–988Google Scholar
  10. van der Sloot B (2017) Decisional privacy 2.0: the procedural requirements implicit in Article 8 ECHR and its potential impact on profiling. Int Data Privacy Law 7(3):190–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Anita Allen

  1. Allen A (1988) Uneasy access. Privacy for women in a free society. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, TotowaGoogle Scholar
  2. Allen A (2003) Why privacy isn’t everything. In: Feminist reflections on personal accountability. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, TotowaGoogle Scholar
  3. Allen A (2004) The new ethics: a guided tour of the 21st century moral landscape. Miramax/Hyperion, Los AngelesGoogle Scholar
  4. Allen A (2008) Dredging up the past: lifelogging, memory, and surveillance. Univ Chic Law Rev 75(47):2008Google Scholar
  5. Allen A (2010a) Privacy torts: unreliable remedies for LGBT plaintiffs. Calif Law Rev 98:1711Google Scholar
  6. Allen A (2010b) Hijabs and headwraps: the case for tolerance. In: Golash D (ed) Freedom of expression in a diverse world. Springer, Dordrecht/London, p 2010Google Scholar
  7. Allen A (2011a) Everyday ethics: opinion-writing about the things that matter most. University Readers, San DiegoGoogle Scholar
  8. Allen A (2011b) Is there a right to health? 12: J Hum Dev & Capabilities, p 571Google Scholar
  9. Allen A (2011c) Unpopular privacy. What must we hide? University Press, Oxford, p 2011CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Allen A (2012) Natural law, slavery, and the right to privacy tort. Fordham Law Rev 81:1187Google Scholar
  11. Allen A (2013) Medicine in the twenty-first century: ethical means and ends. In: Hösle V (ed) Dimensions of goodness. Cambridge Scholars, Cambridge, p 4Google Scholar
  12. Allen A (2014) Veiled women in the American courtroom: is the Niqab a barrier to justice? In: Ilesanmi S, Wilson Parker J (eds) The rule of law and the rule of god. Palgrave Macmillan, London, p 2014CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Allen A (2015) Compliance-limited health privacy laws (2015). In: Roessler B, Mokrosinka D (eds) Social dimensions of privacy. Interdisciplinary perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UKGoogle Scholar
  14. Allen A (2016) Privacy law and society (textbook). Thomson/West, St. PaulGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LawUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamNetherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sally Scholz
    • 1
  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentVillanova UniversityVillanovaUSA