Why I Reject Self-ownership Redux



I’ve already written and made numerous videos on this, but I don’t think I’ve put all of the objections together in one place. There are three major reasons that have lead me to reject the concept of “self-ownership”, or at least it has lead me to reject the way that it is often used in libertarian discourse. So I’d like to summarize what the three main concerns are. However, I’d like to clarify at the get-go that I do not reject the premise or right’s claim that one’s person should not be infringed upon, I just no longer rely on “self-ownership” to argue for it. So my rejection of “self-ownership” should not be misconstrued as a rejection of personal sovereignty. In fact, my view is that the language of self-ownership sometimes undermines the argument for personal sovereignty.

The Dualism and Internality vs. Externality Problem

Self-ownership seems to imply an unsolvable dualism between yourself and yourself; I.E. if you are the owner, then you aren’t it and if you are owned, then you aren’t the owner. If you’re owned by others, then you’re a slave. If you’re not owned by others, it doesn’t necessarily follow that “you own yourself”. You can’t be both the owned and the owner at once, and consequentially “self-ownership” must warp the definition of ownership (which normally implies a relation between subject and object, not an internal relation within a subject) in order to even remotely make sense. The way that I define and understand the concept of “ownership” in general, you can only own things that are external to you; that is, as an “owner” you are categorically distinguished from “the owned”.

A special note: it turns out that Francious Tremblay independantly came to a similar conclusion while thinking along similar lines as me here a few years ago, and he did it prior to me taking this stance. So I feel that I should credit Tremblay for moving in this direction before me, even though I did not come to this conclusion by his direct influence and the way that we approach the question is not absolutely identical. I came to this conclusion more as a consequence of my own little thoughts and tinkerings about philosophy of mind (particularly the classic “mind/body problem”), which resulted in a rejection of dualism (although I also reject some of the more absurd forms of monism). Nonetheless, Tremblay deserves credit for rejecting self-ownership on similar grounds before me.

The Chicken/Egg Issue

Self-ownership tends to be a manifestation of a theory that places property rights first and then defines self-ownership on the basis of a property rights concept. This leads to a problem of circularity in which one has to presuppose a theory of property rights in “self-ownership” while simultaneously argueing as if “self-ownership” is the foundation. If property truly is the first principle, then “self-ownership” is sort of reduced to a mere entailment of property theory, and people are regarded as property (leading to obvious slavery concerns). On the other hand, if “self-ownership” truly is the first principle, it collapses as soon as you try to justify it via appeal to a property rights concept that presumably comes after it. This is a serious logical problem.

It is also important to stress a related problem that tends to arise as a consequence of this one, which is that some libertarians essentially use “self-ownership” as a basis to justify notions of “voluntary slavery” that rub up against inalienable conceptions of rights. There is a tendency to treat “the self” as if it is just like any piece of property, I.E. as something to be bought and sold. I think that this is a negative consequence of treating property as an ungrounded first principle or axoim, which potentially leads to very serious slavery concerns precisely because one has not categorically distinguished people from property in an ethical sense.

Self-ownership as a Fact vs. Self-ownership as a Right

Self-ownership tends to be used in blatant contradiction to the most obvious sense of the is/ought dichotomy. That is, some libertarians tend to switch back and forth between defining “self-ownership” as a physiological fact that you control your body and a rights claim to not have one’s person infringed upon. The latter cannot directly be derived from the former and they cannot reasonably be categorically conflated. Self-ownership arguments sometimes devolve into absurdity when the proponent is argueing for self-ownership as if it is a simple inherent and unavoidable fact of human existance. If that’s the case, then it makes no sense as an imperative or rights claim, since it simply is what it is. This was what came up in my debate with Stefan Molyneux, since he apparently insists on using a purely physiological definition of “self-ownership”.

This use of “self-ownership” can potentially be open to a lot of abuse in discourse. For the most explicit example that I have experienced and witnessed, Stefan Molyneux tends to act as if people are argueing against the fact that they have physiological autonomy when they argue against self-ownership, and based on this assumption he makes the misleading argument that anyone who argues against “self-ownership” is implicitly proving it by the act of argumentation itself and therefore their argument self-detonates; his entire “UPB” is based on this form. Hans Hoppe also makes a similar misleading argument with his “argumentation ethics”, and Stephan Kinsella’s “estoppel argument” takes a similar form in the context of the issue of punishment. All of these arguments and theories fail to justify libertarian ethics for the same basic reasons.

Is self-ownership a misnomer?

If something is owned, then by definition there is something external to it that is doing the owning. Likewise, something that is owned is by definition something external to the agent that owns it. Taking this very basic point into account, does it really make that much sense to think in terms of “self-ownership”? For if the self is something that is owned, then it is being owned by something or someone else. So then what is this entity that owns us and yet is us at the same time? Surely if it owns us then it is not us, or if we own the thing in question then it is not us?

