Rights Theory, Libertarianism

Self-Ownership in Eudaimonist Dress

I am delighted that my friend and teacher Roderick Long has engaged my first foray into the blogosphere. Roderick has deeply influenced my views. For instance, if not for him, I would not be a eudaimonist.

But wait. Didn’t I say I was a contractualist? Isn’t that inconsistent with eudaimonism? In a word, no.

Like any good eudaimonist, I believe that practical reasons prescribed by the virtues are united and structured by eudaimonia as the final end for persons. I also believe that the content of the virtues cannot be determined independently of one another, so I accept a weak version of the unity of the virtues thesis, just like Roderick.

However, I believe that the content of the virtue of justice is best specified by a contractualist principle rather than the self-ownership principle. So like my teacher, I’m a kind of eudaemonist about practical reason as a whole, but unlike my teacher, I think a contractualist principle is the most “reasonable interpretation of justice’s prima facie deontological content,” not the self-ownership principle.

When it comes to institutional justice, coercion must be compatible with a contractualist principle, not a self-ownership principle. Further, personal reasons to be just are best identified by a contractualist principle, not a self-ownership principle. Consequence-based considerations can play precisely the same role with respect to specifying and grounding the contractualist principle as Roderick proposes they do for the self-ownership principle.

And that is why I claimed in my first post that eudaimonism is not really a third approach to defending libertarianism. Again, it is a broader theory of practical reason which helps to determine the content of justice but does not do so on its own and cannot be expected to. So my disagreement with my friend and teacher is about what principle is the most “reasonable interpretation of justice’s prima facie deontological content.”

I doubt that Roderick denies that one can combine a contractualist conception of justice with a broader eudaimonist theory of the virtues and practical reason. My point here is merely to clarify our present disagreement for the purpose of future discussion.

Take away: Roderick thinks that the self-ownership principle, if situated within a eudaimonist theory of practical reason, is sufficiently consequence-sensitive to escape my charge that self-ownership principles are in general too consequence-insensitive. I remain skeptical.

Or rather: I think contractualism in eudaimonist dress is much more intuitively consequence-sensitive than self-ownership in eudaimonist dress.

In my next post, I’ll offer a case that should distinguish our two views. And in future posts, I’ll outline the structure of contractualist libertarianism, of which John Tomasi’s new Free-Market Fairness is an attractive and exciting new version.

  • I find puzzling the claim that justice can be spelt out in terms of self-ownership. As I see it, justice means, roughly, respect for property rights. But self-ownership concerns only property rights in one’s own body. Or is ‘self-ownership’ here being used in a broader sense?

    I also find puzzling the idea that justice can be spelt out in terms of contracts. This could be so only if the contracts were themselves just, rather than coerced, for example. But then the notion of justice is presupposed in the relevant notion of contracts. Presumably you will have more to say about this in later posts.


    • berserkrl

      Danny Frederick,

      The claim (made by many libertarians, including me) is that external property rights are based on self-ownership.  Here’s my take on how that connection works.

      As for contractualism, I think you’ll find that the “contracts” it involves are such in name only.

      • Anonymous

        Interesting read.

        However, there is one point in the argument I didn’t find very convincing.
        It’s where you describe a hypothetical scenario in which taking any external goods for one’s own purposes, regardless of who produced them or previously controlled them, is not defined as aggression.

        Then you simply claim that…

        “Any conception of aggression according to which the world so described is free of aggression is not a plausible one.”

        …and move on (“Hence it follows…”) as if the truth of that statement could simply be taken for granted.
        I believe that this statement would need some more proof.

        Especially since some left-wing anarchist do in fact picture such a world as their utopia.

        • Anonymous

          I think what Roderick’s point here is that in such a scenerio any conception of aggression in a world where “everything is for the taking” is meaningless in practical terms.  While it could still be said that aggression entailed physically harming someone’s person, taking the food off the table of a starving family wouldn’t be “aggression” as there are no property rights that extend past one’s own skin.  Then you have problems that arise from two or more parties trying to use the same good/resource simultaineously.

