Welcome to a new addition to the blog – “Ask Mr. Philosopher,” where your favorite philosopher answers your questions about ethical situations that we all find ourselves in. I know, philosophers don’t actually have much use in this scientific and techie society, but science won’t inform you about what you ought to do. Technology can help you find answers to questions but it won’t help you develop your moral values. What technology can do is get you into trouble if your partner doesn’t share the same moral values, also known as “what’s right and wrong.” So here’s a commonplace situation:
Your significant other left their phone on the bed and left the room.
How many of you would pick up that phone and start “playing” with it? You know, looking around to make sure you have nothing to worry about?
The answer, I think, is a ton of people would do just that if presented with that situation. They don’t find anything and they don’t get caught doing it, so the moment passes. We all know, however, that if the same situation popped up and you DID find something, all hell would break loose and you’d feel justified in addressing your significant other about what could be foul play.
For many people, this is the reality of dating life in the technological era. Privacy continues to be eschewed in favor of catching criminals in the act, prior to the act, or finally, after the act on the assumption something illegal MIGHT be happening. In the tech age, everyone’s guilty of doing something they shouldn’t have been doing even before they do it.
With stuff like this, whoever is doing the searching really is acting like the police – looking for evidence to nail your ass to the wall with. Unfortunately, everybody’s watched Law & Order so they think if I find evidence, then you’re guilty. Even in the case of phone searches, there’s still a right to an illegal search because, and I quote, “It’s not your damn phone.” Even if you do find something that may be wrong, the searcher is also in the wrong because you went snooping and invaded the searchee’s privacy.
So the question is: Are you ever justified in going through someone’s phone? The answer is rarely, but we will find a way to justify any action so long as we stand to benefit from it. The justification just won’t be strong, and here’s why:
The searcher’s argument looks something like this;
1) If my significant other is doing something s/he shouldn’t (according to me), I have a right to know,
2) My significant other is likely to do something s/he shouldn’t do (according to me),
3) My significant other is likely not to tell me if s/he did something s/he shouldn’t have done (according to me),
HENCE, I’m justified in looking through my significant other’s phone (on a regular basis).
This is the most basic argument for why it’s ok for me to look at the phone, through Premise 1 could have a 1a that explains why you have a right to know. Even though it’s predicated on being in a healthy, successful relationship, that doesn’t necessitate that you have to know A) everything your partner is doing, or B) that something your partner shouldn’t do, according to you, is a wrong action.
In fact, I should say that I’m not sure you can make a good case of having a healthy, successful relationship if you make this argument because it’s clear that searching a phone displays a lack of trust. That’s effectively what Premises 2 and 3 are for – my significant other is going to do something wrong and not tell me. Granted, there may be a moment that could give one legitimate pause as to if foul play is occurring that could shake your trust in your partner. A swaying branch in the wind is far different than a broken tree limb on the ground because the branch still has life. The moment phone checking becomes a norm, without a shred of evidence of foul play, you’ve become like a wiretapper following the PATRIOT Act, invading privacy in service of your own greater interests, including correcting your partner’s behavior! Incredibly, there are people out here treating their significant others like children, figuring that if my partner knows I go through their phone, my partner won’t do things I won’t like because my partner knows I’ll find out about it. As though that model works wonders with adults, who are much more resourceful than children, on average, and give many fewer fucks than children, on average.
If the trust is so broken that you feel the need to search through someone’s phone, then the relationship wasn’t doing well to begin with. There’s a paranoia that must set in when somebody goes past the point of no return with their phone search, because you don’t read a phone like you read the news – you’re looking for something. Anything that will validate and justify what you’re doing because flat out, you wouldn’t want it done to you. And that’s why the justification struggles; it’s looking for evidence to convict without evidence of a crime.
There are three main reasons, aside from the “it’s not your damn phone” argument, that phone searching should be considered tech taboo –
1) What’s next? My email password, my Facebook password, my blog password to check my comments and make sure I’m not flirting there? This is a slippery slope for the relationship – the searcher will always assert, “if you have nothing to hide, you should give me the password.” Even if there’s nothing to hide, there’s still something to preserve – my privacy! You don’t need to see the email my Dad sent me about his time at Freaknik, that’s not for your eyes! He sent it to me, not you! Similarly, any text messages, Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, and emails were all sent to me, not you, so why are you trying to see what is literally not meant for your eyes? Privacy means trust, and generally trust implies both giving it and receiving it – this is not a one way street.
