Consequentialism, Rights Theory

Twelve Theses on Libertarian Eudaimonism

Obviously each of these following steps would need more explication and defense than I’m giving here. The picture is also a bit oversimplified, since (for one thing) it concerns reciprocal determination between just two virtues rather than among them all. But it will help to fill in a bit the picture I sketched in my earlier post.


1. The prima facie content of benevolence is consequentialist. [Note: for present purposes, the difference principle counts as consequentialist.]

2. The form of consequentialism best answering to benevolence’s prima facie content will be some sort of rule-consequentialism (for familiar Humean/Hayekian reasons).

3.The prima facie content of justice is deontological.

4. The form of deontology best answering to justice’s prima facie content will be a self-ownership principle.

5. Because property rights, qua rights, are enforceable, and self-ownership rules out any use of force except in defense of self-ownership, the only system of property rights consistent with self-ownership will be one that treats property as an extension of the self (and so the conception of the self, in order to be consistent with self-ownership and property rights, must be construed so as to make this possible).

6. When property is treated as an extension of the self, a principle of self-ownership will render such rights highly stringent.

7. Although benevolence’s prima facie content is consequentialist, there are considerations internal to benevolence (e.g., respect) that push it toward reconciliation with deontic justice.

8. Although justice’s prima facie content is deontological, there are considerations internal to justice (e.g., fairness) that push it toward reconciliation with consequentialist benevolence.

9. If the gap between the prima facie contents of self-ownership and rule-consequentialism is large and/or likely to be found in normal situations, the extent to which self-ownership needs to be revised will be greater and more structural.

10. If the gap between the prima facie contents of self-ownership and rule-consequentialism is small and/or likely to be found only in abnormal situations, the extent to which self-ownership needs to be revised will be small and mainly a matter of temporary exceptions.

11. We know from libertarian economic and social theory (and in particular, a synthesis of Austrian, agorist, and mutualist theory) that the gap between self-ownership (together with stringent property rights) and most plausible versions of rule-consequentialism [including the difference principle] is small and/or likely to be found only in abnormal situations.

12. Thus the content of justice after conciliation with benevolence will still be essentially a form of self-ownership (together with stringent property rights), albeit with a few small revisions and temporary exceptions.

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  • You lost me at step 11, where you conflate “believing” with “knowing”. It’s precisely libertarian economic and social theory that’s strongly disputed by non-libertarians. You can’t just throw it out there as if it were a set of known facts about the universe. Sorry.

    • berserkrl

      Well, surely it’s not just 11.  As I said at the top, every single step is controversial and needs plenty of defense.  I’m setting out the structure of the theory, not offering a detailed argument.

  • Hi Roderick,

    My main qualm about the above is what appears to be the attempt to make the notion of self-ownership prior to that of private property. It seems to me that the notion of private property is primary and that self-ownership is just a special instance of private property (private property in one’s own body). In connection with this, I would say that private property in one’s own body is more important than private property in anything else and violation of it is more serious than violation of other private property rights (I am not sure whether you intend to deny this, but it sounds like it from theses 5 and 6). Another point that may be connected is that how we should carve up currently unowned resources and make them into private property is a matter for agreement and has nothing to do with ‘mixing of labour’ or any other ‘naturalistic’ notion. This is not, of course, to suggest that the acquisition of natural resources in times past was achieved through explicit or tacit agreement (and nor is it to suggest that we should try to re-allocate such historical acquisitions on a ‘fair’ basis – which seems to me to be a nugatory exercise).

    Another qualm concerns ‘justice as fairness.’ But let’s leave that for another time.


  • Aeon Skoble

    I like where you’re going with this.   Be interested to see how you flesh out some of these moves.  Are you planning on doing that here, or in an article?

    • Kevin Vallier

      Or a book? (Pretty please.)

  • Bill Woolsey

    What are the modifications?

    “harmless” pollution?


    publically financed charity?

    networks like roads, powerlines, and pipelines?

    collateral damage in war?

    tax financed national defense?

