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Self ownership

I have an issue with the ‘All rights are property rights’ argument. There is a problem, a big problem, with the Rothbardian claim that the basis of rights is self ownership. A fundamental of ownership is the right to dispose of property, and that I cannot dispose of myself, sell myself, demonstrates that I do not own myself.

I am not complaining about this, I am committed to the conviction that that humans are not, and cannot be, property; that ownership of a human being can be vested in nobody and property rights simply do not apply.

It is the case that although convention allows a live person to specify the means of disposal of their remains, ownership of the corpse is vested in no one, not even the estate, and what is true of a dead body cannot be any less true of a living one.

Does this harm the arguments for freedom? Nope, not at all. Far from it defeating the ‘I own myself, therefore your interfering with me is an interference with my property’, it simply modifies it. Instead, it is a matter of ‘neither you, nor anyone else, may ever have any ownership authority over me, therefore you may never have basis to interfere’.

I would argue the non ownership argument strengthens my right to live my life without interference, rather than weakening it.

32 Comments

  1. The point of self-ownership is that it is inalienable. The ability to dispose of something is only one attribute of ownership, very important, but there are others.

    You cannot remove self-ownership and leave the rest of property, which the natural rightist derives from self-ownership, intact. If you don’t own yourself, because no one owns anyone including themselves, then I don’t see how you could object to me dragging you off to slavery, as you will have no more right than I in the matter, so, I guess it will be decided by force. Also, what about your kidneys? Do you own them? If yes, then it follows that you own each constituent part of the body, which leads to self-ownership.

    The conventions about ownership of a corpse are neither here nor there. As far as I know, it goes back to something in cannon law.

  2. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    “I cannot dispose of myself, sell myself, demonstrates that I do not own myself”

    Well you can rent yourself as many of us do on a daily basis. And you could sell body parts in the extreme along with your genetic matter if the mood took you. And the argument that you can’t sell yourself is self-defeating only because there would be no entity to accept the proceeds of the sale of self, if you sold yourself, so to speak.

    In essence you are the shell company which owns all your assets and of which could be disposed of.

    But I understand your argument and it is very clever, save for the reality that when something is ownerless it tends to be claimed.

  3. Mr Ed says:

    One who owns property unconditionally may dispose of it, or trade it. But you cannot sell yourself and receive any consideration in return, as you would not have the capacity to own what you have sold yourself for, although you might, say, have the benefit of a debt forgiven for you or a third party in exchange for your self. It becomes a nonsense for people to sell themselves, and self-ownership is surely sui generis.

    Which puts military service in to question. Do you have the right to sell your life to a politician, e.g. By joining the Blairmacht to occupy Iraq? And what if you change your mind?

  4. CountingCats says:

    SAoT,

    when something is ownerless it tends to be claimed.”

    That ignores the core of the argument, that ownership of a person cannot be vested in anyone, anyone at all, at any time. There is nothing claimable.

    As to the rest, if I sell myself the I can always specify in the contract that some third party receives the proceeds of the sale.

    If you don’t own yourself, because no one owns anyone including themselves, then I don’t see how you could object to me dragging you off to slavery, as you will have no more right than I in the matter,”

    I can object, because you have no right whatsoever to assert ownership. None, zilch, nada. Your taking ownership remains an act of theft and enslavement regardless.

  5. CC,

    “I can object, because you have no right whatsoever to assert ownership. None, zilch, nada.”

    By the very act of objecting, you are demonstrating your self-ownership.

  6. CountingCats says:

    By the very act of objecting, you are demonstrating your self-ownership.

    Nonsense. I have no need of ownership of an item in order to object inappropriate attempts to control it.

    No, I don’t own myself, but neither do you.

    I have personal autonomy because you have no ownership of me. To advocate self ownership is to acknowledge circumstances in which ownership of a person is reasonable. My position is that ownership of a person is unreasonable, in all circumstances.

  7. Plamus says:

    Cats, I am not sure of the benefits of your definition, while it has some drawbacks, as SAoT pointed out.

    To begin with, things that have no owner do indeed exist, and tend to get abused – tragedy of the commons and all. The big problem is that ownerlessness is hard to enforce – states have a nasty tendency to claim anything ownerless as collective property. This may appear to be distinction without difference until it comes to issues such as drugs, abortion, and euthanasia.

