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Libertarianism at SEP (and a few words on Self-Ownership)

A little while ago, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published its revised entry on Libertarianism, co-authored by Peter Vallentyne and myself. The entry focuses on libertarian theory in the narrow sense, a self-contained moral theory built on ideas about self-ownership and the possibility of private ownership of the external things.

Focusing on libertarianism in that sense of course leaves a lot of things out – including a number of views defended by people on this blog. Many of us reject the idea of self-ownership in its logically strongest form. The entry discusses some of the reasons why one might want to reject that idea.

Personally, I do not think self-ownership in its strongest form is all that attractive (Peter may disagree with me here, I am not sure). Still, I consider myself someone who believes in self-ownership. Compare this to ownership of land or resources. To say someone is an owner of land is to say something substantive. It may not rule out everything that the strongest possible form of land ownership would rule out, but it rules out a lot. There are many things we cannot do to an owner or his/her property without violating the owner’s rights. Real-life property rights know their limits, but they matter greatly nonetheless.

So too, I think, for self-ownership. As we point out in the entry, to deny the strongest form of self-ownership does not remove the real attraction of that ideal. Self-ownership gives expression to the unique position of dominion of every individual over him or herself, and the respect this demands in others. And while accepting, say, duties or liabilities to rescue moves us away from the ideal in its strongest form, it does not entail its denial. Real-life self-ownership may not rule out everything that the logically strongest form of self-ownership would rule out, but it rules out a lot. It prohibits treating people as if their bodies, talents, and efforts were a common resource for others to mine. And that, too, matters greatly.

The entry discusses a lot more, such as the position of non-human animals, enforcement rights, and the possibility of appropriation. On the latter point, Peter and I agree: any acceptable moral theory must allow individuals to unilaterally appropriate parts of the external world for their private use. We disagree on the distributive conditions attached to appropriation, but that is another topic for another day. For now: go check it out!

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Author: Bas van der Vossen
  • martinbrock

    … any acceptable moral theory must allow individuals to unilaterally appropriate parts of the external world for their private use.

    “Unilaterally” seems problematic to me. Appropriation implies the willingness of others to respect an individual’s exclusive use of a resource. Human nature being what it is, I expect practically every free association to accept appropriation of resources by individuals, if not precisely as Murray Rothbard prefers, but this appropriation is not “unilateral”. The terms of a contract are not unilateral.

  • What is self – ownership in its strongest form?

    • Basvandervossen

      Sorry for the late reply. The entry discusses a number of dimensions along which one might be more or less a self-owner. The logically strongest form of self-ownership is one that adopts maximial interpretations of each of those dimensions.

      • well actually when I thought he was going to be specific he dodged and became vague. It could be this but then again it could not be. I guess I’m asking what is excluded from the strongest form that makes you comfortable

        • Basvandervossen

          That’s a hard question, and one that requires a very detailed answer. I hope to write some more on this later. For now, one dimension along which I would weaken maximally strong self-ownership is the denial of all duties of rescue.

          • Don’t feel the need to respond. If you’re writing something further on the issue, then I’ll wait to read it, but I do want to write something about duties of rescue. I don’t recognize any duty to rescue, because no one or entity has the right to establish for me a “duty” to rescue. I might choose to rescue, but it would be my choice, and, thus, in no conflict with self-ownership. Who says “I own myself, therefore I’ll stand by while someone suffers or dies.”? I don’t see the connection between the two. Someone who believes that we don’t fully own ourselves could just as easily deny they have a duty to rescue. A duty to rescue can take different forms, of course. If this duty is used to justify a welfare state, then the idea is that we have a duty to support the welfare state if we can help others at little cost to ourselves. I don’t buy this rationalization of the welfare state. As a person who believes I fully own myself, I’m faced with reality and the many decisions to adjust to reality. If the reality is that I find myself, a libertarian minded person, in a welfare state that extracts money from my earnings to help others, I don’t see this as my duty, but an adjustment to the reality of coercion behind the welfare state. It’s not worth going to jail for tax evasion. I can attempt to convince others that private assistance organizations and insurance arrangements are better ways to provide assistance. I still want to help others if I can, but there is no duty to do so. I voluntarily choose to help others, even though I believe I fully own myself. If I unthinkingly give to the welfare state because I have some idea, implanted by state propaganda, that it’s my duty to give and help and that part of my self is sacrificed to the state for the benefit of others, where is the moral choice? I’m not being moral if I give and help/rescue out of a sense of duty. Where does that stop, and how easy would it be to manipulate such a mindset until I have sacrificed myself completely to others, winding up a shell of a person with no self-esteem? As far as rescuing someone in danger when I can, if there is little risk I’ll die in the process, yes, I’d do so easily, even as I believe I fully own myself. Owning myself means that I take responsibility how I use that self in real life situations. I think the strongest form of self-ownership is the only way to meet reality with a sense of purpose, responsibility and meaning. But I’m responsible for developing that self, not someone else or some entity. The danger of the concept of duty is that power-mongers are always eager for people to sacrifice for a greater cause, and this usually helps the power-mongers most of all.