  • “6. When property is treated as an extension of the self, a principle of self-ownership will render such rights highly stringent.”

    Yes, and to me this means that self-ownership principles cannot be established politically (as Ron Paulists want to do), and that someone trying to claim Constitutional self-ownership rights in today’s socio-economic environment would be akin to living in a shark cage for the claimant, at least for awhile (where banks and tax collectors are the sharks).

    I also think maintaining this tension between individualism and collectivism is necessary in order to minimize the negative/disruptive effects of the transition/collapse.

  • Anonymous

    Roderick,  I think you and several other authors on this blog owe us an explanation of what you mean by “self-ownership” and “self-ownership” theories.  

    It is not enough to wave one’s hands at Locke and Nozick. They say we own ourselves but have no account of how or why and how that might connect with our ownership of other things. (Yes. Yes. I know. “mixing ones labor”  but that’s not a theory, it is a metaphor.)

    I think we have a right to self-defense. Does that make me a “self-ownership” theorist? And if so, who isn’t a self-ownership theorist.

    • Kevin Vallier
      • Anonymous

        Yes, I had your post in mind as well.  I repeat my question.  Does believing that we have a right to self-defense make one a “self-ownership” theorist?  If so then who isn’t a self-ownership theorist?  If not then what more is asserted by self-ownership theorists?

        • Kevin Vallier

          I thought I was pretty clear in the post. Self-ownership includes an extensive range of rights over one’s body, not merely the right to defend it. Imagine owning a box. You have a limited right to protect it, but you have lots of other rights over it as well (the right to sell, destroy, rent, etc.).

          • Anonymous

            To own a box is to have the right to prevent—forcibly if necessary–
            other people from using that box without  your permission.  But you can give or sell other people that permission temporarily or permanently— that is—you can give, sell or rent the box to others.   That’s what it is to have ownership in a box and to sell or rent it. 

            If owning a box is having a moral right to box-defense, why isn’t owning
            yourself is just  having the moral right to self-defense . 

            The right of self-defense is  the right to prevent—forcibly if necessary— other people from using your body without your permission.  But the right
            of self-defense is not an obligation.  You can  give permission for people to use your body, or parts of it, various ways.  If I wave my right to protect myself against your taking a lock of my hair— I have given you a lock of my hair (if you want it).  If I give you permission to take that lock of hair in return for money, I have sold it to you.   If I take your money then insist that I have a right to defend myself against your taking a lock of my hair, I have defrauded you.  

            If we have at least this much moral authority over what others may do to
            our bodies then, it seems to me, we own our bodies.   Who  doesn’t  believe in “self-ownership” in this sense.   What does someone who denies the “self-ownership” thesis claim? That you can’t, e.g.,  give someone else permission to cut your hair?

  • Anonymous

    I’ve grown to be a bit cautious of P5. It seems that the general thrust of your position implies that we might actually have a difficult case in establishing P5 as a general truth. It may well be the case that the extension of self-ownership right fully and completely into that of general property, and especially alienable property, is not well supported in any strong form.

  • Anonymous

    General question to self-ownership theorists. Wild animals are by definition not owned by anyone else. Are they therefore “self-owners”? If they are, what moral moral significance, if any, do you draw from this? 

    • Kyle Bush

      Wild animals don’t possess moral or rational agency, so I doubt very many people would attribute them with the power to own anything at all. I think people owe animals moral consideration, as opposed to attributing rights to them.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, exactly! Without adding moral or rational agency to the mere fact of self-ownership, you can’t go very far towards deriving libertarian rights. Since no one else owns a wild animal it is plausible to think that they “own” themselves in some sense. They certainly control their bodily functions and are capable of acting purposefully. Rothbard seemed to think that the fact that nobody else could plausibly be thought to own human beings was sufficient to establish that we must be self-owners. This was a weak argument, but even if it established self-ownership, the same argument would apply to wild animals. But we don’t attribute to them the same moral status as humans because they lack the additional attributes you cite. In short, self-ownership is a very shallow and incomplete ethical foundation for ascribing moral rights to persons, in my judgment.