    Euthanasia, of course, leads us to your claim that you cannot dispose of yourself. Erm, sure you can. Suicide may be frowned upon, and in some jurisdictions illegal (funnily enough – are they gonna kill me for killing myself?), but it’s certainly almost always (leaving aside special cases like paralysis, coma, and similar incapacitated states) something you can do. You can lease/rent many aspects of yourself – having a job, participating in a medical trial, prostituting yourself being a few examples. In most jurisdictions, you can donate legally non-renewable parts of yourself – and the fact that you cannot sell them is an abomination that has cost millions of lives. Property is not a simple concept, and just because some general aspects of property do not apply to some specific type of property does not mean it cannot be property. You can destroy a chair you own, but you cannot really destroy a piece of land – does that mean that land is not property?

    I surmise the big objection in the back of your mind is slavery – such a loaded and fuzzy concept too. Classical slavery is clearly predicated on non-consensual violence, and thus not a legitimate way to obtain property. Indentured servitude, on the other hand, was a well-developed institution. Modern people may be squeamish about its drawbacks (physical punishment – oh, noes!), but they generally ignore its great benefits. Long topic, I’ll stop here – happy to elaborate if you care to elaborate on what aspects of self-ownership bother you, and why. Maybe I am missing something, but the “I can’t sell myself” argument does not strike me as very strong.

    I will admit that I am struggling to find another example of something that you can own but cannot sell – since, as you say, if you sell yourself to me, I own the consideration.

    Here’s one possibility: you have a lock of the hair of the first girl you fell in love with. It may be of emotional value to you, but you try to sell it for 1 cent, and get no buyers. For all practical purposes, you cannot sell it – no one wants it for any positive amount of consideration. Does that mean you don’t own it and no one else can own it? If you leave it to me in you will, is it not mine?

  8. CC,

    “I have no need of ownership of an item in order to object inappropriate attempts to control it.”

    How are you going to object? With words? Then you demonstrate your ownership i.e., your command over / your control of your vocal chords. With deeds, likewise.

    “I have personal autonomy because you have no ownership of me.”

    Of course I agree. This personal autonomy is what others call self-ownership. The argument is thus reduced to semantics.

    “To advocate self ownership…”

    I don’t advocate this, I assert that it is so, whether I favour it or not.

    “… is to acknowledge circumstances in which ownership of a person is reasonable.”

    It is to say that the only ethical position to take on ownership, ethical because it is universally applicable and not destructive to human existence, is that we have an inalienable property in ourselves.

    I think you are over-thinking the issue. It is not metaphysics or psychology, but rather political philosophy, and thus concerned with the relationship between man and man, i.e. man, society and state.

  9. Greg Cavanagh says:

    Plamus brings an interesting point. Slavery.
    I believe many prisons of the world put prisoners to use on minor public works projects. I’m not aware if they are paid for this service or not. But it is forced, and I believe unpaid. Is that not slavery? Does the state own the men and women in prison?
    Also, a minor point; Very early historical slavery happened when one army conquered either another army, or their land. They would then take slaves of the soldiers, or their women and children.
    In early Jewish law, a slave could only be kept 7 years then they had to be paid a wage and released. A slave who didn’t want to be released had their ear pierced and were kept on as a permanent slave, i.e.( a willing slave).

  10. CountingCats says:

    Re the hair, it can be sold. That you can find no willing buyers is a matter of others perception of value, not a matter of your ownership per se.

    Euthanasia? You refer to a different and and irrelevant meaning of the word dispose.

    I am aware of the tragedy of the commons, but that is based on common ownership, as is evidenced by the fact that all can use it equally. When it comes to me, there is no common ownership because there is no ownership at all. Neither you, nor anyone else, has the right to utilise me in any way because there are NO ownership rights at all. The idea of the commons simply is not relevant.

    The state may not claim me as an item of collective property not because I am unowned, but because the concept of ownership, when it comes to a person, simply does not exist.

    I may sign a contract indenturing myself, but that is not selling myself to be dealt with as the purchaser determines. Nor may the state act as if I am owned, because there is no mechanism by which that can be made true.

  11. Plamus says:

    “Re the hair, it can be sold.” – Nope. A sale can take place when there is a willing and informed seller, and a willing and informed buyer. No buyer – no sale (which my, admittedly contorted, example was meant to illustrate).

    “Euthanasia? You refer to a different and and irrelevant meaning of the word dispose.” – I beg to differ. You limit the meaning of the word “dispose” to suit your argument. Abrogation of ownership is a clear means to dispose of property.

