Every Man has a property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself.

– John Locke

What is self-ownership and is it a meaningful concept? Should self-ownership be rejected? Some people find self-ownership as a repulsive concept. They believe people should not be owned. Others reject the concept of self-ownership as superstitious natural law.

Should we advocate for self-ownership or should we reject it as inappropriate, or incoherent?

I submit that self-ownership is a useful concept for anyone, in describing how our relationship to each other’s bodies should be, whether you are a nihilist, deontologist, or consequentialist, a theist or atheist, an egoist or altruist, a propertarian or communist, or anywhere in between.

Many people are confused by the term self-ownership. What does it mean to own yourself? Ownership defines who should be allowed and not be allowed to exclude people from what. The “self” in self-ownership does not mean soul or other abstract concept. It refers to a person’s physical body. Self-ownership just means a person ought to be able to exclude others from their own body. This is not a controversial idea.  Yet many reject to term self-ownership.

I myself am private property—mine.

-David Friedman

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume self-ownership is not a natural right. Let’s just assume it is a convention. A convention of respecting people’s rights to exclude others from their own bodies. Let’s consider the alternatives to self-ownership.

There are only a few possible alternative conventions to choose for exclusion rights of peoples bodies.

Rothbard once identified the possible alternatives to self-ownership.  I have added some more to cover the alternatives:

Let’s review all of them:

  1. No one owns anyone
  2. Everyone owns everyone
  3. Some people own others
  4. Everyone is owned by their society or community
  5. Some people are partially owned by others.
  6. God owns everyone
  7. Everyone owns themselves

Which of these types of ownership should we accept?

This will depend on what you value.  If you value liberty and peace your options are limited.

No one owns anyone: One argument is that self-ownership is a meaningless, impossible, illogical, or superfluous concept. Sometimes it is claimed that it is an ownership claim without an owner, or where the owner and the owned are the same thing. It is often said, “I am myself, I don’t own myself,” and that ownership can’t be applied to people, only things. Only legal persons can own things and things that are owned cannot be persons. Slaves, for example, are not considered legal persons and can’t own things. A self-owner would have to be a slave of themselves and thus a contradiction. It is true that some historical legal systems, a slave couldn’t outright own things because the master could take anything the slave owned away.

However, a self-owner is different from a slave. The self-owner is their own master, so the self-owner can’t be deprived of ownership by their owner. Stating that the owned and owner cannot be the same is an unproven assertion. Why must and owner and object be separate things? There is no way to prove the owned and owner can’t be the same thing.

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself

 –  Friedrich Nietzsche

Also, don’t get confused by the language. Just because someone uses a possessive term like “my” in reference to self does not me they are using it in the ownership sense. In the same sense of the “my” in “my doctor” does not mean I own my doctor. Don’t get confused by the language. So just because people refer to their body as my body is not proof they accept self-ownership.

To own something just means to have the right to exclude others from it for the duration of ownership. Now, if no one owns anyone then no one has the right to exclude others from their own bodies. Anyone could justly use anyone’s body without their consent the same as anyone can use unowned land without asking anyone. People could justly force others to do their bidding (slavery). If we accept this convention then everyone would be in a constant state of war with everyone. This obviously will not reduce conflict. If you value liberty and peace you must reject no one owns anyone.

Of course, most people do not really mean that no one should have the right to exclude others from their bodies. They claim there are other ways to define this, and that self-ownership is superfluous. For example, they might claim it is better to define rights like the right to life, the right to liberty, individual sovereignty or autonomy. Yet, these are just different ways of saying that you ought to be able to exclude others from your body. Further, the borders of rights like liberty can be vague. Where do one person’s liberties or autonomy end and another person’s liberties or autonomy begin?  Do your liberties extend over another’s body? Describing people’s rights with alternatives to self-ownership risk either being so vague that they do not clearly define what is meant or defines things so specifically that it is impossible not to leave something out. If we could find another way to describe that people have the right to exclude others from their own bodies like individual sovereignty or autonomy, then it would be the same as self-ownership.

For example, some might say, ah, but “I don’t believe in ownership I believe in possession”. Yet “possession” in this sense means more than just being in possession of something. It really means a form of ownership. That is, the right to exclude others from, the thing you possess while you are possessing it. There is no difference between “possession” and self-ownership. One might argue that ownership implies the right of alienation or to sell oneself into slavery while possession does not. Yet, what is meant by self-ownership is that everyone owns themselves. This is mutually exclusive with slavery. You cannot own yourself if someone else does. Thus to be consistent, self-ownership must be unalienable and thus equivalent with self-possession in this sense. Another argument is that possession is a use right while ownership is an exclusion right. Yet, to use something you must exclude others. Another difference is the claim that ownership is perpetual while possession is temporary during the use or occupancy of the object. But, since we don’t exclude others from our bodies after we no longer occupy them, the length of ownership is the same for “possession” and self-ownership.

So the option of no one owns anyone means either war of all against all or it means we think people should have the right to exclude others from our bodies but we say it in a different way than self-ownership (in other words the same a self-ownership).

Everyone owns everyone. This claim is that to claim ownership of oneself would be a theft from the rest of us, for we all belong to each other. Everyone’s rights are equally important and not just one person’s, the welfare of all is superior to the welfare of the individual. None of us deserve to be more or less talented than another. The value of equity demands that we share our talents and weaknesses equally. We all own each other. Universal communism is the natural human state.