2) You wouldn’t want it done to you because of the slippery slope from #1 and the invasion of privacy. We all have things we don’t want our partners to see, with good reason (at times). You go into my email, I don’t want you to see that my boss kicked my ass on a project I didn’t do well on! That’s not a conversation I want to have with you, otherwise I’d have it with you. You, the person searching, have those same emails and texts that you would rather your partner didn’t see, even if they present no threat to the relationship. You can say, “I don’t have anything to hide” but it’s bullshit and we both know it. It might not be an affair, but we all have things we’d like to keep to ourselves and you would feel just as violated as your partner does, checking your phone on a regular basis. And quite frankly, it’s disrespectful and can feel like a slap in the face.
3) Even if you find something that’s potentially problematic, how you found it won’t help matters – your “rightness,” because you found the evidence of wrongdoing was done via a wrong act yourself, invading your partner’s privacy (whether or not it’s done regularly doesn’t diminish that it shouldn’t be done). As #1 and #2 explain, by revealing that you found the forbidden fruit, you also reveal that you went through the phone. Even if you find potential evidence of an affair, your partner will have a claim that what you found doesn’t matter, it’s how you found it. You hurt your partner before you found out your partner might have hurt you…and thanks to misunderstandings (see below), potential problems get blown out of proportion as false evidence of wrongdoing. Ultimately, the chances of productive conversations for your relationship arising out of you searching your partner’s phone are slim to none.
SIDEBAR: All of this is so far based on a committed relationship between two people. If no exclusivity commitment has been made, all of this is moot. There isn’t any justification other than “he told me he was making death threats” or something like public or personal safety. Trust is still being built at that stage – if you’re concerned that the person you’re dating has somebody else, think about making the commitment rather than going on a witch hunt. Witch hunters don’t yield good partners; they’re always looking for another witch to burn.
The greatest fear I have is that these events are predicated on people assuming their partner is keeping something from me, as though it’s a bad thing. Right to privacy is important for a reason politically as well as romantically. This is part of the problem of dating in the technological era, which is that boundaries are being disintegrated. Thanks in part to the boundless (literally and figuratively) Internet, privacy is not what it was just 15 years ago. The concept of privacy was rocked when Facebook became the go-to social networking site and we collectively placed our lives on the boundless Internet for everybody to view, comment, and poke. Not to say that these technological advances were bad – rather, they’ve been incredibly useful (especially for people who like to snoop around without being caught). People feel less restricted in invading your privacy – “you put your business out there,” they’ll say. “Facebook stalking” exists as a term for a reason; it’s an accepted behavior that we chalk up to the amount of content you put out there. Still, with the amount of misunderstandings (“She’s not your friend, don’t lie to me!” “He’s not your coworker, don’t give me that!”) that are easily possible by reading conversations that don’t pertain to you, and with such a huge downside of getting caught in the act, this particular action just doesn’t seem to be the best way to alleviate your concerns about foul play.
I get it though, you don’t want to be played like a fool in case your partner is doing something wrong. Trust need not be blind, you say. That’s true, but it also doesn’t need to have one eye open. While unfortunate, there are people out here who will abuse your trust and it behooves all of us to be on the lookout for those people. If something does indeed seem out of place, ask about it. But know this – whether you follow your partner to make sure s/he is where s/he said s/he would be, go through their Facebook posts, look at their Twitter mentions or go through their phone, you have opened up a can of worms of distrust on your end that can’t be easily closed. Distrust in a relationship leads to poor decision making and regrettable events daily. Snooping starts you down a path that doesn’t end well. I’m not saying be naive about your partner, but I am saying that snooping should be considered an equivalent of arming a nuclear weapon in your relationship. It’s not a button I would push unless the circumstances are dire, and even then nobody enjoys the nuclear fallout.