In the Second Treatise, John Locke posits the concept of self-ownership: “… every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body had any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his,” upon which he bases his labor theory of property (LTP). In brief, since one properly owns one’s body, and thus labor, one acquires ownership over a material object because one invests one’s labor in the material object. Ownership, so to speak, transfers from agent through the labor into the material object. So, e.g., one may come to own a flask of wine by investing one’s labor in the growing and harvesting of the grapes, their vinification, and the construction of the flask. A corollary of the LTP is that one may also acquire ownership via trade, wherein one voluntarily exchanges a material object for agreed upon remuneration, gift, and compensation for material transgressions. Although, ideally, if one were to trace the genealogy of an object’s ownership, whether via gift, trade, or compensation, one will find that it begins in original labor investment. In spite of its prima facie strengths, as formulated by Locke, the LTP admittedly suffers from many difficulties, and thus requires modification. When suitably modified, I would argue, the LTP is essentially correct, but its correctness will not concern us at the present moment. Rather, what will concern us here is the plausibility of the self-ownership concept itself, for if the concept of self-ownership proves to be implausible, so too then does the LTP. (However, this last point is contentious; many proponents of the LTP do not postulate self-ownership, but for reasons I shall not state here I think they are wrong not to do so.) While this post does not address every criticism of self-ownership, it addresses the most significant one.
Problem: Self-Ownership is Incoherent
To engender the difficulty, let us proceed with the following, standard definition of ownership: The socially recognized relation between an individual or group of individuals and a material object that serves to exclude others from the use and benefit of the material object (note: for simplicity, I leave unconsidered the ownership of non-material objects such as intellectual property and I include under material objects land and real estate). Given this definition, ownership entails alienability, that is, the ability of property to be physically separated from the owner, whether through voluntary transference or theft. However, one cannot be alienated from one’s material body; to think otherwise is to accept the metaphysical absurdities of mind-body dualism, e.g., an immaterial mind / soul, itself perhaps an incoherent concept, must, in some way, be able to act upon a material brain / body. In short, it is coherent to believe S can be separated from his labor and the product of his labor and voluntary exchanges, but it is incoherent to believe S can be separated from S, and the concept of self-ownership implies precisely such a thing. Therefore, self-ownership is incoherent.
(If the reader holds to a mind-body dichotomy, grant the incoherency of your position pro tem.)
The criticism is premised upon an argument with a false premise. The argument is, essentially, as follows:
(note: S= self, and, P= the body.)
(P1) If S is in an ownership relation with P, then P is alienable from S.
(P2) P is not alienable from S for that would lead to an absurdity.
(C) Thus, S is not in an ownership relation with P.
As a proponent of self-ownership, I reject C, but I am a materialist, so I accept P2, ergo I must reject P1. The first step in rejecting P1 is in noting that the overall criticism mistakes metaphysically awkward terminology for claims indicating strong metaphysical commitments. Indeed, the impetus for the criticism resides precisely in that mistake. We are material objects, but due to our advanced brains we can abstract our consciousness from our bodies, thus giving the illusion that we are separable from our bodies, which has given rise to bad metaphysics, which, in turn, has formed our language (a detailed genealogy of this phenomenon should not be necessary). Common language is replete with seemingly dualistic language, and it is often difficult, if not impossible, to avoid using dualistic verbiage. For example, in trying to present a non-dualistic explanation of dualistic language, I said: “we can abstract ourselves from our bodies;” as if “ourselves” were differentiable from bodies and as if it were necessary to indicate “our” bodies as opposed to “our” immaterial minds, souls, etc. The ability for said abstraction has evolutionary uses, e.g. predicting future events and orientating one among other material objects, especially other humans. For instance, take a teacher who asks a pupil to raise “her” hand. Should we understand the teacher to be asking a disembodied being to raise a bodily appendage, and therefore to be making strong metaphysical claims? Would the pupil be right to respond: “Well, Mr. Teacher, your command entails mind-body dualism and is therefore incoherent?” I should think not, and instead the pupil was being metaphysically uncharitable (if not a smart ass). In nuce, much of our common language carries with it metaphysical baggage, but using the language need not commit one to the metaphysics from which that baggage originated. Rather, one can speak in a metaphysically non-committing way and a metaphysically committing way. Like teacher, the proponent of self-ownership is doing the former.
Perhaps the preferred course would be to set the verbiage of self-ownership aside and see whether it is possible to describe the same concept without giving rise to the confusion. However, if this were done, the moral force of the concept within an essential aspect of existence would be lost: namely, as conscious beings, we recognize that our bodies can be used (that is, one may claim ownership over our bodies) like other material objects, and if the use is not voluntary, then we are slaves. If there is one moral axiom that is conducive to human existence, it is this: Thou shall not enslave. Self-ownership, then, determines the boundaries and limits of interpersonal action, and, as a consequence, self-ownership provides clear and cogent boundaries for refraining state actions with respect to individuals. Therefore, I reject P1 and C does not follows.