        • Mark, it seems plain to me that wild animals are common property to all of mankind, until we (lawfully) mix our labor with them, after which they become our food or pets. 

          But they become what we call “property” we can “own,” not in a positive or possessive sense of the word, but as something for which we are reasonably certain that the state will exclude other persons from possessing.

          So, in other words, there is no positive “ascribing [of] moral rights,” but a negative right to have the state forcibly exclude possession by others, whether we’re talking about the property rights in wild animals we may acquire or the property we have in our minds, bodies and labor.

          • Anonymous

            I don’t believe that what you are saying is inconsistent with my point. We don’t do anything to become self-owners, other than perhaps age. On the other hand, wild animals can never become self-owners. But somewhat differently, wild animals are owned in common and are available for appropriation when we, according to you, “mix our labor with them,” but people cannot be acquired this way. To explain these differences we need, I think, to invoke something in addition to the fact that humans are “self-owners,” and animals are not. Humans have some key attributes that even highly evolved animals do not.

      • Anonymous

        What’s the basis for claiming that animals have not moral or rational agency? 

        Mark, I don’t see why one cannot consider animals in general self-owners while still allowing people to own pets, zoos to exist and in general humans to domesticate them for food stocks.

        I think the idea that we can have a set of rights that lack any moral conflict is a pipe dream.

        • Anonymous

          When an animal returns a lost wallet with cash in it to its rightful owner, despite the fact that it could use the money, I will concede that they have moral agency. As I said above, I do think that on certain conceptions of self-ownership animals are self-owners, and that this constitutes a problem for those who wish to base human rights on this fact. If we and animals are both self-owners, yet we can use animals as food stocks, but not people, then SO is not the decisive feature that accounts for rights. Finally, I never said we can have “a set of rights that lack any moral conflict,” although I admit that I am not certain what you mean here (whose rights are supposed to conflict and in what way?).

          • Anonymous

            I think we’re in agreement on the force of self-ownership in terms of resulting rights that can be derived solely from that concept — which might not be a good enough reason to totally ignore the concept; just one that suggests one suggesting where the application has force must be considered.

            Perhaps I misunderstood the extent of your statement about the relation between moral agency and rights. Perhaps you could help me understand the role of moral agency and rights for your views — for instances, if a person always acts immorally do they then give up any claims to rights? Or is this the case of if we grant they are capable of moral agency, even if apparently unwilling or able to exercise that agency, they then enjoy rights?

          • Anonymous

            I am happy to comply with the request in your second paragraph, but will note up front that I will not be offering anything new. Indeed, I follow Nozick here in seeing our status as rational (moral) agents as the source of our rights. Very briefly, I believe Nozick offers an argument from the best explanation, which starts with the observation that we are instinctively committed to the (true) belief that it is wrong to treat persons in certain ways. The most plausible explanation for this committment is that we are rational agents (and all other known beings are not). See ASU, particularly 33-44, 48-51. From here, Nozick is able to argue that since our autonomy is the source of our special  status, coercion (even to do the right thing) is a morally inappropriate response to our rational agency. So to answer your question, it is the fact that persons are capable of moral agency from which we derive rights.

            I mention this here only because it directly responds to your question, but I spell this out in much more detail and argumentation in my book Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense (Continuum, 2011) or visit my website

    • Thomas Hepplewhite

      SO is obviously about the right to do anything they wish (with certain side constraints) with their body and this doesn’t derive from the fact that humans physically might be able to do anything with their body. And I’m a libertarian who believes that animals do have rights .

      • Anonymous

        Please see my reponses to Kyle and Rick above. I am also a libertarian who believes that animals have at least some rights.

        • I’m probably as bleeding-heart as anyone here, but I don’t see animals as having rights. Rather I see humans as having the moral right to use animals as, for example, food stocks, but we, as moral agents, have a corresponding moral obligation to minimize the suffering of the animals we so use.