Yet, if everyone owns everyone, it would be impossible to get a consensus of permission from everyone for everything that you do. Everyone would be trespassing on a shared resource, i.e. their own bodies. None of us have gotten permission from everyone. It would be impossible to get permission from everyone. We all contradict this when we control our bodies without permission from everyone. The people that advocate this don’t really expect people to get a full consensus from everyone in the world. It could be argued that the trespass could be reconciled with restitution. So taxes are justified.  Yet it would be impossible to implement this consensually on a global scale, because it is impossible to get permission from everyone.  Sine and impossible to fairly pay restitution to everyone, people usually advocate for it to be implemented as if everyone is owned by their society or community. This will be discussed a little later.

Some people own others. This assertion is that everyone owns themselves is obviously contrary to experience. Maybe everyone ought to own themselves but clearly, not everyone does. People owning others is well documented in history and still exists today.

Some people owning others is more commonly know as slavery. It implies that the master is a self-owner. So this convention assumes some can own themselves. Slavery though is not universalizable. It is particular. That is it can’t apply to everyone. It only can be applied to specific people. We cannot all own someone. Some would have to be owners and others owned. If everyone claimed to own others, there would be a contradiction. Slavery does not reduce conflict. It institutionalizes it. Private slavery has been rejected in most societies around the world today. I hope that I do not have to argue hard to get people to reject slavery. If you value liberty you must reject this option.

Everyone is owned by their society or community. This argument goes something like this: Man is not born as an individual, but into a society. Humans are always in groups and can’t survive separately. Ownership is a concept developed by people and is not a fact of nature. It has no context outside of a society. An individual alone on an island has no need to assign ownership for he is alone on an island. Societies define the norms and laws that they will follow together under a social contract including who owns what. Ultimately people are owned by the society that they belong to and must follow the rules of that society.

On the contrary, societies are something that we can choose to disassociate with and we can form new societies. So societies can’t own people. What is really meant is that everyone is owned by their government. Which really means the people that control the government own everyone in the territory of the government. Democracy does not change this. It just means the majority owns the minorities, or more accurately special interests own everyone. This is really the same as some people owning others (also known as slavery) and has already been discussed.

What if consensus is used as the decision method in the community? Then it would not be slavery. It is often claimed the legitimacy of the state rests on the consent of the governed. However, it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on all decisions. What happens when consensus cannot be achieved? Are the dissenters bound by the decision of the majority? If so, then they are owned by others and this has been identified as slavery. If they are not bound by the majority then they really aren’t owned by their community. They own themselves, as they either consent or they are not obligated. If you value liberty you must reject the claiom that everyone chould be owned by their society or community.

Some people are partially owned by others. One could claim that ownership is more complicated that just full ownership or no ownership. It is a bundle of rights. Is possible and that people could own most of themselves but society could for example have a higher claim that we help in situations of dire emergency. There is a big difference between partial slavery and full slavery. Most people are comfortable losing some liberties in exchange for benefits, like security, a social safety net, and so on.

Yet, who decides what liberties to give up? A person or group of people will have to make those decisions. Whoever makes these decisions can decide how much liberties to sacrifice. They could change this partial slavery to full slavery, and thus these deciders are the full owners. In the same sense that a slave master could allow his slaves many liberties, yet they are still slaves as he can take all their liberties away.

God owns everyone. Many religious people argue that to claim self-ownership is a rebellion against God. We belong to our creator. We are but stewards of Gods property. True liberty is submitting to God’s will. Rejecting God’s sovereignty is the first step down the path of tyranny.

The claim that God owns everyone describes a relationship between people and God, but not between people and other people. It does not settle if people should have the right to exclude other people from their own body or not. When people say God own’s us all they mean God owns us and our property too. Everything we own is for the service of God’s will. Yet when it comes to our personal items like our toothbrush we still assert right to exclude others from it. When it comes to our relationship between other people we still claim ownership over our things. One of the commandments from the Bible is “thou shalt not steal.” Our bodies are the same in this sense, as another commandment is “thou shalt not murder.” When religious people talk about their relationship with God they acknowledge God owns them, but when talking about how we relate to each other they generally recognize everyone has a right to exclude others from their own bodies. We could describe this as a kid of stewardship in relationship to Gods true ownerhip, but regarding our relationships between people it is equivalent to self-ownership.

In summary:

  1. No one owns anyone: War of all against all.
  2. Everyone owns everyone: Impossible to implement.
  3. Some people own others: Slavery.
  4. Everyone is owned by their society: Also slavery.
  5. Some people are partially owned by others: Also slavery.
  6. God owns everyone: Stewardship is self-ownership.
  7. Everyone owns themselves: Self-ownership

Self-ownership is the claim that everyone should have the right to exclude others from their own body. It is the only choice that can be implemented without contradiction, enslaving people, or increasing conflict. For those that value reason, liberty, and peace it seems to be the only option.

References:

The Ethics of Liberty, Interpersonal Relations: Voluntary Exchange by Murray N. Rothbard

Argumentation and Self-Ownership by Hans-Hermann Hoppe

Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 4 – Rothbard’s Second Argument for Self-Ownership by Matt Zwolinski

Initial Appropriation, a Brief Venture Into Moral Philosophy by David Friedman

How Not to Argue for Libertarianism by Matt Zwolinski

Christianity and Self-Ownership by Isaac Morehouse