          There are some people who hold onto the concept of zero property, but unless we were in some kind of post-scarcity utopia, or minimalist tribal lifestyle, it’s easy to see how that would quickly devolve into mass confusion or situations that promoted aggression.

          The vast majority of left-libertarians/anarchists recognise these issues, and promote some system of property rights.  They’re just of a different flavor from right-anarchists: Personal-proerty vs. private-property, democratic control over the means of production, etc.  I think part of the reason these are so popular, especially the former, is because of the mistaken view that wage-labor is exploitative, but I digress.  I think the point of Roderick’s peice isn’t, as he said, to prove that the libertarian viewpoint is true, but rather to show that his two theses are plausible, and that they can comprehensibly lead to property rights.  To this end, I don’t know how much time he should devote to addressing minor objections like that.  Overall I think the article does it’s job, and I look forward to the final draft.

        • The problem is that this (“everything is for the taking”) is not an accurate or fair characterization of the view of social anarchists and anti-propertarians. It begs a lot of questions (such as defining aggression in terms of property) and Roderick simply assumes his own conceptual scheme, which is precisely what’d be up for debate. It is not at all clear that we face an absolute binary opposition between “private property rights” and “aggression”, and indeed from various perspectives, “private property rights” (of the sort libertarians tend to espouse) requires aggression in its own ways.  

          • Anonymous

            I don’t see where Roderick is saying that it’s binary between “all private property” or “everything goes”, or that left anarchists ascribe to that position.  What he is saying is that the “everything goes” possibility isn’t really a tenable situation for a system not based on aggression.  Therefore, some property rights must exist , whether they are held individually, or by “society” or “humanity”. 

            The problem I have with the latter is that they really can’t be “owned by society” or even controlled democractically.  It would have to be doecided via some sort of body of individuals (elected or otherwise) who claimed to represent “society”, at which point we basically have private property, just with different people in charge.

          • It seems to assume “either there are private property rights of some sort, or we have this whatever-goes scenario”. That’s what I mean about a false dichotomy, as I don’t think that private property rights are the only alternative, or that a lack of private property rights necessarily means “anything goes”. One could very well recognize a kind of usage-rights that falls short of the rigidity of “property” as libertarians understand it.

            I also don’t think that it’s accurate to describe private property rights as necessarily being a conflict-resolver, which seems to be one of the implications here; I think it can be just as much of a conflict-creator.

          • Anonymous

            Could you define the “usage-rights” you’re talking about? Because libertarian property theory, at least as I ascribe to it, is all about whether you have the right, to put it abstractly, to physically alter a specifc piece matter in a given amount of space. That is, whether or not you have the right to “use” the land/resources/goods.

            Not to presume anything, but if you’re talking about property-rights existing while you’re using something, but dissapearing when you’re “done with it”, then I really don’t see where the huge difference is. It merely comes down to how you define abandonment.

            As for whether private property is a conflict-resolver or a conflict-creator, it’s neither, it’s just a framework to work within to resolve the conflicts that arise when two people want or interact with the same scarce material. Without a system of property rights, the conflict is not resolved, or degrades into physical violence. With a framework of property rights, the possibility exists for a mutual agreement via reason.

          • berserkrl

            It seems to assume “either there are private property rights of some sort, or we have this whatever-goes scenario”.

            No, I don’t assume those are the only options.  What I claim is that they’re the only two options consistent with the non-aggression principle.

            As for usage rights, how would you categorise Kevin Carson’s position?

      • “Libertarian property rights are, famously, governed by principles of
        justice in initial appropriation (mixing one’s labour with previously unowned
        resources), justice in transfer (mutual consent), and justice in rectification
        (say, restitution plus damages).  It is easy to see how the right not to be aggressed
        against will be interpreted here:  I
        count as initiating force against a person if I seize an external resource that
        she is entitled to by the application of those three principles.  If she is not
        entitled to the resource under these principles, but is in possession of the
        resource anyway, then my seizing the resource counts as force, but not as initiatory force, so long as I am acting
        on behalf of whichever person is
        entitled to the resource; otherwise I am initiating force against that person.” Robert T. Long

        If a bunch of us are stranded on an island and struggling for survival, and I catch a whale, I may have some initial (Lockean) property rights to the whale, but not beyond that, and certainly no right to let the whale go to (Lockean) waste while the rest of the island starves. This is because the whale otherwise belonged “to all men in common.” I only had a limited property right based on my labor and expertise. 

