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Is oversharing unethical?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  July 3, 2013 10:25 AM

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We call it TMI, but philosopher Anita Allen thinks it might be something else as well: unethical.

In a paper published earlier this year in the Alabama Law Review, Allen, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, works through the ethical implications of sharing details from your private life over social media. You might think that what you share with whom is matter of personal preference, but Allen appeals to some of western civilization’s most influential philosophers to argue that oversharing might just be unethical.

It’s a strong claim, for sure, and Allen is aware she’s arguing uphill. “How could we be duty-bound to withhold information about ourselves?” she asks at one point in the paper.

The answer to that question goes back to the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant claimed that we have two kinds of duties—one to other people and the other to ourselves. Of the latter, he argued, we are obligated to respect ourselves and take care of ourselves so that we remain free, rational people. In this view it’s not just inadvisable to be a drunk, but also unethical, too, because you have less power to pursue your own rational interests when you’re inebriated.

So, how does publicizing your private life online violate a duty of self-respect? Allen explains by using the example of former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, who was forced to resign his office following revelations that he’d sent lewd pictures of himself to young women over Twitter. As Allen sees it, Weiner’s “oversharing” cost him his dignity and self-respect, and changed the way other people acted towards him such that he was less able to function as a free person. She says similar problems crop up when your coworkers know too much about your medical problems: They might take you less seriously as a person, which makes it harder for you to pursue your self-interest in the workplace.

The premise of Allen’s argument is itself quite controversial. “Many prominent philosophers,” she notes, “flatly reject the notion that anyone has a duty to himself or to herself.” In our culture, too, we’re inclined to take a less strict view of things. We may frown on the decision to consume large, sugary beverages, but most people wouldn’t go so far as to call that decision wrong, or to say that it should be illegal.

But even if you don’t fully agree with Allen, her argument is still useful as a way to locate exactly what happens when other people know a lot—or maybe too much—about you.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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