Transparency is Surveillance

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 105 (2):331-361 (2021)
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In her BBC Reith Lectures on Trust, Onora O’Neill offers a short, but biting, criticism of transparency. People think that trust and transparency go together but in reality, says O'Neill, they are deeply opposed. Transparency forces people to conceal their actual reasons for action and invent different ones for public consumption. Transparency forces deception. I work out the details of her argument and worsen her conclusion. I focus on public transparency – that is, transparency to the public over expert domains. I offer two versions of the criticism. First, the epistemic intrusion argument: The drive to transparency forces experts to explain their reasoning to non-experts. But expert reasons are, by their nature, often inaccessible to non-experts. So the demand for transparency can pressure experts to act only in those ways for which they can offer public justification. Second, the intimate reasons argument: In many cases of practical deliberation, the relevant reasons are intimate to a community and not easily explicable to those who lack a particular shared background. The demand for transparency, then, pressures community members to abandon the special understanding and sensitivity that arises from their particular experiences. Transparency, it turns out, is a form of surveillance. By forcing reasoning into the explicit and public sphere, transparency roots out corruption — but it also inhibits the full application of expert skill, sensitivity, and subtle shared understandings. The difficulty here arises from the basic fact that human knowledge vastly outstrips any individual’s capacities. We all depend on experts, which makes us vulnerable to their biases and corruption. But if we try to wholly secure our trust — if we leash groups of experts to pursuing only the goals and taking only the actions that can be justified to the non-expert public — then we will undermine their expertise. We need both trust and transparency, but they are in essential tension. This is a deep practical dilemma; it admits of no neat resolution, but only painful compromise.

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C. Thi Nguyen
University of Utah


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