In short, we run into the problem of creating a metaphysical duality in which the self is split into an essential and unessential self or a dominant and passive self in which the body is merely something that is inhabited by a “soul” or “spirit”. One way of trying to get out of this problem would be to sever this duality into two separate entities, although the problem of explaining the existence and nature of this immaterial “soul” or “spirit” would remain. Another way of getting out of this problem would be to disregaurd the “soul” or “spirit” as a floating abstraction and to consequentially recognize the actual self as a coherent whole, devoid of any dominating metaphysical entity.

The idea of an external metaphysical entity that owns oneself renders the individual into nothing more than the slave of an abstraction, for their actual material being is placed into a submissive position in relation to this metaphysical entity or this particular manifestation of it. Individual autonomy and self-realization can actually be said to come under threat as a result of such a concept. In reality, this abstract metaphysical self functions as a false identity and implies some sort of internal struggle. Such an internal struggle can only be avoided by casting out or denying such a metaphysical duality to begin with, at which point the actual self can be meaningfully recognized and rights can be meaningfully derived.

None of this is being said to belittle the importance of individual sovereignty, but rather it is being said to save it from internal disintegration, while avoiding the problem of solipsism at the same time. This is a rather simple matter of recognizing the distinction between one’s actual self and that which is either external to oneself or non-existant to begin with. If such a distinction is not made, then there will forevermore be a confusing haze with respect to discussions about rights and their derivation

More on self-ownership:


  • Stephen Kinsella has some thoughts on this subject below:

Reply to Brainpolice’s, “Why I Reject ‘Self-ownership’ Redux“:

Self-ownership is not incoherent, and indeed is crucial to libertarian theory, if it’s understood properly–if it’s understood simply to mean the idea that each person, as opposed to others, has the right to control his own body. (See my How We Come To Own OurselvesA Theory of Contracts: Binding Promises, Title Transfer, and Inalienability and Defending Argumentation Ethics, for more detail). As for the disparaging remarks about Hoppe’s theory above, I am reminded of Rothbard’s great Hoppephobia, where he wrote:

The Lomasky review is an interesting example of what is getting to be a fairly common phenomenon: Hoppephobia. Although he is an amiable man personally, Hoppe’s written work seems to have the remarkable capacity to send some readers up the wall, blood pressure soaring, muttering and chewing the carpet. It is not impolite attacks on critics that does it. Perhaps the answer is Hoppe’s logical and deductive mode of thought and writing, demonstrating the truth of his propositions and showing that those who differ are often trapped in self-contradiction and self-refutation.


♦EMn: At the time of my comments below I could not view the 64+ comments at the polycentricorder blogspot post, as the site appears to be defunct.

This seems a semantics game. Despite the logic of Brainpolice (Alex Strekal) above, we live a world where people and animals are owned like property, whether it be by individuals, the State, or creditors, or the State backing-up individuals and/or creditors. Slavery is a reality. It is this slavery, or perhaps liberty, that even makes the concept of self-ownership necessary, though its being argued above that it is not necessary, nor real. The idea of self-ownership will not disappear until slavery does. In that sense, proclaiming self-ownership as a virtue makes sense, if only as a self-defense mechanism to an affront on liberty.

Are people that believe in self-ownership likely to have respect for the concept of inalienability, or see people as property regardless? Or would people that think self-ownership is nonsense be more likely to behave as a Master? Who is likely to believe you can’t escape your self, or act as a Master, or think they really don’t have “total” ownership of you even if they attempt to be your Master? There are probably Masters on both sides of this (imaginary?) fence.

I think Francois Tremblay is right: “Either a human being can be owned, or he cannot. There is no middle ground in this issue.” I don’t think we can be owned, by self, or others, yet use the term “self-ownership” to ward off those that think otherwise. But again, this seems a meaningless exercise as duly noted, even perhaps as means of defense against potential Masters. To me its part of the left libertarian vernacular, and it may not go away, despite the illogic surrounding its use. I think most people see the term at face-value, and a way to tell Masters to “step-off!” Its practically slang. I don’t know that it will stick around, but don’t care as now it seems relevant, and I’ll probably still use it in the right context (if there ever is a right context).

In the end, my personal take is like Shawn Wilbur, who said: “It ain’t the whole story, but the moment at which you recognize that “I am myself” and “I own myself” might be at odds is the moment things start to get interesting, and, arguably, the moment when “self-ownership” starts to get useful.” Its the useful part that matters to me, as it seems we live a world where people and animals are owned like property. Most people are not going to nit-pick or care about the logical inconsistency of the word. They will understand however, that the word basically alludes to individual-sovereignty or individual autonomy, and that’s what matters.

Do we need a catch phrase? I think so, as that’s how ideas become memes, and action. What do we use then to represent self-ownership if its not an “appropriate” word-combo according to some? To me, “self-ownership” fulfills the meme role as at its surface it simply screams liberty is inalienable, a virtuous idea to spread and live. However, it seems a contentious semantic point, as is the idea of “liberty.” In that case, think what you want, say what you want, it is the action/outcome that really matters, and if what someone else decides to say bothers you, and you want them to use other words, then perhaps you need to reexamine just what liberty means. This isn’t to say caution is not something for everyone.


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