How Far Should Self-Ownership Go?

February 27, 2007

In the spring of 2006, a German cannibal was convicted of murder, after he killed and ate another human being. This wasn't like any other murder, since the victim had consented to being killed and eaten. The standard libertarian approach to such an incident is that the victim possessed every right to exercise his self-ownership. But did he really? Are there limits to one's self-ownership, and what should these limits be?

The Basis of Self-Ownership

First, let us ask what the concept of self-ownership is. Self-ownership is holding total sovereignty over your own life, body and existence. By possessing sovereignty over yourself, only YOU (and no one else) are the final authority regarding how you live your life and treat your body. This concept is analogous to the sovereignty a nation-state experiences and holds.

Naturally, the concept of self-ownership is central to the ideology of libertarianism. In addition to owning your life and body, you have the right to retain the fruits of your labour, or the objects which you have created using your body.

So, if someone owns him or herself and holds total sovereignty over his or her life, we can draw some rational conclusions as to what this entails. It means that they can choose what to ingest. If someone desires to eat spicy food all day, then fine. If someone desires to take drugs, then fine. If someone wanted to consume a bottle of detergent, then fine. The notion of self-ownership also pertains to what one puts in their mind.

If someone wanted to read Mein Kampf, then it is his or her prerogative. If somebody wished to read technical manuals, then again, it's his or her exclusive right. As mentioned previously, self-ownership also relates to holding creations of your body and mind. If you write a book on fly-fishing, then this is your property to retain as your own. If you paint pictures that rival those of Picasso in fame, then these creations are your own property. If you build a log cabin in the forest as a holiday home, then this cabin is your exclusive property.

The Limits to Self-Ownership

We've briefly discussed the nature of the idea of self-ownership. So, what limits are linked to this ideal? The primary, and arguably sole, parameter is the non-aggression principle, meaning that we are not to initiate force or fraud against the person or property of another. Let us take this to its logical conclusion. It would mean that virtually ANY action that doesn't infringe on the person and property of another should be permitted and accepted by others.

The principle of self-ownership, if rationally applied, must mean that we are sovereign individuals. To be sovereign, an entity holds the final authority over its own affairs. The United States of America or Canada are sovereign countries, since they both possess total control over their own domestic affairs. No higher political power or authority maintains such sovereignty. Logically then, a sovereign individual cannot be called sovereign if s/he cannot control every aspect of his/her own life or body. The United States wouldn't be a sovereign nation if the Prime Minister and Cabinet of Canada directly determined US military expenditure.

The Rights of the German's victim

If the limit to self-ownership is the principle of non-aggression, then the victim of the German cannibal possessed every right to consent to being killed and eaten. Is such an act extreme? Perhaps it is. Nevertheless, such an act falls within the boundaries of acceptable and moral conduct, from a libertarian perspective.

Tolerance is one essential factor of being a libertarian, or holding libertarian views or values. There will inevitably be some actions that some people will not approve of and would seek to condemn. Nonetheless, as a libertarian, one should only be concerned with any initiation of force or fraud that occurs. We can personally condemn racism, but we should still respect a racist's right to his beliefs.

We can personally condemn SUV drivers, but we should still respect their rights to drive such a vehicle. We can personally condemn those who engage in BDSM, but we, as libertarians, should still respect others' rights to partake in such activities. If one desires to be a principled libertarian, then the principles of non-aggression and self-ownership should be applied to the logical and maximum degree.

I was inspired to write this article in response to hearing the views of libertarians in my own country. They viewed the affair of the German cannibal as "highly distasteful." But again, if we own ourselves, then who is to state what moral principles we should adhere to? The late, great Harry Browne often used to state that morality was what you made of it. If we own ourselves, and we are unique in thought, feeling and nature, then we shouldn't be restrained in forming and applying our own moral codes. Essentially, this is what the German cannibal did. To him, it was moral, right and just to consume another human being with his own consent. To a libertarian, the only issue should be whether an initiation of force or fraud occurred against the person or property of another human being. If not, then really, shouldn't anything go?

Be wary of the state

In reference to some points I raised in the last paragraph, it annoys (and sometimes even amuses me) to hear libertarians calling for the state to curb an activity (and hence initiate force against an individual). If you are a libertarian, shouldn't you distrust the state in all that it does? How can you condemn and rebuke the state for being oppressive and intrusive, yet call for government to exercise its intrusiveness in areas that you find personally unappealing? To this end, I'm reminded of some libertarian attitudes to immigration in the USA . You cannot state that government is force, yet proscribe the initiation of force to "protect" yourself from "the immigrants." As anarcho-capitalists, we immediately recognise that the state is not our friend or our ally. In that case, we cannot surely depend upon it to aid us, or support us in our efforts. In my estimation, a true libertarian should always approach government with a wary and cautious demeanour. Ultimately, such a position arises from being consistent with your libertarian ideals.

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Christopher Awuku lives in the UK and works in the voluntary/community sector.  He runs a market anarchist blog at http://chrislib.blogspot.com