    “When it comes to me, there is no common ownership because there is no ownership at all.” – Your argument is theoretical. Mine is practical, which I hope I made clear. You may claim the state cannot claim ownership, but , to un-humbly quote myself: “The big problem is that ownerlessness is hard to enforce – states have a nasty tendency to claim anything ownerless as collective property.”

    “I may sign a contract indenturing myself, but that is not selling myself to be dealt with as the purchaser determines.” – Umm, define “as the purchaser determines”. Again, we’re not working with a binary concept here. Under historical indenture, the contract owner could make the indentured servant work, punish them physically for refusing to, deny them the right to marry, extend their term of servitude for getting pregnant… Yes, this is not “as the purchaser determines”, but tread pretty deep into those waters.

    “Nor may the state act as if I am owned, because there is no mechanism by which that can be made true.” – The state vigorously enforced indenture contracts.

  12. CountingCats says:

    The hair is open to being sold. The concept of ownership exits. Send me the hair, I will send you 1 penny in payment. There. I have demonstrated that your argument is baseless. From here on in all we will be doing is haggling about price.

    That you are unable to close any deal to this point reflects on your salesmanship, not on the nature of ownership.

    Disposing of myself by killing myself is not a matter of ownership. I stand by my statement.

  13. Plamus says:

    “The hair is open to being sold. The concept of ownership exits. Send me the hair, I will send you 1 penny in payment. There. I have demonstrated that your argument is baseless. From here on in all we will be doing is haggling about price.” – You have reversed the argument. You are the one selling the hair, not I. You cannot, at any non-zero price. Is it yours, or is it not?

  14. CountingCats says:

    I’m not selling the hair. I have no interest in selling some birds hair. Her mother might want it, in which case I would probably buy it off you and give it to her, but I am not the seller.

    I wouldn’t waste my time.

    The lack of a willing buyer is simply a price signal. It says nothing about the validity of the concept of ownership. Nothing. I repeat – nothing.

  15. Plamus says:

    Okay. Let’s parse this. You said you cannot sell yourself, therefore you do not own yourself. I gave you an example of something else you cannot sell, and asked you if you own it or not. You will not answer. If you offered to sell me yourself for a penny, I’d accept – that the current legal systems do not allow it is, well, just an artifact of those same legal systems. They also do not allow you or I to shoot heroin, but the case for it is pretty slim on ethical grounds.

    If you are arguing that you do not own yourself because the law does not allow you to sell yourself, sure, you’re right. I do not see a valid argument why that SHOULD not be the case though – and it has been the case, historically.

    Seriously, dude, either you are not making your case well, or I am too dense to get it, but judging by the other responses, the ball is in your court.

  16. CountingCats says:

    Sigh,

    I have answered it. You demonstrated a circumstance where there was a lack of a willing buyer, and I have offered to become that buyer. The example you gave says nothing, nothing nothing, nothing, I repeat, nothing, about the validity of ownership. All it does is posit that there is no buyer willing to pay a price you are willing to accept. You give an example of price signals, nothing else.

    I cannot sell myself because because ownership of myself vests in no one. You cannot buy me because there is no ownership to pass to you.

    You cannot get past the concept of ownership and keep coming back to it. I cannot sell myself to you, or anyone else, because there is no ownership involved.

    The basis of my rights is not that I own myself, but that no one else may own me. The basis of my rights is that there is no concept of ownership of a person, therefore no one, the state included, may exercise ownership rights over me. Such as telling me what opinions I may express or who I may associate with.

  17. Plamus says:

    “You give an example of price signals, nothing else.” – And you only give an example of being unable to sell yourself to me because you have defined it thus. I take you up on your offer to sell yourself to me – got a dollar right here. Do you own yourself now?

    You say you cannot sell yourself, thus you do not own yourself. Circular (thus invalid) argument, because by your own definition you do not own yourself, therefore you cannot sell yourself.

    You are definitely entitled to your case for no self-ownership… but your argument that there is no self-ownership (“A fundamental of ownership is the right to dispose of property, and that I cannot dispose of myself, sell myself, demonstrates that I do not own myself.”) because you cannot sell yourself is circular – you are arguing that you cannot sell yourself, because you do not own yourself, because you cannot sell yourself, because you do not own yourself, because…

    Let’s put it this way – you have not convinced me, Goedel-style, within the current paradigm. If you are starting a new paradigm – best of luck to you, brush up on your philosophy and logic. I hope I am the dim bulb in the chandelier.

  18. CountingCats says:

    Ok, circular argument as presented, fair enough.

    How about, that I cannot sell myself is an example and a consequence of the reality that I do not own myself.

