Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is self-ownership axiomatic?

In my recent post on Murray Rothbard, I addressed the question of whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership could be said to be axiomatic. Let’s pursue the question a little bit further. In particular, let’s pursue the question of whether it is even plausible to suggest that the principle is axiomatic in the strictest sense of “axiomatic.”

Notice that I am not asking whether the principle is true; nor am I asking whether there are any good reasons, of some sort or other, to believe it. Those are separate questions. I am asking whether, if it is true and justifiable, its truth and justification are plausibly of the sort that strict axioms enjoy. Again, what I am asking is whether the principle is plausibly axiomatic in the strictest sense.

What sense is that? One traditional way of thinking about it is this: A principle is axiomatic in the strictest sense if any proposition you could give as evidence for it would be less obviously true than the principle itself is. The law of non-contradiction is a standard example. Nothing you could say in defense of the law of non-contradiction is as obviously correct as the law of non-contradiction itself is. Call this special characteristic of strictly axiomatic propositions “self-evidence.”

So, is the libertarian principle of self-ownership axiomatic or self-evident in this sense? Before you answer, keep in mind that the principle says far more than merely that (say) your right hand belongs to you. When you look at your right hand and judge, spontaneously and quite correctly, “This is mine,” you might initially be inclined to think that the principle of self-ownership must be right. Indeed, maybe it is axiomatic!

Not so fast. Your right hand is indeed yours, as is your right foot, your right eye, and every other body part you can name. All well and good – and not terribly controversial. But what exactly does that entail? Does it entail that you are entitled to do absolutely anything you want with those body parts, provided you do not infringe the liberty of others? Does it entail that you can even do things that are immoral – on the grounds that since it’s your body, you have the absolute right to abuse it so long as you harm no one else? More to the point, is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that you can do these things?

Let’s be more specific: Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that, so long as you harm no one else in doing so, you have an absolute right to do the following: Commit suicide; inject yourself with heroin, even repeatedly, to the point of addiction; have a major body part surgically removed for no reason other than that you just feel like doing so; deliberately engage in self-deception (it’s your mind, after all); and, in general, do to and with yourself things you believe it is immoral to do?

Consider further: Suppose your adult child or best friend informs you that he has decided to do one of these things. To take a clear and fairly simple example, suppose he has become a devout follower of Schopenhauer and has decided, on well-thought out philosophical grounds (rather than some fleeting whim, say), to commit suicide. And suppose you try to talk him out of it, but to no avail. Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that you must not use force to prevent him from killing himself – such as by stealing his glass of hemlock, locking him in a padded room, or whatever? Because that is what the libertarian principle of self-ownership entails.

Again, to avoid irrelevant objections, keep in mind that the question is not whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership, radical implications and all, is true or in some way defensible. The question is whether it is strictly axiomatic or self-evident, whether it is strictly axiomatic or self-evident that one has a right to do the things mentioned above, and an obligation to refrain from keeping others, even children and friends, from doing any of them.

When we keep in mind what the principle entails, I think it is quite obvious that the principle is not strictly axiomatic or self-evident. Indeed, this is, I submit, so obvious that it is remarkable that anyone would suggest that it is – as Rothbard may have (though, as I noted in my earlier post, it is not at all clear that Rothbard really meant to use the term “axiom” in anything other than a loose and popular sense). Unlike the law of non-contradiction, it is quite easy to doubt whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership is true; indeed (and again unlike the law of non-contradiction) probably most people on considering it would judge that it is not true. Of course, that doesn’t show that it isn’t true, but it is very strong grounds for doubting that it is self-evident or strictly axiomatic. More to the point, any argument one could appeal to in order to convince the doubters that the principle is true would obviously have to appeal to premises that are more evident than the principle itself is – in which case, it simply cannot be said to be strictly axiomatic.

Perhaps the rhetoric of property led Rothbard astray here. In some contexts, saying “It’s my property” does indeed crisply settle the question of whether one may carry out a certain course of action. But not in all contexts. In everyday life, we are all well aware that the fact that you own your back yard (say) does not entail that you have no obligation in justice to allow the fire brigade access to it in order to get to the burning building behind it, or to avoid using it to engage in dangerous scientific experiments. Conversely, we are well aware that the fact that you have these various obligations does not entail that you don’t “really” own your back yard after all. In everyday contexts, that is to say, we are well aware that to say “X is my property” simply does not entail “I can do absolutely anything I want with X provided doing so violates no one else’s property rights.”

