On the Objectivity of Self Ownership

Exclusive to STR

August 1, 2007

In discussing libertarian philosophy with disciples of the Austrian School of economics, I have repeatedly been confronted with the assertion that self-ownership is a simple fact of reality. Allegedly, to dispute this fact would commit one to an absurd position, and therefore the libertarian ethic is simply a reflection of the nature of human existence. We will examine this argument, and arrive at the conclusion that unfortunately, things are not quite as simple as we might hope.

In order to discuss self-ownership, we will first need a working definition of ownership itself. Such definitions are always dangerous, and so it must be noted explicitly that I do not intend to provide an 'official' definition of ownership. For our purposes, we only need to identify the basic idea of what it means to own something. This will help us to understand what it means to own oneself, and thereby aid our efforts to determine whether or not self-ownership is an objective fact.

With that disclaimer in mind, we will move forward with the understanding that to own something means both to have the ability to control it, and to be morally justified in excluding others from attempting to control it. We will further assume that to own something would not justify one's using it in a way that would conflict with anyone else's ownership claims. I think that while it may be somewhat clumsy, this definition should be relatively uncontroversial, and is sufficient for our work here.

There are two basic ways to argue for the objectivity of self-ownership. The first is to argue that there are basic facts of existence that entail self-ownership, and the second is to argue that there are no coherent alternatives to self-ownership. We will explore each approach in turn.

The first method can be seen at work in Hans-Hermann Hoppe's book, The Economics and Ethics of Private Property. Hoppe first introduces a principle which has been termed the Axiom of Argumentation. According to this principle, anyone making an assertion about the nature of reality necessarily presupposes that she is entitled to make such an assertion. To argue otherwise, Hoppe points out, would be to contradict oneself (205). Since he believes that a proper moral theory should be established through argumentation (204), and one could not argue without presupposing an entitlement to argue, Hoppe thinks that he has proven the objectivity of self-ownership.

Though there may be objections to Hoppe's formulation, we will proceed under the assumption that he has indeed established the fact that we control our bodies, and also that one's body could not be owned by anyone besides herself. But as we have defined ownership, Hoppe's argument falls short of its ultimate goal. Hoppe does not prove that we are morally justified in excluding others from attempting to control our bodies. To illustrate this, I would only need to tie you up and drag you off while you explained to me how I was violating your right to self-ownership.

If we agree that the concept of ownership includes a moral justification for excluding others from attempting to control the owned object, then it becomes clear that any attempt to prove that the facts of existence entail self-ownership must find a basis for this moral justification. It is somewhat doubtful that this can be done, and it is not difficult to see why. In order to prove that I am entitled to control myself, I only need to show that I would be unable to not control myself. But no such inability exists where attempting to control others is concerned. Accordingly, one would need to do some serious tinkering in order to prove that an entitlement to attempt to control others is contrary to the nature of existence.

Therefore, we will turn to the second method for arguing on behalf of the objectivity of self-ownership, where it is claimed that no coherent alternative exists. This approach is exemplified by Murray N. Rothbard in his book, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, in which we are directed to 'Consider'the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his equal quotal share of everyone else' (97). Rothbard goes on to argue that the first alternative is objectionable because it involves the dehumanization of the people in the lower class (ibid), and that in addition to being intuitively ridiculous, the second alternative would be impracticable due to the impossibility of organizing universal consent (97-98). Therefore, self-ownership wins by default. But are these in fact the only two alternatives?

I can think of three concepts that would challenge Rothbard's conclusion. First, the alternative of non-ownership is still available. That is, we have already acknowledged that people are entitled to control themselves, but we could coherently argue that there is no objective moral justification for excluding others from attempting to control one's body. We would not have to argue that a victim of force would not be entitled to defend herself; we would only need to say that neither she nor her attacker would have morality on their side. Under such a principle, I would be entitled to attempt to control you, and you would be entitled to attempt to control me in such a way as to prevent me from controlling you, etc.

But if for whatever reason that concept should be unattractive on its own, another idea that comes to mind is that of owning easements. Perhaps people are only morally justified in excluding others from attempting to control some aspects of their bodies, but not others. We might envision a world in which people were said to own their bodily integrity, but were not thought to be justified in excluding others from touching them harmlessly. The adoption of such a view might be undesirable for various reasons, but it is unclear that the principle behind it is fundamentally incoherent.

Still another concept that does not seem overly ridiculous is that of conditional ownership. Perhaps someone could be said to own herself, but only so long as certain conditions applied. For example, libertarians commonly argue that we would be justified in punishing someone who has violated another's property rights. Again, we might be able to come up with reasons for opposing such a policy, but the underlying principle does not seem to be a flagrant absurdity.

Thus, we are faced with the conclusion that self-ownership is not the only coherent principle available to us. If this is the case, and, as we showed earlier, self-ownership is not entailed by the nature of existence, then we are left with the argument that self-ownership is somehow a better rule than any other. The question of whether this is in fact the case lies outside of the scope of this essay. The important thing is that we admit that the morality of self ownership is a topic that must be discussed. By relying on arguments that hinge on the intrinsic irrationality of opponents' positions, we may be stifling that discussion and preventing progress from being made. Therefore, as libertarians we must abandon these arguments and look for new ones, or else risk never being taken seriously by our rivals.

Your rating: None
Danny Shahar's picture
Columns on STR: 9

Danny Shahar is an intern at the Foundation for Economic Education.  He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and plans to begin work on a PhD in philosophy in the Fall of 2009.  Danny's research generally falls within the fields of ethical, political, and economic philosophy.  He writes a blog called Back to the Drawing Board.