In 2022, secrecy is often thought to be extremely negative; a way to conceal information that ought to come to light. Attitudes about secrecy have changed over centuries though, and it is interesting to consider the balance between society wanting transparency, for example to hold the powerful to account, and also wanting privacy, which requires secrecy.
In Sissela Bok’s book Secrets: On the ethics of concealment and revelation, Bok covers 4 different claims in favor of secrecy, which I’ll summarize. This post is a companion to another, Perspectives on Masonic Secrets.
Need to Control Identity
Consider the role of secrecy and revelation in a pregnancy, an engagement, or a terminal illness. These topics can be miraculous or terrifying for the people involved, and often come to define who a person is; a mother, a father, a spouse, or even a patient. All may increase vulnerability and the need for secrecy. A person’s ability to control their identity and how it is portrayed to the world seems fairly fundamental, because each of us has a sense that who we are, and how we present ourselves to the world, may be different depending on the circumstance.
Need to Protect Certain Plans
Given the need to control identity, the need to protect plans & actions follows from that. A pregnant woman or terminally sick person may need to travel to seek treatment. Choice, which is fundamental for people is always about the future. People have to be able to imagine future possibilities, and take routes to their goals. According to Bok: “What is fragile, unpopular, perhaps threatened (…) seeks additional layers of secrecy”. If a person could be stripped of secrecy about their plans & intentions, their lives become more predictable and they are easier to pressure and defeat. Consider that would mean for political protest, or unpopular religion.
Need to Protect Actions
Given secrecy for plans, secrecy for actions then becomes necessary. Bok points out that a game of chess would be pointless without secrecy between players, and that an elopement, or peace initiative, scientific experiment or invention could falter or be crushed if exposed too soon.
“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule.Thomas Carlyle
Secrecy about both plans and actions enables unpredictability and surprise. While these things are often too what’s feared about secrecy, without them life would be stifling.
Need to Protect Property
Certain kinds of property are also closely linked to identity. Consider the family ranch, a box of love letters, or a favorite piece of art given by a child. In the case of a box of love letters, even the existence of the property might be secret. Some of these things might belong to us more than to others.
This can go too far
These items above do not always hold, and like any other principles they can be stretched too thin or abused. While their abuse is always possible, the claims do hold almost eternally for some basic human needs. Throughout all the history of humanity, we’ve needed some capacity for keeping secrets and choosing when to release them. This serves to give our identity depth, it gives us the ability to plan, surprise, and control our identities through time. Without secrets, we likely couldn’t stay mentally healthy or free.