Self Ownership

Do we own ourselves?  I'm thinking about the concept because it facilitates a certain model of the parent-child relationship.  On that model, parents hold their children in trust, readying them for the self-ownership they'll attain upon majority.  That's an attractive view in some ways, but ... self-ownership?  What?

The idea that persons are self-owners is a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy.  Some say it's actually not so foreign really, but actually a natural outgrowth of Kantian ideas about autonomy and self-determination.  But that doesn't seem quite right.  Libertarians think we start out as self-owners but could transfer ownership to someone else. I could sell myself, just like I could sell my computer. After the sale, I'd have a new owner--not myself. The Kant-inspired idea would be that I'm necessarily a self-owner. I can't stop owning myself, even if I want to. 

This sort of limit on transfers wouldn't be so strange.  There are limits on what we can do with other owned entities.  We can own a dog but not torture him.  We can own an antiquity, but be prevented from selling it to a foreign museum.  So ... why not say we own ourselves, but can't sell ourselves to anyone else?  The idea of self-ownership would still have plenty of bite--it would place limits on what others can do to us.  Just as the government can't step in and use my computer for data crunching, it can't step in and use me to labor for the good of others -- so Libertarians would get some of what they want out of self-ownership, even if it were thought of as necessary self-ownership.

And yet, and yet .... the whole idea seems wrong.  Things owned have monetary value, right?  If I own myself, that adds to my estate (I take it).  If everyone owns themselves, the GDP of the US has to reflect all the people here, not just the goods and services.  And then you have to wonder about the valuation.  Does little North West, brand new daughter of Kim and Kanye, have more value than an ordinary kid?  And how is value calculated? Do the parts of persons (kidneys, pints of blood) have values too, on grounds that we own our parts as well as our whole selves?

More absurdities: I thought the horror of slavery was (partly) the treatment of humans as being up for ownership.  Buying and selling slaves offends against the idea that we can't be owned .... I thought.  But no, says the libertarian, we can be owned.  The problem with slavery is not that people were treated as up for ownership, but that slaves weren't recognized as their own owners.  You could strengthen that to "slaves weren't recognized as necessary self-owners" and be opposed to slavery in every instance.  But would you really have captured what's so terrible about slavery?  What's repugant (among many things) is the whole idea of a person being the sort of thing that has an owner.

Libertarians, I think, see dignity in self-ownership.  For them, "self-ownership" has the same flavor as "autonomy", "self-determination", "self-management", "sovereignty", and "inviolability".  But all those are concepts from the political sphere--the basic idea being that a person is self-governing.  Self-ownership is a concept from the marketplace.  Governing myself and owning myself are two different concepts.  I'll go for self-governance, but the idea that I have any owner seems like (as one used to say) a category mistake.


Charles Sullivan said...

Isn't there a metaphysical absurdity related to Identity when one owns oneself?

Are there two selves now? The owner-self and the property-self? Must he self be partitioned in order to for this to be intelligible?

Or perhaps that's a metaphysical problem with all reflexive self-referential descriptions (i.e., self-determination, self-management, self-esteem, etc).

This makes me think of the idea of having a duty to oneself (who has the duty to whom?) If one fails in one's duty to oneself does owe oneself an apology? Can reparations be demanded by oneself from oneself? If the reparations could be financial, do I take some money out of my right pocket and put it on my left pocket?

Torquil Macneil said...

Surely the idea that you own parts of your body isn't so absurd, because we do give some bits a monetary value. In the US you can sell blood for example and black markets in organs exists worldwide. In many places you can sell hair, teeth, eggs and sperm too. If we can own these bits is it so strange to own the whole? And if we don't own these bits, on what principle should we object to having them confiscated from us?

It should be said, though, that libertarians are divided on the question of necessary ownership, not all think you can sell yourself into slavery.

Jean Kazez said...

Don't we talk about blood and organ donations, as opposed to sales? If we don't own them, we do need an alternative account of why they can't be confiscated, but that could be in terms of autonomy instead of ownership. My blood is part of me--it's mine, but not in the way my car is mine. Since it's mine, I get to decide what happens to it. I prefer my blood to remain in my body, as opposed to being extracted and given to someone else. All that can be said without any talk of ownership, monetary value, theft, and the like.

Torquil Macneil said...

"Don't we talk about blood and organ donations, as opposed to sales? "

Generally yes, but there are markets in these things too, no? In the US you can sell your blood I think (it may still be called a 'donation' I don't know). Certainly you can sell your hair and that would not usually strike people as strange (I mean, it may be a strange choice but not hard to understand). How about once the body item has come adrift. Say you hand was sliced off. Should we say people have a moral right of ownership of the amputated organ? Or finders keepers? That cannot be explained by autonomy arguments, can it?

I am genuinely puzzled by all this, by the way, not just argumentative.

Jean Kazez said...

About the hand adrift--we can be proprietary about our body parts without owning them. My hand is part of me, so if it becomes severed it ought to be returned because it's mine in that sense.

There are other ways of thinking about this (of course). You could think some bits of the body (hair, for example) are like clothing worn by the self, so can be owned, sold etc. It wouldn't follow that the self as a whole could be owned, sold, etc.

But that's kind of a puzzling idea--I weigh X pounds, and I think that X reflects the weight of my hair. If hair is like clothing, it's not to be included in my weight. In fact, what is to be included? Do I really weigh just 3 pounds (the weight of my brain)? Hmm.

I prefer the idea that I am my whole body, and the parts of it are mine in the sense of being parts of me, not in the way my clothing is mine.

Yeah--these things are all puzzling.

swallerstein said...

We'd have to decide first what the self is and even if there is a self, which some deny.

In addition, what or who is the "I" that "owns" the self?

Are the "I" and the "self" the same "thing"?

They aren't the same in many uses of language such as "I irritate myself".

To say that "I own myself" seems to imply a division between "I" (mental) and the self (physical), that is, the old mind-body dualism, which isn't entirely convincing.

The fact that I can sell my hair or my kidneys does not imply that I own myself in philosophical terms, since our current legal system is hardly constructed with philosohical rigorouness and merely reflects our often confused and prejudiced zeitgeist.

Jean Kazez said...

I think the idea of self-ownership doesn't have to do with the self in any technical sense. You could express the idea without even using the word "self"--the idea is that Jean owns Jean, Amos owns Amos, etc. etc. All this presupposes is that there are persons, or human beings, and we all agree on that. Then again, yes, we have to think about what's part of Jean and what's separate. So--to that extent, yes, you get into some metaphysics here, inevitably.

swallerstein said...

Maybe the problem has to do with "belonging".

I don't feel that I belong to me or that Amos belongs to Amos.

I belong to certain social groups, to my family, to
others who have accepted me.

I realize that I'm playing on the meaning of the word "belong", but it seems that non-libertarians feel that they don't belong to themselves, but to others or to a community, etc.