        So, it is no transgression of my property rights if the rest of the island forcibly takes the great proportion of the whale that I either cannot reasonably use, or which was disproportionate to the labor/energy (which was always mine alone) I expended in acquiring the whale. 

        This represents my view of what the concept of “taxes on income derived from property sources” was meant to achieve, a concept which, incidentally, has been obscured and overshadowed since 1937 by the concept of “taxes on income not derived from property,” i.e., income taxes aimed at regulating a currency.


        • “I count as initiating force against a person if I seize an external resource that she is entitled to by the application of those three principles.”

          It seems to me that, if anything, statements like this beg the question of how reasonable it is to treat “property” as an “extension of the self” in the first place. It seems quite obvious to me that a transgression against property is not equivolent to initiating violence against a person. If interpreted most literally, it is seems absurd to treat external objects as if they were equivolent to you.

          • Depending on the circumstances under which we’ve labored to acquire those “external objects,” they usually are extensions of ourselves.  That’s why we feel violated if someone unjustly takes them, or if they’re unjustly taxed.

          • Of course it makes a certain level of sense that people form a mental association between themselves and that which they own, and they are personally affected by transgressions against what they own.

            The problem I’m having is that it seems obvious that transgressions against someone’s property are not *equivolent* to aggression against a person. If we simply look at the scenario, and take things literally, things like theft and trespass are not an aggression against a person. It is not equivolent to inflicting bodily harm on someone.

            The view that any transgression against your property is inherently an attack on you as a person, and therefore you have an automatic right to use violence “as retaliation”, seems more like a slippery slope to justifying violence if anything. If you can inflict bodily harm on someone who has not done so to you, in response to a property transgression, then something kind of seems disproportionate about that.  

          • Anonymous

            Well, this is why most libertarians view proportionate defensive force, (sometimes with damages) as key to the position.  You don’t get to shoot someone because they wandered onto your lawn. 

          • And yet, ultimately, in various more complicated real-world scenarios, absolute or strong propertarians would have to support/justify property owners (or agents of property owners) essentially initiating violence on non-cooperating people (such as on striking workers or protesters), starving a certain segment of the population, ostracizing a certain segment from the population, sexual harassment, racial segregation, theocratic city-states, fuedalist-like scenarios, and so on.

            I’m not merely thinking about cases of theft, but any minor transgression against absolute property rights, especially in land – even simply being in a certain area and not obeying “the rules”. Most libertarians do not account for anything that isn’t either explicit, obvious initiation of physical force against a person, or theft and fruad. This is a narrow view of threats to personal freedom and well-being.  
            With non-cooperation by occupants, or in escalating conditions, propertarian principles necessitate physical violence. With (coerced or semi-cercoed) “cooperation” from occupants, propertarian principles necessitate submission to arbitrary authority.

          • How about simply changing your view of property rights so as to include physical “transgressions against a person” in your definition of property, so that physical injury to one’s body is considered to be a violation of the property right one has in his/her body?:

            The following is from pg. 267 of a Michael Ayers book “Locke: Epistemology & Ontology:”

            “The idea that one’s body and actions are ‘property’ in a legal sense was not novel in Locke’s time.  According to earlier Natural Law theory, each man has a sphere of what is ‘his own’ or ‘suum’ over which he has rights.  The primitive or natural ‘suum’ includes, according to Grotius, life, body, limbs, reputation, honor and ‘actiones propriae,’ our own actions.  Thus, all wrong-doing or iniuria (including, for example, murder) is treated as an infringement of property rights.  Property in the normal sense is in turn treated as a conventional extension of the sphere of that which is one’s own by nature.  Such a model is not absurd.  That actions are legal property is a natural thought, since we can sell them.  To take the fruits of another’s actions is to invade his property rights over his actions, to invade his personal sphere.  The effect of the theory, however, is to blur the distinction between violence to the person and violence to property, not to speak of the distinction between the person and his property.”

