Alpha, one of our theistic commentators, prompted this discussion of the atheistic ethicist on confidentiality when he blogged last week:
"Secrets. Everyone has them.
Much has been made by some bloggers of the role of secrecy in the Roman Catholic confessional. In looking at this we need to apply common sense, as well as common practice.
Everyone dislikes a tattletale ... The end result of breaching confidentiality would be a loss of confidence in those professionals whose career is enabling people in greatest need to deal with their problems."
Recently, the whole nature of organisational and individual confidentiality has been recalibrated. We seem to be a less secret society and the values of transparency and openness seem to be triumphing over privacy. When is that good and when is it destructive voyeurism?
For the organisations, the rot set in in the 1970s with freedom of information applying to governments and it has culminated with WikiLeaks. In the WikiLeaks world nothing is sacred and information that may have been stolen is paraded shamelessly.
On the individual level, various professions have claimed the right to secrecy and the courts have respected these claims in the past, so that priests in the confessional, doctors in the surgery, journalists and their sources or spousal secrets were seen as being sacrosanct.
The clear motive for protecting these professionals and couples is that secrecy brings candour and without candour these people may not be able to operate in the best way possible. Information might be kept from advisers who have no fetter on their ability to blab or indeed have an obligation to dob. Yet now this is changing and some of these groups may find that their claims to privilege are under attack.
It might surprise you to know that my first position is that candour is a good thing. Privacy is the midwife of candour. Without the former, the latter will wither. Thus promoting candour in professions and organisations by protecting privacy is ethical. Accordingly, I am predisposed to its protection subject to certain explicit caveats.
Let's start with the professional privilege against disclosure. The law protects the privileges of doctors and lawyers from disclosure. When he was a High Court judge, Michael Kirby observed in 2002 that "professional privilege is an important civil right to be safeguarded by the law. Of course, derogations appropriate to the needs of a democratic society may be contemplated. However, vigilance is required against accidental and unintended erosions of the right." Michael Kirby is never wrong.
But there is one erosion that has evolved over time – the mandatory reporting of child abuse. It is a confusingly different position in every state and territory, one of the joys of a federal structure. Here is a summary. In short, some health professionals (and others such as teachers and social workers) now must forgo client confidentiality if abuse is suspected. I am sure that this leads to less candour and it is a cost I am sure every reader agrees should be paid.
What about the priest and penitent? These conversations too are protected from disclosure. I imagine that initially this rule was made in recognition of the power of the church and the importance of the sacrament of penitence in faith. Secularisation of our world has changed this. I sort of don't mind protection of the priest and penitent conversations, but it does seem outrageous that the list of professionals obliged to mandatorily report child abuse does not include the confessional. That should be rectified.
And what about other privileged relationships, such as journalists' claim to keep schtum over their sources? To extort that information may not only undermine the ability of journalists to investigate but expose some informers to dangers.
Journalists' ethics - that seeming oxymoron - are often observed in the breach (such as AJA Code No.11 – "Respect private grief and personal privacy"). But No.3 requires a journalist to respect a confidential source. I worry about this. Confidential sources could be liars or wrong.
Famously, in 2005 Newsweek was caught in a Koran desecration story which led to riots involving at least 17 deaths. The article stated that an unnamed official had seen a copy of an unreleased US government report confirming the desecration. However, the magazine later retracted parts of the article when the unnamed official changed his story. The confidential story was wrong, people died on the basis of this and the source was protected.
In 2011, New South Wales changed the law on the protection of journalists' sources and so now they can be easily revealed in open court. What was once protected now is much less so. It would be a bit hypocritical of journalists to whine about this for we have profited from Wikileaks.
The WikiLeaks phenomenon has much moral ambiguity about it. It is dealing in information that may have been lost or stolen but not returned unopened. If theft is involved, it must be seen as immoral to some extent. If its disclosures expose informants to the risk of danger and death, it is deplorable.
It will diminish organisational candour and that could have immeasurable impacts for good or evil. On the other hand, it may well expose wrongdoings that may otherwise go undisclosed. The simplistic barracking by WikiLeaks activists fails to take into account the risks to informers, the value of privacy and the important of candour. Whatever the final balance is, it is important to not forget the right to privacy is one that should not be ripped up without consideration.
What WikiLeaks, and ironically the diminution of the protection of journalists' sources, tells us is that the world that protected confidences and secrets is changing. It is less likely that your precious secret will survive exposure by someone who is driven by the righteous claim that all confidences and clandestine discussions have to be exposed.
And so we return to the confessional. I feel that, if the mandatory disclosure rules were extended to the booth, it should be a private oasis in an increasingly less private world.
Alpha finishes with these words from Jesus, who was clearly was in the pro-WikiLeaks camp:
"The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!" Luke 12:2,3 NLT.
Is the world less secretive? Is privacy old hat?
What information should be protected?
Does WikiLeaks so undermine candour that organisations cannot operate optimally?
Why should theft of information be less culpable than theft of goods?
Would you protect the confessional from spy cameras and disclosure?
Over to you...
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