Socrates in Berlin

World famous Harvard professor Michael Sandel promotes public discourse in Berlin.

2400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates was up to his tricks on Athena’s markets, backyards and athletic fields. He frustrated his discussion partners with seemingly endless questions about their motives, morals and actions. The disheartening conclusion was all too often that none of them had any morals, that their motives were selfish and their actions unnecessary – to put it mildly. As one can imagine, Socrates did not have many friends.

Michael Sandel, philosophy professor at Harvard, is venerated as a contemporary Socrates. But unlike his antique predecessor, Mr. Sandel seems to have a whole lot of friends. About 200 of them gathered at the Telefónica base-camp in Mitte on June 14th to partake in his lecture on the question of “Privacy – Convenience or Common Welfare”. Sandel’s Socratic presentation model to involve the audience into the discussion was a refreshing format. Besides remorseful confessions of a chocolate addict, the event revealed a general mistrust in the willingness of governments and corporations to treat personal data respectfully. However, the anonymized collection of meta data raised considerably less concern than individualized advertising, for example.

With regards to content, Sandel demonstrated the difficulty to define the term privacy. It was all but clear to the audience why one should care. The issue became more obvious when Sandel likened privacy with the freedom to choose. Apparently, the claim that limiting privacy also limits freedom of choice hit a spot. If the client of an insurance company agrees to constantly report his “Fitbit” data in exchange for a reduced premium, how free is he to dig in to a bacon-cheeseburger with fries? The audience was divided over the question but seemed to agree that ultimately it is the individual’s decision to strike such a deal and ultimately face the consequences.

At this point, the discussion missed a crucial intricacy. It remained unnoticed that one person’s choice is not free from ramifications for others. In the case of Fitbits, for instance, such process is easily illustrated: healthily living people, who profit from allowing for constant monitoring by insurance companies are naturally free take the offer. They profit from their healthy life-style and pay less in health-care costs. But what happens to those who do not agree to be monitored? A benevolent insurer will assume that the refusers may just be very adamant about their own privacy. A more malicious assumption would be that those who refuse to be monitored are “hiding” something, for instance a cigarette addiction, a passion for chilly-cheese fries or their sluggish existence as a couch-potato. In reality, the unmonitored will comprise a mix of both of these groups. In the statistical world of algorithms, however, both will be treated equally and both of their premiums will increase. The increasing premium, in return, exerts pressure on healthy privacy-lovers to also allow for monitoring. But how free, then, is our decision?

It was a unique experience to participate in one of Mr. Sandel’s Socratic lectures. The event’s intimacy allowed for a healthy exchange of ideas in a cozy environment. Ultimately, the biggest take-away was not necessarily the answers given by the professor. Indeed, it was the questions he and the audience raised. The active engagement with the crowd became an implicit model for the type of public discourse which should predate societal decisions on the balance of convenience and privacy. The goal of such discourse is not merely finding explicit answers. Instead, it is to ask questions, to be exposed to people’s concerns and attempting to grasp the global consequences of our allegedly insignificant actions. In this function, the public sphere becomes the foundation for democracy.

Maybe this is the biggest difference between Socrates and Sandel. In contrast to the Greek’s opinion, who declared his fellow men’s actions insignificant, Sandel asks us to contemplate the global ramifications of each of our decisions.


Benjamin Matthes

Benjamin is summer associate at Interel Deutschland. He is a master's student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Washington DC.

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