This Self Is Mine

There’s an objection to self-ownership that I’ve never understood; it runs something like this:

Self-ownership assumes that the self contains two aspects; the mind that does the owning and the body that gets owned. But there is no such radical dualism within the self.

But this objection is just weird. It not only presupposes that ownership has to be a relationship between nonidenticals, it attributes that view to the self-ownership proponent, and so infers that the self-ownership proponent must really be talking about some relationship between different parts of the self and so must hold some controversial metaphysical theory. But clearly anyone who believes in self-ownership obviously does not regard ownership as necessarily a relation between nonidenticals.

Thus self-ownership does not assume any position whatever about the relation between mind and body. You can think mind and body are identical; or distinct but nonseparable; or distinct but separable – it’s just completely irrelevant to the self-ownership question. Self-ownership isn’t supposed to be a relation between two parts of you, it’s supposed to be a relation between you and yourself.

So even if the objectors think ownership must be between nonidenticals, the first mystery is why they would attribute this view to self-ownership proponents – the very people who by definition do not accept it. But the second mystery is why the objectors think ownership must be between nonidenticals in the first place. To own something is just to have certain rights of decision-making over that thing, including the right to exclude others from such decision-making over it. There’s nothing in that definition that rules out bearing that relation to oneself. To own yourself is simply for you to have certain rights of decision-making over yourself, including the right to exclude others from such decision-making over you.

19 Responses to This Self Is Mine

  1. D. F. Linton July 8, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    I’ve never heard that one before. I know you are on a cordial theme but your response may be too kind.

    If you think a husband owns his wife, it would in no way be correct to refer to the arrangement as marital self-ownership; nor does it seem that plantation self ownership would be an apt description of slavery.

  2. Stephan Kinsella July 8, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    Roderick, this is excellent. I would only add the point that when we libertarians speak of self-ownership, what we really do mean, is body-ownership. The “self” cannot be owned any more than actions or labor or ideas can.

    • Roderick July 8, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

      Thanks. But by “self-ownership” I mean ownership of the self, not something else. I don’t think the self is something ethereal.

  3. Jason July 8, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    It seems like a lot of the common objections to self-ownership are objections to the word, rather than the concept, and this is a good example.

  4. Natasha Petrova July 8, 2014 at 5:14 pm #


    On a related note; how do you answer the objection that you are yourself and that you can alienate what you own, so self-ownership is a dangerous concept?

  5. Ryan July 8, 2014 at 7:22 pm #


    I think this is a decent summation of his views thereon:

  6. Sam July 8, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

    This objection seems to have a lot of parallels with what GA Cohen called the Kantian objection which is ultimately circular. Kant draws this distinction between things and persons, nothing can be both a person and a thing and only things can be owned. As man is a person, man cannot be a thing and therefore cannot be owned, thus self-ownership is incoherent. But as Cohen points out this is totally circular because it states the truth of its conclusion as a premise by stating that only things can be owned. The argument only proves that self-ownership is contradictory to people whom already accept that persons cannot own themselves.

    (Cohen, G. (1995) Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality, pp.210-212)

    To anyone who hadn’t read it I think that Cohen’s book is probably the best defence of Self-Ownership out there. It also has the best argument against self-ownership (namely that it appears our strong intuitions about self-ownership are actually strong intuitions about bodily integrity).

  7. Alice Raizel July 8, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    I think the point these critics of libertarianism are making is not primarily political or metaphysical but psychological. For most people, the notion of “self-ownership” posits a certain emotional flavour or way of being, one which comes across as distinctly alienated. It implies that you regard yourself as a thing, an inert object which just happens to be you. It suggests a repressed or dissociated experience of one’s corporeality in the world. It’s easy for someone critical of a free market to draw a line between this and what they interpret as alienation or commodification within capitalist social relations. It’s also easy to draw a line to sexual repression and conventional masculine subjectivity.

    People have trouble emotionally navigating the reality that we are objects in space who are not only objects in space, and many people deal with the problem by denying the issue. Words like “self-ownership” are to many people already a sufficient turn-off to hearing out an idea. They want to be acknowledged and appreciated in their subjectivity, and if they’re approached with language which doesn’t feel addressed to this subjectivity the fact that one is trying to offer them freedom is irrelevant. This is especially true with women and working class people, for whom classification as an object is a familiar prelude to being used.

    And most people just don’t like naked economic thinking, to the point that they’ll endure flowered chains rather than think about the cold metal of material need which is the substance of so many human bonds. Thus libertarianism suffers—not entirely unjustly—the rhetorical burden of being seen as the economistic politics. To a degree I think people are right to suspect the limits of an econocentric worldview. But part of it is just shooting the messenger.

    Ellen Willis’ article “Their Libertarianism and Ours” is worth reading on the issue, altho’ I can’t find it online on the useful side of a paywall.

  8. Irfan Khawaja July 9, 2014 at 3:29 pm #


    I think you’ve basically resolved your own puzzle: the objectors think ownership must be a relation between non-identicals, and because they can’t conceive of an alternative, they attribute that view to self-ownership libertarians.

