I thought BHL readers might be interested to learn about two cool new companion papers arguing against the Self-Ownership Thesis (SO) written by philosopher David Sobel. Sobel argues that SO is implausible because it cannot differentiate between normatively significant and normatively insignificant impingements on other people’s bodies. In other words, SO draws the line between the permissible and the impermissible in the wrong place. That counts as a strong reason against it.
To be more specific, SO claims that “we are entitled to powerful protections against even trivial infringements on our property” which has very unattractive consequences. However, if we weaken SO, then it becomes a less attractive principle on which to base a non-consequentialist political morality. At the very least, SO fails to ground a robust right or left-libertarianism.
Sobel makes his argument in two papers. In his first paper, “Backing Away from Self-Ownership,” he focuses on Nozick’s engagement with this problem by utilizing a principle Sobel calls “Cross and Compensate,” which can be found in Chapter 4 of Anarchy, State and Utopia. The second paper, “Self-Ownership and the Conflation Problem” addresses a number of other replies.
So instead of summarizing the papers as a whole, I focus on the theme I found most compelling, namely what Sobel calls the Conflation Problem.
The SO principle is an example of a “Broad, All or Nothing” deontological theory that seeks to “illuminate a broad swath of the moral terrain with a single principle.” And this principle suggests that “an action either fully has the morally problematic feature or fully fails to have it.” But the problem is that “such views conflate cases on the trivial end of the spectrum and on the serious end and treat them as if they were equally morally important.” This is the Conflation Problem.
Sobel draws our attention to the case of pollution. If I pollute your property, I am impinging on it. But I can pollute your property to varying degrees. The SO principle claims that all such pollution is impermissible and contains within itself no way of explaining why minor pollution is less wrong than major pollution. So consider three cases where my land is adjacent to yours and I run a shop that releases a small amount of oil into your water.
(i) Unnoticed Oil: the oil does not affect your health and you cannot see, smell or taste it.
(ii) Noticed Oil: the oil does not affect your health but you can see, smell or taste it.
(iii) Harmful Oil: the oil adversely affects your health, though to a minor degree.
An unmodified SO-principle claims that all of these impingements are wrong, full stop. However, we expect for principles of right to distinguish between the permissibility of Unnoticed Oil, Noticed Oil and Harmful Oil. Harmful Oil is morally worse than Noticed Oil which in turn is morally worse than Unnoticed Oil.
One way of handling this problem is to require me to compensate you when it is prohibitively expensive for me to avoid polluting your water. Compensation comes in degrees, so a compensation principle promises a way out. With a compensation addendum to the SO-principle, perhaps we can solve the Conflation problem. Nozick arguably pursues this strategy.
But Sobel rejects Nozick’s approach, canvassing a number of problems with the cross and compensate principle, which is substantially underspecified. There are questions, for instance, about the basis for compensation. Is compensation based on subjective desires? Objective interests? We might also wonder whether compensation truly preserves self-ownership or whether it in fact makes others partial owners of your property in virtue of their right to compensation. If so, we’ve backed away from self-ownership. You’ll have to read Sobel to explore these moves in detail, though I found Sobel’s case compelling.
An alternative move that Sobel does not address (and with good reason, since it’s not in the philosophy literature’s ambit) is to situate self-ownership within a broader theory of practical reason which may in turn provide resources to help an SO principle make fine distinctions. The most obvious candidate is Roderick Long’s eudaimonist libertarianism, which takes the self-ownership principle to specify the content of the virtue of justice (the virtuous person complies with the SO principle) but holds that the content of the virtues cannot be determined independently of one another. So the virtue of benevolence may flesh out the content of the virtue of justice such that justice identifies Harmful Oil as worse than Noticed Oil because it requires people to allow harm to come to others, contrary to benevolence. The benevolent person would be more hesitant to allow Harmful Oil rather than Noticed Oil to occur.
I suspect the right response to Sobel requires probing the foundations of SO in the structure of practical reason. Perhaps such a strategy can resolve the Conflation Problem. But until some libertarian theorist does that work, Sobel’s arguments stand strong.