          • I no longer adopt a natural rights approach to politics or ethics, and don’t believe in “self-ownership”. I’m much more attracted to pragmatism and more consequence-sensitive and context-sensitive approaches. In either case, I don’t think it is necessary to use the lens or framework of “property” or “ownership” to have a conception of autonomous selfhood and personal freedom. 

            The most genuine and literal “personal sphere” is literally just your person. Extending that “personal sphere” from oneself when there are other people involved is a tricky matter, given the unavoidable existence of social relations and our usage of external objects, but there are ways in which it is possible to overextend one’s “personal sphere” to the point of constituting questionable “authority” over others. I think it’s a lot better to simply always put the burden of proof on authority claims.

            I would take the view that, just thinking in terms of persons-to-persons, our “personal sphere” can’t extend beyond ourselves at all. The addition of external objects of possession doesn’t simply directly spin off from selfhood. You do not have authority over the “personal sphere” of others, even when they are “on your property”.

            When we do add the context of external objects, I’d say that there are some reasonable norms of general reciprocity that could effectively recognize “ownership” over some things that pretty obviously belong to someone, but there is no principle of absolute entitlement, there is no a priori and absolute exclusion principle, nor is there any exclusion of forms of “common ownership” of various things.

            The danger in strong propertarianism, especially in land, is that it threatens to extend into “authority” over the personal sphere of others, and isn’t contextual or flexible enough to account for reasonable norms of behavior and human relations. Property right contributes and factors in to power relations, and the usage of power relations can threaten the autonomy and livelyhood of people.

          • “The danger in strong propertarianism, especially in land, is that it threatens to extend into “authority” over the personal sphere of others …”

            I totally agree and also believe our legal system completely misrepresents Locke by extending property rights to land, natural resources, and intellectual property to the extent that it does. So, just to be clear, that’s not the kind of Lockean propertarianism I’m advocating.

          • Out of curiosity then, are you a proviso lockean of a sort?

          • I always have to look that up, but yes, and I really don’t understand how someone can read Locke and ignore the proviso.

            Given my whale hypothetical above, the current legal system in the U.S. would probably hold that I had an absolute property right in the entire whale, and the rest of the islanders should starve. It would also probably give me some property rights over the fishing grounds. … ridiculous.


          • berserkrl

            Locke’s case for the proviso depended on the theological premise that God had given the earth to humankind in common.  Absent that premise, what justifies the proviso?

            Also David Schmidtz argues (here) that the proviso actually mandates the privatisation of common resources.

          • That’s a really great article by Schmidtz, which I haven’t got time to totally digest, but to me, it just proves that we really need to spell out what we mean by “privatization” of land and resources.  If we mean it in the sense of a king sitting on a throne, with power to exclude everyone forever (because “god” allows it) then that’s not Lockean. But if we mean it in the sense of maximizing utility of the land and minimizing waste, then that’s “Lockean” in my view.

          • Anonymous

            Along the same lines as Rick is thinking, “legitimate” property involves the investment of time, labor, and/or resources to create.  If you invest your time and labor into production, whether directly or for a wage and save resources (delaying consumption) and build a cabin, that represents a portion of your life and energy.  If I come along and burn that cabin down because I’m an arsonist, then I’ve basically just destroyed a portion of your life.

            Likewise, if you save your money and buy a tractor, you should have use-rights over that peice of machinery as it represents your delayed consumption from previous labor/production.  It makes no difference if you wish to use the tractor directly yourself, or hire it out at a wage.

        • berserkrl

          This is because the whale otherwise belonged “to all men in common.”

          How did they acquire that right?

          And who is Robert T. Long?

          • Oops, I meant Roderick T. Long.

            The “they” who acquired that right is everyone in general and no one in particular.

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