          • Perfectly sensible. We just need to add in a notion of felix culpa in concreto to guard against unscrupulous use of the underlying notion- i.e. say I have a contract to teach you Spanish and you have a heart attack and I do nothing because, if you die, I get money without performing the stiputlated service- well Roman Law wouldn’t allow this for a sound ‘common sense’ reason.

            ‘The danger of the concept of duty is that power-mongers are always eager for people to sacrifice for a greater cause, and this usually helps the power-mongers most of all.’


  • ‘Real-life self-ownership may not rule out everything that the logically strongest form of self-ownership would rule out, but it rules out a lot’- like what? The name you give your g.f’s left boob? Your right to masturbate thinking about that g.f’s left boob when you fat, fifty one, and sparsely fucked?
    There’s a reason why ‘self ownership’ is epistemic. That reason is Statistical/Game Theoretic,
    Now, there is a sort of doxastic logic which captures Uncertainty and Strategic Behaviour. But it collapses back into an underlying Research Program which isn’t what you think.
    Think about it

    • Basvandervossen

      I have no idea what any of this means.

      • M Lister

        I thought that maybe it was a poorly written poem, or perhaps an attempt at rap lyrics, but I’m really not sure.

      • I think he’s saying that rudimentary self-ownership, as James Joyce once almost said (or was it Davy Crockett?), is like the tin-tinnary of all rins, just a hidee-ho away from purity, yet, self enslavement, such as a callipygian trance, is optional.

        • Callipygian trance is good. Like mobled queen.

      • The epistemological problem with self-ownership is that provided assignability is a property right then, there is a diagonal argument, showing that its domain is non denumerably infinite. Thus, a ‘Reflection Principle’ type result obtains such that the Universal Set for that discourse is unknowable or that no proper Classes exist.
        The ‘Real World’ corollary is that, just as cataphatic theology is soon crowded out by cacoethes (God it is who causes me to get a hard on when I think of Bill Clinton taking out his dentures) so too does any inventory of ‘self-ownership’ end up dominated by obscene shite.
        This does not mean that the pragmatics & semantics of ‘self-ownership’ aren’t solutions to Co-ordination & Discoordination games respectively – i.e. whereas other types of ‘ownership’ abide our question, ‘self-ownership’ alone is undoubtedly epistemic in the sense of not being separable from the underlying Research Program or having a canonical form.
        It is quite true that are doxastic logics which promise otherwise but then the same problem turns up somewhere else.

  • famadeo

    “Self-ownership”, by all accounts, is an epistemological tool fetishized by libertarians. It carries pretenses that touch on a more metaphysical level of reflexion and yet it is nowhere to be found in such discursive environments. It introduces a strange dichotomy (“you” and “yourself”) seemingly conducive to some version of dualism except it was never satisfactorily explained in my experience.

    • By all accounts?

      • famadeo

        I’d say so. On the one hand, I’ve yet to find something like that outside libertarian circles. On the other, I’ve yet to find a strong enough foundation for such language: a dichotomy within the self and talk of ownership.

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