    I made no offer to sell myself to you, therefore you are unable to take up such an offer. I know not of which offer you are referring to. Besides, any such transaction would be fraudulent because I have no ownership to transfer to you. Nor is there any ownership for you to take on.

  19. Plamus says:

    Also fair enough: you have, by your definition, no ownership.

    What happens when someone does claim ownership – most likely the gov’t? You can claim “No fair, you cannot take ownership, as it ain’t ownable”, or can claim “No go, it’s mine”. Which claim do you think you are gonna have an easier time defending in the public’s eye (my practicality argument)? Human beings, like it or not, tend to like the inviolability of their bodies – it correlating with longer life span and all. Coincidentally, it also correlates with their idea of ownership – “can’t touch that, it’s mine”. “Can’t touch that, it ain’t mine, but it ain’t yours either” just does not have the same ring.

    I am not denying you philosophical purity – not competent there – but you have an uphill battle on psychological grounds, and I just do not see the benefit.

    Cheers, mate – I won’t be able to check in for 18 hours or so (work), but great discussion.

  20. PeterT says:

    I agree with Cats original post – I much prefer a focus on liberty rather than property rights when arguing for the libertarian position. In general ‘rights talk’ is quite unedifying – just listen to the left talk about a ‘right to education’ etc – and is perhaps not something that should be encouraged.

    “Tax is theft” and those kind of one liners that originate from a property rights view tend to alienate the unconvinced. Of course, more subtle arguments may not be understood.

  21. @ PeterT,

    I accept that banging on about property rights does not always go down too well with people who attach negative connotations to the idea of property rights, which is why it’s easier to do so if you explain that property rights start with self-ownership and proceed from it.

    Talking about liberty without mentioning property is virtually impossible. If you say ‘people should be free to do what they want’, the first retort is likely to be ‘what are the limits?’ or ‘does that mean people should be free to rape and murder?’ or something along those lines. At which point you will have to bring property into the definition.

    Property rights are the nuts and bolts of individual liberty. Take them away, and all you’ve got is an empty shell.

  22. Paul Marks says:

    Ownership is a reasoning mind (an “I” – or an association made up of agents, of reasoning minds) claiming non reasoning matter.

    “That sounds like Roman legal philosphy Paul – and the Romans had slaves”.

    Roman legal philosphers accepted that natural law forbad slavary – they just ignored natural law (bleeping Romans).

    As for whether a reasoning “I” can own him (or her) self?

    That does sound a bit odd (as ownership is the claim of a mind, or an association set up minds, over non reasoning matter – how can an mind “own” a mind, even its self) – so perhaps cats has a point.

    But like PeterT I am used to the self ownership and then reason out from it, style of argument.

  23. Julie near Chicago says:

    Well…my own view is that property and persons are of different “orders of things,” that is, things wholly different in kind; and that persons are antecedent to property, which can only come to exist because of the actions of persons. The fundamental right is not a right of “self-ownership” (except perhaps if the term is used metaphorically–but that does create all sorts of problems because people forget that it’s a metaphor and start believing it’s to be taken literally); the fundamental right is the *right of self-determination*.

    Taken in its fullest sense (as it should be), this simply means that no one has a right to interfere with one is determined to do with some portion of one’s life: one’s person, a period of one’s time, and one’s effort (or attention). What one uses those things to create becomes one’s property. To interfere with the disposition of this, as it is the result of the expenditure of a portion of one’s life, is in effect to interfere with the maker’s right of self-determination. A person may, of course, acquire property from someone else–either as a gift or as a trade. To interfere with that transaction would be to interfere with the original owner’s right of self-determination, in the form of his expenditure of life that goes into making the property (or finding and claiming it by taking up or staking out de novo, as in twigs found on the forest floor–or land).

    I see that this is very similar to Paul’s statement above. Although if we here were all in agreement on the basics, we could drill down a little and discuss the situation where person’s are only partially capable of reason–or not capable of reason at all.

    One thing we should never forget–definitions about things or phenomena in the real world always trace back, in the end, to ostensive definitions. “A ‘tree’ is what I point to when I say it.” So in the end, definitions and redefinitions become circular…if they all truly refer to the same concept.