It is only when, after the fashion of “rationalistic” approaches to moral and political thinking of the sort Burke and Hayek criticized, we abstract away from the complex details of human life that property rights can seem have such extreme implications. (It happens, as Wittgenstein might put it, when we “sublime the logic of our language [concerning property].”) Property rights are not all-or-nothing. For almost all theories of property historically – and certainly for classical natural law theory, which is in my view the correct approach to moral questions generally – private property rights, even when very strong, nevertheless come with various qualifications. (For those who are interested, I develop and defend such an approach in my essay “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” which is forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy. As I argue there, the correct approach to property rights rules out both the level of government and taxation that socialists and egalitarian liberals favor, but also the extreme laissez faire position of libertarianism. It is, in short, conservative.)

To suggest that you either go along with Rothbard or you are logically committed to going the whole hog for socialism is just too silly for words. Rothbardians seem to think their man (or maybe some precursor like Lysander Spooner) was the first thinker in history ever to think about property in a consistent way. In fact all he did was simply invent a grotesque caricature of the idea of private property.

(I recall once asking a radical libertarian what he thought he would be obliged to do if his own adult son informed him that he intended to commit suicide and he could not talk him out of it. Troubled, he thought for a moment and then replied that he hoped he would have the courage to do the right thing and allow his son to kill himself. “This,” I thought, “is a young man whose mind has been rotted out by theory.” But, being young and childless, it was merely theory, and we can have good hope that he will reconsider: Growing older and having children are pretty good cures for extreme libertarianism, though unfortunately not infallible ones.)

Anyway, if this judgment is mistaken, appealing to a purported “self-ownership axiom” is not going to show that it is.


  1. It is surely clear that self-ownership is not axiomatic in the way non-contradiction is. Even beyond the considerations you bring up, property rights themselves are a contested matter.

    But thinking about property rights can easily get very confused since there are economic property rights (who controls something) and rule-defined property rights (such as legal property rights).

    The state can decide it will try and stop you having narcotics (or alcohol, or going to prostitutes, etc) by promulgating rules to that effect. But its ability to enforce the rules, and thereby wrest people's economic property rights in their own bodies away from them, has proved to be, shall we say, patchy.

    Black markets are created by the state withdrawing its protection leading to private enforcement of property rights not acknowledged by the state, with all the violence and corruption (since the state thereby also creates a big market in official discretions) one would expect.

    Your testing cases seem to involve the tension between the person-as-decider and the person-in-themselves. That people can make decisions that are bad for them.

    Of course, without the right to fail, be mistaken, etc there can be no liberty: "error has no rights" is a very oppressive doctrine, not the least because of the issue of who has control over defining 'error'. (As we see in the use of "racist!" to attempt to restrict debate.)

    Still, a notion of self-ownership that leads to ownership counting more than the self is odd. As if the decision of a moment somehow counts more than all the moments to come. But not entirely so, because the range of them ambit in which they can decide is surely connected to respecting them. It is genuine conundrum and not one that some "axiomatic" self-ownership does other than simplify rather than satisfyingly resolve.

  2. Edward,

    Thank you for the interesting post. Questions of appropriate axioms are the really difficult metalogical questions. My view would be that even one you find fundamental, the Law of Non-Contradiciton, is an artifact of a pre-dermination to impose a single, bi-valued logical state on every proposition.

    One other thing on the principle of self-ownership is that it is dependent on the owner operating rationally. Even teh most devoted libertarians don't allow toddlers to play with knives or stick forks in outlets, because they know toddlers are not behaving rationally. By that principle, cfan you say someone determined to commit suicide is necessarily irrational? How do you distingusih rational from irrational behavior? I don't think axioms should have that much gray area.

  3. It seems to me to be fundamentally an issue not so much of ownership per se, as it is an issue of existential freedom. What I can claim to own, and how I plan to use that which I lay claim to, is first contingent upon my freedom to make the initial claim, and secondly upon my power to enforce my freedom. If, in reality, I have neither the freedom nor the power, then my claims of ownership are mere whistling past the graveyard.

  4. Thanks for this highly clarifying post.

    I briefly offer this sarcastic thought. A dead body has no rights per se, being a mere physical object. Doesn't therefore the decision to render oneself into that state mean you've thereby abandoned your rights at that very moment? For example, if I rescue a Bridge Jumper from SF Bay, why can't I make him my slave?

    That's the kind of place 'self-ownership' might take you, and if it takes sarcasm rather than logic to explore it fully then it's not much of an axiom.

  5. @ One Brow: "Even teh [sic] most devoted libertarians don't allow toddlers to play with knives or stick forks in outlets, because they know toddlers are not behaving rationally."
    Toddlers don't own knives and forks and have therefore no right to play with them. That has nothing to do with self-ownership.

