(The following is a bit messy–it’s extracted from comments I gave at a colloquium a year ago. But I’d like to share anyways.)
I never make self-ownership-type arguments. Yet, if you ask me whether people are self-owners, I’d say, sure. Some left-liberals claim to find the idea perplexing, but I think that’s because they’re perplexed about how to think about property. In fact, upon reflection, we’ll see that pretty much all liberals accept some version of a self-ownership thesis. They just disagree about what self-ownership amounts to, which is one reason why we can’t use the concept of self-ownership to settle intra-liberal debates.
Let me sketch out a way of understanding self-ownership.
First, ask, what is a property right? Property rights are bundles of rights. The strength and nature of these rights can vary from owned item to owned item. The central right in a property right is the right of exclusion. (Pace Nozick, who says it’s the right to use something.) As David Schmidtz says somewhere, if property rights are a bundle, we might think of the right to exclude as the trunk from which the other rights grow as branches. Property rights can also include the right to use, sell, rent, and destroy at will.
We own different things in different ways. That us, the bundle of rights that constitutes ownership varies from thing owned to thing owned. The strength of these rights also varies. I can own a cat and a car, but my ownership of the cat—which is real ownership—doesn’t allow me to do as much with as with my ownership of the car. (I don’t mean this just to be reflecting current legal rules. Rather, I mean to be making a claim about moral rights of ownership, which the laws of different states may or may not reflect.) The way I own a cat is different from how I own a car, which is different from how I own a guitar, which is different from how I own a plot of land, which is different from how I own… etc, etc. Morally-speaking, not just legally speaking, the kinds of rights I have over these various things varies. But I really can own each of them. If you prefer to say that my ownership is “more extensive” when I have the full bundle of rights with no moral constraints on use, fine. But even if there is more or less extensive ownership, it’s still ownership. My cat is my cat. I am not allowed to torture it, neglect it, or have sex with it, but that’s not because the cat is partially society’s or anyone elses’, or because I don’t really own it. The car is my car. I am not allowed to drive it around the streets without proving competence, but that’s not because the car is partially society’s or anyone else’s. Etc.
Now, let’s imagine that certain kinds of moral arguments–such as Kantian deontological principles, or claims about what it takes to realize certain moral powers, or arguments from a privileged “original position”, or reflections on Strawsonian reactive attitudes, or sophisticated Millian consequentialism, or whatnot–lead us to the conclusion that people have certain rights of exclusion and use over themselves, and possibly as well as some other rights over themselves.
Once you see how these rights shape up, you might notice that people’s rights over themselves strongly resemble that bundle of rights we associate with property rights. We might then decide to call people self-owners. We would not thereby be abusing the concept of “property”. Every liberal thinks we each have certain strong rights of use, exclusion, and so on, over ourselves and our bodies. So, in effect, they all accept a self-ownership thesis, though many of them would not describe their beliefs as such.
In this kind of story, the concept of self-ownership does little work in justifying anything. It’s a conclusion, not a premise or a foundation. We’re self-owners, but we might be self-owners in any number of different ways (just as we might own stuff in any number of different ways). All liberals end up endorsing a self-ownership thesis, but they endorse different self-ownership theses. There’s Nozickian self-ownership, Brennanian self-ownership, Rawlsian self-ownership, Macedoian self-onwership, etc. What exactly goes into our self-ownership rights bundle depends in part on the foundational moral arguments, whatever they might be. The concept of self-ownership won’t lead us to libertarianism. Rather, the more foundational arguments might lead us to one of the many libertarian varieties of self-ownership. Or, they might not.
Rights are necessary for us to live together in peace, harmony, and with feelings of mutual respect. But rights are always problematic.
For example, if external property rights forbade all crossings no matter what, then we could have a system in which someone is forced to starve because someone buys up all the land around her and she can’t get to the supermarket. So, every functioning society invents rules of easement.
These kinds of cases pose a problem for anyone who believes in rights. It’s not special to libertarians. Consider questions of free speech: Does my right to free speech include a right to protest on the street at rush hour? In your classroom while you teach? In your house? In the president’s house? Does it include a right to print my words on your newspaper? To shout down speakers I dislike? To yell “fire” in a crowded theater? Consider questions of political liberty: Do I need to have equal chance to affect electoral outcomes as anyone else? Does that mean giving me equal financial resources? Does it mean giving me more resources so I can counteract others’ charisma? Does it mean giving me extra votes? Do I just need to have formal equality of political power? Does freedom of the press allow them to publish state secrets? The sexual history of non-celebrity readers? Why not?
I think many of these questions can be answered. However, on my view, rights are not really foundational. Rather, other moral principles are foundational, and these explain what particular rights we have, in what way, and how these questions are to be answered.
This is compatible with holding that the content of our rights is largely conventional. There may be a common core of rights that all just societies must respect. Philosophy alone might be able to tell us what that core is and why. The rest may be something that is discovered–what particular ways of filling out the rights (beyond the core part) help us live together in peace and prosperity? What ways help people live together respectfully–i.e., in ways where they see themselves as respect and in which they see themselves as respecting others?