    And the other thing we have to learn to remember is that every system of thought depends not just on definitions but also on postulates. [Which are NOT the same thing as axioms!! Axioms are principles humans have to accept or they can't have reason at all--principles such as "A thing is itself" (shorthand, A=A, depending on just what one means by that), and "A thing cannot both BE and NOT BE, in the same sense and at the same time." Those are inescapable principles that underlie all human rational thought. But a fundamental stricture of Natural Law, or of "the moral law," or of Divine Law, is a postulate. One doesn't PROVE it; one ASSUMES it, usually because it seems self-evident to one (albeit sometimes only after years of thought). I imagine all of us here (being libertarian or libertarian-ish) are dead against murder ("unjustified killing of another human being). To paraphrase Paul, "It's just wrong." And so it is--by our postulate. But we can't PROVE that to any number of sociopaths or mass murderers--because it's foundational, a postulate, not a theorem derived via logic from definitions and prior principles (postulates).]

    That’s just the way it works.

    All that IS germaine, because it means that while discussions like this are interesting and fruitful, they will never penetrate to the Root of Right and Reason. Once you get to the postulates…that’s all there is.

    Sorry if I got carried away and too far O/T…it’s a hobbyhorse of mine….

  24. CountingCats says:

    it’s a hobbyhorse of mine…

    And this is a hobbyhorsetrack. Ride as hard, as far, and as often as you wish.

    If we get sick of it we’ll soon let you know.

  25. Julie,

    what if my self-determination involves becoming a serial killer?

  26. Julie near Chicago says:

    Richard, assuming I *know,* as certainly as is possible in this uncertain world, that you are bent upon murder:

    First, I would try using reason–reasoning from abstract principle, or from your rational self-interest, or both–to persuade you to give up that objective.

    If that didn’t work, I’d try emotional or moral blackmail. Then threats, and intimidation.

    And, if you were close enough to committing murder–in my judgment, responsibility for which is mine, so I must bear the consequences of it–then I would if necessary bust your head.

    But, I think that’s not what you’re getting at. I think you mean, What do you do when two fundamental rights seem (in some particular case) to be mutually exclusive?

    Actually, I might have gone a little too far when I said that “murder is wrong” is a postulate. It’s not–it’s a mini-theorem that follows directly from the postulate that “man has the right of self-determination.” (Because, obviously, murder–and actual slavery–deny that right.)

    Anyway, when I stated that form of the Fundamental Postulate of Ethics, I didn’t bother to include the usual limitation on the right, which is that *to the extent that* a man fails to honor that right of others, he **justly loses it** himself.

  27. CountingCats says:

    In other words, my right to swing my fist terminates at your nose.

  28. Julie near Chicago says:

    Gosh, Cats, you have a way of putting things so clearly! :>))

  29. CountingCats says:

    You have never heard that before? It is a cliche. Positively ancient.

  30. Thanks for the answer, Julie. I didn’t expect you to allow me a killing spree under your system. I just don’t see any advantage in throwing out the principle of self-ownership and replacing it with a principle of self-determination, which seems less clear to me, although it probably amounts to the same thing, once we’ve gone round the houses a couple of times. Self-ownership belongs to the sphere of political philosophy. It serves a function within a libertarian/natural rights conception of the law. That is all that is required of it. Outside of this sphere, it may cease to be useful, just as a car may cease to be useful if you drive it into a river.

  31. Julie near Chicago says:

    Cats– Yes, I’m well aware of the expression. I was trying to be funny. And still to acknowledge the point–and that one doesn’t absolutely have to go through an entire exegesis on logic to get it! LOL

    By the way–I didn’t say it in so many words, but obviously your original essay was very much along the same lines as my own comment in its thesis and conclusion, and I thank you for it–well said.

    Richard– No, I didn’t think you thought I have any serial-murderers-in-waiting as Best Friends with whose self-determination I’d never interfere! And I do understand your point insofar as persuading those still enDarkened are concerned, although I’m quite serious about agreeing with Cats (and, I take it, Paul) that “property” is a concept which it’s simply inappropriate to apply to human beings. I think one must accept that at some level, in order to work out a logically consistent theory of property, contract, slavery, and what the word “just” in the definition of murder as “just” killing means.

    Although I suppose that might not be the case if one subscribes to the belief–the *postulate*–that there is a god whose property we are. I can’t say I’ve ever met any Jews or Christians who think that way, but I guess there have been some here and there. It does sound like a good theme for an SF-Fantasy story, though. You’d explore the implications, and the effect of the belief on the (alien!) society which so believed. The nature of “justice” would be quite different, I should think. Hm. Perhaps one needn’t look so far away as to alien species….

  32. Julie near Chicago says:

    Oooops!! Should be, ‘…what the word “just” in the definition of murder as un-“just” killing means,’ of course.

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