In sum, while “Westerners” thus head in what was a more “Easterly” direction in terms of selfhood, privacy, and law, at least some “Easterners” such as Japan, if not the PRC, appear to be heading in what was a more “Westerly” direction in those same terms. The resulting pattern thus suggests, if not a convergence, then at least a closer resonance between basic conceptions of selfhood (as both individual and relational), privacy (as individual but also group), and, perhaps, the laws defining privacy and its protections. At the same time, however, the emergence of ever more stringent individual privacy protections in the EU GDPR (2016) and the apparent erasure of all such protections in the emerging Chinese SCS make clear that fundamental, and perhaps irreducible, differences will remain.
“Privacy” and private life: Cultural differences and ethical pluralism Whatever the long-term influence these important resonances may have, the striking differences between – especially – the EU and China on matters of privacy force us to confront the obvious ethical question: who’s right?
We first explore this question – and primary ethical responses to it – by way of an example provided by Soraj Hongladarom, a Thai Buddhist philosopher. Hongladarom points out that, while earlier cross-cultural discussions of privacy tended to emphasize these sorts of contrasts, there are also important similarities between, say, Western and Buddhist views. First, Buddhism must emphasize at least a relative role and place for the individual: while, from an ultimate or enlightened standpoint, the individual is a pernicious illusion, the individual remains squarely responsible for his or her realization of enlightenment. For its part, Western thought – both in premodern traditions such as that of Aristotle and in modern philosophical streams such as that of Hegel – includes emphasis on the community, not simply the individual. From this perspective, Hongladarom has argued for a Thai conception of individual privacy – one that ultimately disagrees with Western assumptions regarding the individual as an absolute reality, but nonetheless retains a sufficiently strong role and place for the individual. Such a Buddhist individual, again, is the agent of its own enlightenment, but also serves as a citizen of a struggling democratic state in Thailand. In this way, Hongladarom argues, there are strong philosophical grounds for granting such an individual privacy rights similar to those enjoyed by Westerners – even if, by comparison, these rights will be more limited in light of the greater role of the state and greater importance (on both Buddhist and Confucian grounds) of the community.