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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Philosophy Professor DeCew seeks solutions to resolve the conflict between the need for personal privacy and the increasing use of computers to store medical information. In her philosophy of law course, students like Abigail Rollings choose a legal case to research, analyze and present to the class. Other students are representing Clark at a local philosophy conference.

Meet the researchers: Going into depth

Interview with Professor Judith DeCew
In a recent interview, philosopher Judith DeCew discussed the right to privacy, its intersection with law and technology, and the nature of research in philosophy.

How did you become interested in philosophy?

I was a math major as an undergraduate. At the end of my sophomore year I took a logic course, and I loved it! Then in my junior year I took a theories of ethics course, which I also loved, and went on to take many more philosophy courses. I graduated with a major in math and a minor in philosophy.

After graduation, I taught high school math for three years. At that point I had tenure and asked to take a leave of absence to get a master's degree in philosophy. I planned to return to teaching math, but thought that, in addition, I might teach a senior elective in philosophy. When I got to graduate school, however, I fell in love with philosophy and did really well. I was asked to stay on in the Ph.D. program.

Even though my father was a math professor, I had never thought of teaching and doing research at the college level. Philosophy was, and still is, a very male-dominated field. Frankly, I didn't feel that I had what it took to do something creative in math at the graduate level. In philosophy, though, there were so many interesting questions and issues. I felt I could really have something to contribute.

What was the subject of your Ph.D. research?

My dissertation focused on the subject of conditional obligation. We are all fallible and don't always do what we ought to do, and when we fail to do our duty, what's the conditional obligation that we should do next to make amends? The topic involved some logical problems and some moral problems. This research gave me a chance to work in both logic and ethics--subjects of the first courses that I fell in love with.

What is your primary area of interest in philosophy?

I was trained in analytical philosophy, which uses logic in the analysis of detailed arguments. Within that, my specialty has always been ethical theory and applied ethics. The latter deals with topics that are often in the news today, such as affirmative action, capital punishment, and pornography and the Internet. More recently I've studied social and political theory, which leads into public policy analysis, and I've become deeply involved in the philosophy of law. I'm not trained as a lawyer, but I spent a year at Harvard Law School on a fellowship.

I now teach a philosophy of law class-it's one of my favorites. We start with a core set of readings on questions such as 'what is the nature of law?' 'what is the basis for law's authority?' and 'what is the role of the judge?' After that, I let the students pick topics that they want to focus on. Thus, each time I teach the course, it's different. The students make the choices, so they feel that they 'own' the class.

For several years now you've been studying the issues and laws surrounding a person's right to privacy. How does your perspective as a philosopher help you understand privacy?

Laws often simply describe what kind of privacy is and is not protected, and under what circumstances. In fact, most of the early literature on privacy was written from a legal perspective. That's one of the reasons I wanted to study at Harvard Law School. I came to realize that a lot of ethical issues that confront us in life are ones about which legislators or judges are making decisions. I thought that, as a philosopher specializing in ethics, I should be more informed about the legal process and the principles of law.

Privacy law has developed in two ways--in tort law,* protecting privacy as control over information about oneself, and in constitutional law, about the private realm in which one can make personal decisions. The constitutional right to privacy has been very controversial because the word "privacy" is not found in the Constitution. For that reason, some people think that there is no constitutional basis for a right to privacy. But the constitutional right to privacy has been repeatedly invoked in a number of different cases--the right for married couples to have access to contraceptives, the right to view pornography in one's home, the right to engage in interracial marriage--many issues having to do with family and lifestyle.

What philosophy can add to the study of privacy is an understanding, from a moral perspective, of what should count or not count as a privacy invasion. As a philosopher, I examine what people value about privacy, their reasons for wanting privacy protection, and how they want their privacy protected. It's a moral and ethical discussion that goes beyond the legal description of what actually is protected

In your book, In Pursuit of Privacy: Law, Ethics, and the Rise of Technology, you discuss the impact of technology on privacy. Can you comment on that?

Many privacy issues have to do with technological advances. In tort law, privacy is in large part due to technological advances. The pioneering Warren and Brandeis article, 'The Right to Privacy," published in 1890 in the Harvard Law Review, ultimately prompted early privacy protection in tort law. The authors were objecting to publicity about the Warren family that had supposedly been spread through newspapers. The new printing technology that could make multiple copies of news stories raised new issues beyond those regarding showing someone a handwritten letter. Then the 4th Amendment,** dealing with protection against unreasonable search and seizure, was reinterpreted when telephone wiretapping was invented. Technology drove much of the expansion of privacy protection. New technology leads to new issues about what is and is not legitimate for the government or someone else to do when their actions might intrude on privacy.