  6. David K.,

    Are you kidding? Do you think if I buy a hunting knife as a birthday for my libertarian neighbor's one-year-old, the parent will let the kid play with the knife they now own? Will even feel cognitive dissonance about putting the knife away ntil the child can use it properly?

  7. Can someone give a real simple definition of "Self Ownership"....

  8. Hi One Brow.
    If a person doesn't behave rationally (maybe because of some mental disorder like retardation) and they are an adult.... do they no have "Self Ownership"?

  9. Anonymous @ 2009-08-27 8:14 AM

    I'm not personally a big believer in absolutes, and outside of areas like the law or mathematics, tend to avoid hard, bright lines. Since my oldest son has an autism spectrum disorder, you've hit upon a question I have given a log of practical thought to.

    Certainly, self-ownership can be awarded in some ways and not others. I don't know if my son will even be able to have his own apartment, but he functions well enough that he could be semi-independent in our home or a group home. He is reasonably talented musically, and if he would practice more, I can see him making a living as a musician. He wants to be a band teacher, though, and I struggle with whether that is a pie-in-the-sky dream (like me playing in the NBA) or something acheivable he can work towards, and how to respond to it. How much of a difference is there in manipulatiing his choice versus making his choice?

    Thanks for the question, though.

  10. Hi One Brow,
    I was thinking about this alittle bit.
    Is "self-ownership" a fundamental right? It doesn't appear to be and that seems to cause problems. I'll try to explain, I hope this makes sense:

    If self-ownership is a fundamental than it should be an inherent characteristic of humanity (being a human). Then any person should have it at any stage of development.... and regardless of any mental impairment.

    Because if we say things like, "only when you are able of rational thought, then you have self-ownership" (or any other definition) then it becomes a convention: It could be A or it could be B or it could be C.
    It might not be entirely arbitrary, but arbitrary nonetheless.

    But more importantly, if it isn't an inherent characterist of being a human (that any human at any stage regardless of any impairment) then how do we know that humans truly have "self-ownership"?

    Unborn children should have self-ownership - making abortion contrary to libertarian principles.

    If Self-Ownership is something people pick up along the way then how are we certain they ever pick it up? Sure, we can say "they just picked it up, therefore, respect them".... it just seems tit for tat and very permissible to reply "no, they never acquired it, no one has.... I'm not going to respect their rights".

    If it is picked up along the way and is not inherent, then it's something else. Something that's just a social convention and can change as social or ruling attitudes change.

  11. @ One Brow: So perhaps little children have no right to acquire ownership in external things (without their parents' consent). But how does it follow that they don't fully own their bodies? (Neither Rothbard nor I think they do, but I think your example is irrelevant.)

  12. If it is picked up along the way and is not inherent, then it's something else. Something that's just a social convention and can change as social or ruling attitudes change.

    In legal terms, it certianly has changed within culturesand does change from culture to culture. Maybe in the USA you could say it is granted routinely at age 18 and then removed with cause. I don't think there are easy answers here.

  13. David K.,

    It's not that hard to remove the issue of ownership of other objects entirely. They don't let toddlers walk into the street. They don't let toddlers jump out of windows on a second floor. Etc.

  14. Ownership is a contingent, illusory thing. Some of the stuff you "own" will outlast you; you will outlast some of the stuff you own. At any time, circumstance, the law, or a person stronger or more powerful than you can take from you that which you own. In the end, we all inevitably learn that death owns our temporal lives, and that God owns the part that doesn't die.
    So what do you "own?" You perhaps own the anxiety that is generated by your fear of losing that over which your control is so very tenuous.

  15. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals:

    "I employed the word "state": it is obvious what is meant---some pack of blond beasts of prey, a conqueror and master race which, organized for war and with the ability to organize, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless and nomad. That is after all how the "state" began on earth: I think that sentimentalism which would have it begin with a "contract" has been disposed of. He who can command, he who is by nature "master," he who is violent in act and bearing---what has he to do with contracts!

    The Ueber-Rothbard! Real libertarianism--and property law-- starts with Divide and conquer. That applies not only to say Konigberg, but to Santa Barbara (chumash "property," initially).

  16. The assumption in this post seems to be that if a conclusion entailed by a supposed axiom is not self-evident, then the supposed axiom itself is also not self-evident, which is clearly false. (For example, we wouldn't deny the self-evidence of certain mathematical axioms simply because there exists complex mathematical problems which have answers entailed logically from those axioms but which are not self-evident.)