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Me, Paranoid? Who told you?

by Rick Lewis

Paranoia is the delusion that other people are watching you and are out to get you. Of course, if people really are watching you and really are out to get you, then it isn’t paranoia. Paranoia is a form of self-deception. Sometimes it arises as a symptom of a mental illness, in which case its treatment is a matter for psychiatry, not philosophy. Sometimes it arises because of a mistaken view of the world; and in this form it afflicts both individuals and societies. This latter kind of paranoia is one that philosophy can perhaps help with, as philosophers have argued so much over relevant questions such as ‘What can we know?’ and also undertakes the clarification of confusing concepts such as ‘privacy’. John Goff does exactly this in his article. In this issue we’ll also examine some other kinds of self-deception (or so you’d like to believe). For example, Gordon Marino discusses Kierkegaard’s insights into self-deception and applies them to his own life.

But why should you be bothered if people watch you? Does it matter? Does it give them power over you? Well, if surveillance doesn’t give the information-gatherer more power – more ability to control events – then what is the point of countries having intelligence agencies? What is the point of industrial espionage, or of private investigators? People pay good money to gather information on other people, and they don’t often do it out of idle curiosity.

The French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-84) had a great deal to say about the relationship between knowledge and power. He saw them as being so tightly intertwined that he used the single term ‘power-knowledge’. The exact ways in which this relationship operates, when it is benevolent, and what are its ethics, are very much questions for philosophy.

It would be good to talk about this relationship now, at a time when governments worldwide are introducing cameras, ID cards, DNA databases and phone taps to monitor their citizens, in order to combat terrorism, solve crimes and prevent traffic violations. Some of these aims are admirable. I don’t want to be blown up by terrorists, and I breathe a sigh of relief whenever another plot is disrupted. But we need to be clear about the costs involved. It is said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, but what is the price of vigilance? Computer network shall talk unto computer network, and we’ll all end up completely watched, completely safe. As long as the government is benevolent, we’ll be fine.

The average Londoner is captured on about 300 surveillance cameras every day, so it is perhaps worth mentioning that despite this, violent crime continues to be rampant. As ID cards make their slow and costly way towards implementation, the usual reassurance offered to their many civil liberties opponents is that law-abiding people have nothing to fear. If you’ve nothing to hide, why worry? A possible objection to widespread government data-gathering is that it changes the balance of power between the rulers and the people who elect them. Another objection is that a society in which everyone is watched and treated as a potential threat breeds an unhealthily paranoid mindset in both the watchers and the watched. Terri Murray explores this consequence a little in her film review.

Knowledge, like meaning, is something that attaches to a particular viewpoint. If something isn’t known by anyone, then it isn’t known at all. City dwellers have always been watched by thousands of surveillance devices – namely the eyes of their fellow citizens. The mere existence of surveillance cameras matters little more than this, unless the information they provide is gathered so as to be available to a single agency. A storekeeper with a security camera isn’t at all sinister, but a government employee watching a thousand cameras might be. Are we building a prison for ourselves? Should civics lessons in schools include practical instructions on how to disable CCTV cameras, just in case that ever becomes necessary? If knowledge is indeed power, then absolute knowledge is absolute power (ask a theologian). Lord Acton said a century ago that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. How far down that road have our governments already gone?

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