Computer technology is another good example. We all know that there are now computer databases of financial and credit information. Our supermarket cards supply information to massive databases about what we purchase. Telephone records about whom we phone are stored in databases. Fast Lane surveillance records when and where we travel. If we enter a hospital, that information ends up in a computer database. Computer technology has allowed this information to be stored so that it's easier, faster and less expensive to access. It's also easier to combine the information in different ways--to link between databases--adding a potential threat to privacy. People who know something about computers can access this information, and we as individuals lose control. We don't know what information is out there about us, who has it, who's using it, and whether they're exploiting or disclosing it in some way. It's scary.

Recently, there have been a number of news stories about identity theft. This involves taking over someone's social security number, credit cards, and other information, an action that can lead to financial disaster for the person whose identity has been stolen. Another problem is that if someone wants to paint a picture of you that is misleading or unflattering, that person can easily choose bits of information, all of which are accurate, and use them to paint a portrait that is misleading. A lot of damage could be done by using the information against you in hiring, child custody, and other matters, because it would be very difficult to dispute. After all, the individual tidbits are true.

The government is now talking about aggregating large databases containing information on every citizen in the U.S. under the Department of Defense Information Awareness Office. Will the information be used appropriately? This needs to be discussed more publicly.

Can technology and privacy be reconciled?

Yes. My view is that, if technology is handled well, and if ways of protecting people's privacy and giving them options are built into technological systems, then technology can still be used to enhance our lives. One example I've written about is Caller ID, and many of the ideas I discussed have been implemented. Nowadays, rather than not being able to get your call through if you have call blocking, † you get a message telling you to hang up, dial *82 and the number. The technology is telling you that if you're willing to unblock your number by dialing *82, and identify your name and number to the person on the other end, your call can go through. The technology is designed to educate you. You, as the initiator of the call, can choose whether you want to give out that information and have your call go through. You have control.

Technology can really help our lives. There is no need to ruin or block technological advances. What we need to do is make sure that technology is managed appropriately. There are some signs that that is being done. The technology to include privacy safeguards is there.

Can you talk more generally about the nature of research in philosophy, and how you decide on a topic to investigate?

I often get intrigued with a topic because I've read something that jarred me, or got me particularly interested. When I was at Harvard Law School I became very interested in judicial decision-making and that led me into the philosophy of law. That's also where I gained interest in privacy because of cases that I read. I am lucky enough now to be at a stage where I'm often invited to write a paper on a topic. For example, I was once asked to write a paper on women in the military and the combat exclusion. So I went back to look at the original legislative history and the famous 1981 Supreme Court case excluding women from the draft (Rostker v. Goldberg).

The first thing I do is collect as much material as I can that is relevant to the topic. My style has always been to look at historical as well as contemporary sources. I read as much as I can, and take notes. I still do it the old-fashioned way--I take notes by hand and keep lists of notes on pages, and I keep track of which ones connect. Then it starts to crystallize in my mind. It doesn't always come at once. I often start writing something, not knowing what my conclusion is going to be, not knowing which side I'm going to end up arguing for.

So the writing becomes almost a thought process.

Yes. I often start with an outline after I've taken notes and figured out what the issues are. My strategy is to give some of the historical background that leads up to the topic, and then I identify, from a wide range of sources, a variety of arguments on each side. It's my conviction that good philosophy tries to present the arguments on each side in the best light, in the strongest possible way. Usually by that time I've begun to make up my mind as to which I think are the stronger arguments. Then I have the philosophical process of trying to think through why I defend a particular view, and give my reasons. Sometimes I think the arguments are more balanced, and sometimes I think it's quite clear that one side wins.

I think this approach is reflected in my teaching, too. I tell my students that one of my goals is to make sure they understand the theories. A student needs to be able to explain the theory to me in his or her own words. The second goal is to have students sort through the strengths and weaknesses of the theories, the arguments for and against. Then they develop their own views on which ones they find more persuasive or compelling, Thus, the process is to guide them in making up their own minds and defending their own views.

From what you were saying earlier, it sounds like students have the opportunity to do that in your classes.

Yes, especially in my upper level classes. I have students pick topics totally on their own that they're really interested in, something that they have a passion for. And many of my students go on to present their research orally or as posters at Academic Spree Day. It's a wonderful opportunity for them to develop their own views on things like pornography, corporal punishment or affirmative action. I help them stay focused and make sure they pick a topic that's narrow enough that they're not all over the place. It's often appropriate for students to focus on one case or two competing legal cases. Then they read the majority and minority opinions on each side so they can present the cases, present the conundrum. What are the legal issues? What are the philosophical issues? What are the main arguments? They're required to do that as part of their presentations--to present the arguments on each side very carefully, and then to come up with their own views and defend them. When students present their research at Academic Spree Day, people often ask them to defend their views. It gives students a chance to be creative. I sponsor them in the sense that I read drafts and I help them with sources. It's really great to see them take off on their own.

* Tort law uses civil (as opposed to criminal) proceedings to provide redress to people who have been harmed by the wrongful acts of others.

**The 4th Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Call blocking allows the caller to place calls without automatically releasing his or her name and number to the person receiving the call.


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Judith DeCew
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