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Sunday, April 20, 2008

More on Self-Ownership

(One UPDATE below...)

Below Gene questioned the typical libertarian endorsement of self-ownership:

I've always thought the concept of "self-ownership," so loved by many libertarians, is a little screwy: Man is not a good he owns, he is himself. To the common comeback, "If you don't own yourself, then who does?" my answer has been, "No one, just like no one owns arithmetic or the night sky."

Insofar as he goes, I agree with Gene. However, all it takes is a simple change of terminology to body-ownership, and then the standard libertarian view is fine. Is that all you're saying, Gene?

If not--i.e., if you're really disputing that it makes sense to view human bodies as being objects of ownership--then what were slave auctions all about? Traders never grabbed the night sky and sold it to plantation owners.

Also, the more I think about it, the less coherent I find the view that rejects the ability of someone to sell his body to another. What's especially odd is that Rothbardians believe that a victim can rightfully enslave his aggressor, at least until the crime is rectified. So if John can own Jim's body because Jim shot John in the leg, then why can't John own Jim's body because Jim signed a contract in exchange for money?

Whatever metaphysical objections you might have--"what if Jim later regrets his decision?"--don't work when Jim was an aggressor. So why do they work when he isn't an aggressor? If Jim doesn't like his body being owned by John, he shouldn't have shot him. Or, he shouldn't have signed the contract and accepted the $200,000 that he blew in Vegas.

UPDATE

In talking with (the young) Dick Clark, we clarified one of the stickling points on this issue. I said, "Rothbard's right, you can't alienate your will. But you're selling your body, not your will." To this Dick said, "But your body doesn't work without your mental controls."

I think this is the crux of the dispute. In order for someone to be a productive slave, he has to have his heart and soul in it.

Or does he? After all, I think the vast majority of slaves had their body ownership stolen. Their (unrightful) owners figured out ways to motivate them to order their "own" bodies to do the tasks that the (unrightful) owners wanted.

I think we need to remind ourselves what it means to be an owner. To paraphrase Kinsella, it means that when you and someone else have a disagreement on how a scare resource should be used, you are "in the right."

Let me give some more examples to illustrate that libertarians are wrong for conflating mental control with body ownership.

(1) Suppose you have telekinetic powers and can control "my" car just by thinking. Does that mean you are necessarily the owner of "my" car? No, of course not. It makes perfect sense to say I still own the car, and I can use my vastly inefficient means of controlling it. If you use your superior mental influence to have it perform the tasks you desire, then you just stole from me.

(2) Suppose you have a terminal illness and agree that your estate will get $1 million, in exchange for which you will be killed and your organs will be sold on various markets. After you accept the $1 million, I don't see why the title to your body is still in your hands. It's gone. (Of course in a civilized society they would probably have standard "backout" clauses in these contracts, but that's a practical detail; it's not a bedrock principle.)

(3) Suppose you have a huge gambling debt. An eccentric millionaire says he'll pay off your debts, but you agree to be his prey in a hunt on his estate. If you can reach the green zone, then he gives you back your freedom. So long as this contract is truly voluntary, how does it violate Walter Blockian precepts? Isn't this very similar to Block's "Murder Park"?

10 comments:

  1. "Insofar as he goes, I agree with Gene. However, all it takes is a simple change of terminology to body-ownership, and then the standard libertarian view is fine."

    Exactly. I don't see how gene can just say, to the question, "who owns your body?" -- "no one". Come on.

    "Also, the more I think about it, the less coherent I find the view that rejects the ability of someone to sell his body to another. What's especially odd is that Rothbardians believe that a victim can rightfully enslave his aggressor, at least until the crime is rectified. So if John can own Jim's body because Jim shot John in the leg, then why can't John own Jim's body because Jim signed a contract in exchange for money?"

    You have answered your question in its asking. The shooter-Jim committed aggression. So it's justified to punish him. The promiser-Jim didn't commit aggression against John. So punishing him is itself aggression.

    "Whatever metaphysical objections you might have--"what if Jim later regrets his decision?"--don't work when Jim was an aggressor. So why do they work when he isn't an aggressor?"

    I agree. This is why I have argued that the Rothbardian "impossibility" argument against alienability fails. But so what?

    "If Jim doesn't like his body being owned by John, he shouldn't have shot him."

    How does this common-sense observation imply that it's justified to use force against the body of someone who has not used force against you?

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  2. "So if John can own Jim's body because Jim shot John in the leg..." I don't think Rothbardians say John owns Jim's body, period. They say John has a right to compensation from Jim, one way or the other. If, while John is forcing Jim to use his body to pay compensation, Jim suddenly comes into a big inheritance, then I think Rothbardians say that Jim can stop laboring for John and pay the remaining balance in money instead.

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  3. Larry,

    Stephan can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Rothbard(ians) literally use the term "enslave." So I'm not making an analogy.

    You're right, you can buy yourself out of slavery in their view, but the victim of your crime still has legal claims to your body until you do so.

    Stephan, I'll deal with you later...

    ReplyDelete
  4. You have answered your question in its asking. The shooter-Jim committed aggression. So it's justified to punish him. The promiser-Jim didn't commit aggression against John. So punishing him is itself aggression.

    This is why it's so hard to argue with you about this stuff. You just keep repeating your claims, even though (if I'm right) your claim isn't applicable. So you need to explain why the guy who sells his body and then reneges isn't a thief (i.e. aggressor), worthy of punishment.

    (In fairness, I concede that you probably don't understand why I keep just reiterating my points, without handling your brilliant ripostes.)

    SCENARIO A: Jim has a thoroughbred horse that he sells to John for $100,000. A week later John can't find the horse on his land. Then he sees it has jumped the fence and is grazing on Jim's land. John calls up Jim and says, "That horse still obeys your verbal instructions. Tell it to come over to my land. If not, I'm using force to take it."

    SCENARIO B: Jim sells his body to John for $100,000. A week later Jim walks off John's land. John corners him and says, "Tell your legs to walk your body back onto my land. If not, I'm using force to take it."

    ==========

    What's the difference here?

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's all academic anyway, as by any consistent application of libertarian principles, the state owned your body since before you existed (or before your will existed, anyway).

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  6. It's all academic anyway, as by any consistent application of libertarian principles, the state owned your body since before you existed (or before your will existed, anyway).

    I think if this were a bar, people would have gotten up from their seats and backed away from the brewing fight.

    Are you a...what's the word?..."troll," or are you being serious?

    If you want to say your parents own you per libertarian principles, that's a defensible claim. And then your grandparents own them, etc., back in time.

    But I can't imagine how you get the State owning your body, per libertarian principles, since it doesn't rightfully own anything else in the first place.

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  7. In most countries, the state existed, and laid claim to everything in its boundaries long before anyone currently alive was born. Maybe the state committed aggression in the deep past; but those aggressor individuals are long-deceased.

    I’m being serious. Any attempt to base a political ideology just on some autistic conception of property rights and contract, a la Block, will collapse into something like “the state owns everybody” unless a bunch of ad hoc auxiliary principles are thrown in.

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  8. "I don't see how gene can just say, to the question, "who owns your body?" -- "no one". Come on."

    And I don't see how Stephan can just say, in response to my denial of bodily ownership, "Come on"! Is that supposed to be an intellectual argument?

    In any case, let me clarify: Should it be legally permissible to sell of ALL of one's bodily organs, resulting in one's certain death? I say no, but if your body is a capital good you own, it really ought to be OK.

    ReplyDelete
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