What is Freedom? (2): A Right to Self-Ownership?

Libertarians stress the importance of the right to self-ownership. I would argue that it’s an interesting and useful right in the context of human rights more generally, but also one that is a bit of a problem. When we say that people have a right to self-ownership we mean that they own themselves in just the same way that they can own objects. It follows that people have the same rights over themselves and their bodies as they have over objects:

  • they are free to use their bodies as they please
  • they can claim that others, including the government, refrain from using it
  • they can use the government to protect themselves against others trying to use it
  • and they can transfer property rights to others.

Self-ownership rights understood in this sense are the core of libertarian philosophy and are believed to justify standard libertarian policy recommendations such as the elimination or reduction of taxation, the freedom to sell organs, use drugs, engage in all forms of consensual sex etc. And indeed, self-ownership can be an attractive right to non-libertarians as well: it can be used to justify the prohibition of slavery and rape, to protect people’s rights to euthanasia and assisted suicide, to solve the forced transplant dilemma, to support the rejection of capital punishment on the basis of a theory of non-instrumentalization etc.

However, useful as the right to self-ownership can be, it’s not without drawbacks. The right can, and in the minds of most libertarians does imply a denial of the obligation to help others in need (apart from an obligation based on prior wrongdoing and assistance based on voluntary agreement). Such an obligation would be a form of slavery. It would mean the forced use of our bodies and labor power for the benefit of others. Libertarians often reject taxation for the same reason. All this seems needlessly selfish and contrary to moral intuition.

It also seems incoherent. Most if not all libertarians accept taxation for the funding of some collective goods such as highways and the police force. It’s not clear how they can accept a limitation of the right to self-ownership for the sake of some types of taxation but not others. Taxation is always the non-consensual use of persons for the benefit of others, whatever its purpose.

If you view the right to self-ownership as an absolute right – or axiomatic – you may wind up accepting some absurd conclusions: you’ll have to claim that it’s impermissible to gently push the arm of a driver holding his steering wheel and heading towards of group of school children, because that would mean using the body of the driver without his consent to aid others in need. Self-ownership therefore can’t be an absolute right, at least not in a non-solipsistic world. Minimally, it should be limited for the sake of the self-ownership rights of others: imprisoning murderers or slave holders means limiting their self-ownership rights for the sake of the same rights of their potential victims. And, on top of that, it’s probably also necessary to limit self-ownership rights for the sake of certain other values. The problem is that it’s difficult to think about a limited right to self-ownership: every limit to that right seems to destroy it completely. Either you own yourself or you don’t.

There are, I think, three ways to react to these problems with the right to self-ownership.

  • You can bite the bullet and maintain that the right to self-ownership is the fundamental right and should be absolute whatever the consequences.
  • Or you can hold on to the right but only as one value amidst others, and to be balanced against others.
  • Or you can abandon it, claiming that it only has a rhetorical value, and that it’s better to focus on the “derivative” rights – such a the right not to suffer slavery – and try to justify those derivative rights independently (e.g. an anti-slavery movement doesn’t need the concept of self-ownership in order to be effective).

As a good value pluralist, I prefer the second option. The rhetorical and unifying force of the right to self-ownership should not be underestimated. If we manage to prune its extreme libertarian outgrowths (such as selfishness and extreme marketization in the form of organ sales or the “right” to sell yourself into slavery), we’re left with a powerful concept that can be of great value in the struggle for individual liberty (which isn’t a libertarian monopoly by the way). But it can’t guarantee liberty by itself. It depends on and is only meaningful together with a theory of ownership of the rest of the world. Imagine that one other person owns the entirety of the world, minus yourself (i.e. you only have self-ownership). That means that when you want to eat you’re a thief, and when you want to move about you’re trespassing. That’s hardly freedom. Self-ownership without a theory about how the rest of the world is owned can be utterly meaningless.

So the question then turns to the way in which nonhuman things and beings should be owned and distributed. Who can own what? Libertarians would claim that self-ownership provides a basis for ownership in general, and they use Locke’s theory of property to argue for that claim (I own myself, therefore also my labor, therefore also the fruits of my labor – since hardly anything in the world today hasn’t been touched by human labor, almost everything can be said to be owned by someone).

However, I argued elsewhere that this is a difficult if not impossible move. Hence, ownership should be justified independently from self-ownership, and should probably include the notion of a “fair share”, whatever that means. Perhaps this notion can be based on another element in Locke’s theory, namely the “Lockean proviso” that we should leave enough and as good for others, or on some form of sufficientarianism (meaning that all should have enough resources for basic subsistence, for a decent life, for a life worth living etc.). Or it could be based on the persuasive claim that the earth is the common ownership of all, regardless of the labor some have put into it. But I’ve already discussed those issues here and here respectively.

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