          So I’m not against eating meat, but I AM against cruel animal husbandry practices like factory farms. I’m also in favor of laws prohibiting gratuitous cruelty against animals, both domesticated and wild, and the mistreatment or neglect of pet and food animals.

          We have a higher duty toward those animals that we choose to bring into our lives than we do toward wild animals simply because we’ve chosen to bring them into our moral universe. Essentially, we have an obligation to treat our pets similarly to the way we treat our children and for largely the same reasons.

          • Anonymous

            Well, if you believe the (very strong) claim that “we have an obligation to treat our pets similarly to the way we treat our children and for largely the same reasons,” then I don’t see how you can deny that at least pets have rights. If pets don’t have rights, then from what source arises our obligation to treat them “like children?” Of course, one can affirm, as I do, that animals have certain rights, yet deny that such rights have the same stringency as human rights. For what its worth, I deny that pets have rights to welfare of the same stringency as our children’s rights (said as both a father of two, and owner of two cats and one dog).

          • You’re correct; that statement was too strong. Although I still believe that the nature of one’s relationship with one’s children and one’s pets is similar. Having children and keeping pets are both voluntary acts (well, usually, anyway) that once embarked upon entail certain obligations.

            I think in the case of animals it falls along the lines of not causing gratuitous or needless suffering in an entity capable of experiencing such.

            I guess it’s something I’m not entirely settled on. For instance, I don’t see a particular moral difficulty with hunting animals for food. But I’m less certain about trophy hunting purely for pleasure. It seems like insufficient justification for ending the existence of a (possibly) sentient or semi-sentient (whatever that may mean) being. Asking whether that entails animals having “rights” may just be semantics. I prefer to reserve the term to apply to indisputably moral actors.

          • “I think in the case of animals it falls along the lines of not causing gratuitous or needless suffering in an entity capable of experiencing such.”

            Rod, I might be totally off here, but from a Lockean viewpoint (again, my view of it), we have no right to cause waste or damage to property that is not ours, i.e., damage, suffering or waste to property that is “common to all mankind.”

          • That’s another aspect of it, but I don’t see how it addresses the question Mark and I were discussing. For instance, how is my pet cat “common to all mankind”?

            But it WOULD certainly pertain to environmental issues like pollution, urban sprawl, and anthropogenic climate change.

          • If the cat has lawfully become your pet, it is no longer common property. Some where along the line you’ve mixed your labor with it to make it yours.

            But even when it was common property you had no more right to abuse it than you would have the right to spray paint street signs, pollute, waste or damage other public property, cause “tragedy of the commons,” etc. 

            So, if I’m understanding your question accurately, you don’t acquire a right to abuse or cause suffering to the animal after it has been taken from the commons, or just because it was taken from the commons. 

            Even if a pet were to become one’s food, there’s still a duty to minimize the animal’s suffering.

          • Anonymous

            No disagreement here. We can leave until another time the question of the connection, if any, between duties and rights.

  • Kyle Bush

    What about claims on a persons time or action? There are plenty of people who assert some authority to command others in one way or another. In my mind, subscribing to a principle of self ownership would preclude making such claims except when attempting to obtain restitution for a rights violation.

    • Anonymous

      Others can get this sort of authority over your actions when you promise or contract to perform those actions.  When you make such a bargain you are giving the other person permission to force you to do those actions or extract compensation from you if you fail to perform them. You have given up some your  rights against forceful interference– you have bartered away some of your right to self defense.

      As I observed above 

      a) having the right to  sell/rents  parts yourself (or your labor) by promising/contracting/granting them to others must be part of anyone’s conception of self ownership. 

      b) since we all believe we have these rights (don’t we?) , we are all “self-ownership theorists”.I have more to say on this here :

  • This is not a challenge, just a question. I am wondering how you would characterize benevolence such that consequentialism provides the best prima facie account of its content. Is it ok if this turns out to be trivially true or would you like it to be a substantive claim? I half expected you to say that consequentialism provides the best prima facie account of the content of morality (except for justice) rather than benevolence. Do you see an important distinction between that way of putting things and your way?

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