    Slightly different issue: I’m curious if you have views on paternalistic interventions in cases of the intention to commit suicide. The relevance is this: Suppose that I believe in self-ownership, but think that it’s defeasible in cases like suicide. In other words, if a third party encounters someone impulsively about to commit suicide, the third party has the right to stop them from going ahead with it on the grounds that the suicidal person is not in the right mental state to make that decision right now. (The suicidal person can be allowed to commit suicide if he or she thinks it through, but not if he impulsively decide that he must commit suicide now in response to some very immediate, particular trauma.) In that case, it looks as though the suicidal person partly, temporarily loses a bit of self-ownership (or loses the right to exercise it?). And presumably, he loses it because his “impulsive self” qua impulsive can’t own the rest of him.

    I’m sketching a view I don’t necessarily hold myself, but it’s one I’ve heard, and am sometimes tempted to hold. Anyway, if one holds this sort of view, then the proponent of defeasible self-ownership is making claims about parts of the self, and is espousing a semi-controversial view in moral psychology. The view is something to the effect that your purely impulsive self isn’t allowed to own the rest of you: it’s not sufficiently you enough to do that.

    Of course, this whole problem can be dismissed if you just dismiss all paternalistic interventions altogether, but I can’t seem to go that far.

    • Roderick July 10, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

      Leaving aside suicide specifically for a moment: I think when someone’s rational capacities are impaired (as in some forms of mental illness — though I think this is actually NOT true of MOST forms of mental illness, or what’s called mental illness) or undeveloped (as with young children), you can intervene, and this is not an infringement on self-ownership, since what you are allowed to impose on them is only what (as far as you can determine) they would choose if their rational capacities were not impaired — so you are acting as their agent. But you have to have strong evidence that their rational capacities really are impaired; given free will, merely behaving irrationally is not proof of a lack of full rational capacity.

      With regard to suicide, I’m very wary of treating suicide attempts as, just by themselves, evidence of impaired rational capacity.

  9. Irfan Khawaja July 11, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    This is probably too complicated an issue to hash out in blog comments, so I won’t belabor it (too much). I don’t think I’m disagreeing with you; I’m just having this reaction to your comment: Take the case where someone’s rational capacities are impaired and the evidence is clear that they are. Let’s agree that if I am a bystander, that I know of the person’s impairment, and I have person’s best interests in mind, it is morally permissible for me to intervene to stop them from doing something harmful (to themselves). And let’s agree that there is no rights violation in this case.

    Still, it does seem to me that the impaired person cannot be said to own himself or herself qua impaired. It also suggests to me (I don’t think you’d disagree) that a “thick theory” of the good–or at least some substantive theory of value–is presupposed by any plausible conception of self-ownership. You cannot be said to own yourself when your rational capacities are sufficiently impaired, even if you are self-identical in that case. Irfan is Irfan even when impaired, but Irfan doesn’t own Irfan when sufficiently impaired (and qua impaired).

    In this case, I think we can see the rationale of the worry about “dualism” you’re contesting in your post. I think many people (besides you or me) would find the following combination of claims mysterious: 1) self-ownership is true, 2) Irfan can be Irfan but not own Irfan compatibly with the truth of self-ownership. Claim (2) seems to suggest that there are (sometimes) two Irfans, one capable of self-ownership, the other not. I personally don’t regard that as particularly difficult or controversial, but I think many libertarians would.

    • Roderick July 12, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

      You cannot be said to own yourself when your rational capacities are sufficiently impaired

      I don’t think I agree with this. Of course there are different ways of using the term “own,” so I’m happy to grant that there’s a sense in which a rationally impaired person does not own herself. But I think a rationally impaired person does own herself in the sense of “self-ownership” that has to do with libertarian rights. It’s not as though her rational impairment entitles me to treat her as an object; on the contrary, if I intervene I’m obligated to do so in ways that (to the best possibility of ascertaining) she would consent to if unimpaired, even if those differ from what I think best for her. In other words, my interference is justified only to the extent that I can genuinely be said to be acting as her agent, exercising her right of self-ownership on her behalf — which I could hardly do if she didn’t have that right to begin with.

  10. Federico July 13, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

    “Self-ownership isn’t supposed to be a relation between two parts of you, it’s supposed to be a relation between you and yourself.”

    But this is just begging the question. The assumption remains that you can meaningfully talk in this register about two things (or instances or whatever): in this case, “you” and “yourself”. The problem is not that we can talk about a relationship between two identicals, the problem is in the “two” aspect of the equation.

    • Ryan July 16, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      Well, again, this seems to assume that one must be forwarding or adopting some kind of dualist interpretation of self. If the relationship in question is one of identity, then there simply is no two. But, reflecting on Roderick’s point, I’m not sure it even matters.

      For instance, let’s say that someone claims the following:

      “Mike killed himself.”

      In this sentence, there is a clear and understandable relationship between a subject and an object. The coherence of the statement does not depend upon whether or not the subject and object are identicals.

    • Roderick July 22, 2014 at 2:56 am #

      the problem is in the “two” aspect of the equation

      There is no “two” aspect of the equation. That’s what “identical” means.

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