As discussed before on BHL, David Sobel offers a powerful objection to self-ownership. If we may not infringe on a person’s self-ownership rights, then a huge number of seemingly innocuous activities become impermissible. When I pull my car out of the driveway, I emit a small amount of pollution—a few particles of which will settle in my neighbor’s lungs. Thus I infringe, slightly, my neighbor’s self-ownership rights. Should my neighbor refuse to allow me to emit the particles that will end up in her lungs (say, in exchange for compensation), then I may not drive my car. Since we all engage in these sorts of trivial rights infringements all the time, respecting robust self-ownership rights will dramatically restrict the range of permissible activities.
This is a compelling objection to self-ownership. But I want to point out that if this objection works against self-ownership libertarianism, it also works against a number of rights-based liberalisms, like Rawls’s. Rawls says that rights of bodily integrity and personal property are among the basic liberties which cannot be infringed except for the sake of other basic liberties. When my car emits a particle of pollution that settles in my neighbor’s lungs, I infringe her right of bodily integrity. When I pull into a stranger’s driveway to turn around when I’ve made a wrong turn, I infringe his right of personal property. But surely emitting a particle of pollution or using someone’s driveway for 10 seconds should be permissible. So Rawls shares Nozick’s problem.
I think the lesson here is to turn away from deontological approaches to justice and move toward something like utilitarianism. The best explanation for why trivial rights infringements are permissible is that they are, well, trivial. They involve trivial harm (if any) and produce non-trivial gains in social welfare.